Tom Henderson’s Punk Mathematics may be the first recorded instance of a math book going viral. A math teacher at Portland State University by day and an improv comic by night, his unorthodox approach to teaching spoke to people and the project ended up raising 1200% of its original goal with over a thousand backers.
Unlike every math teacher you’ve ever had, Tom wants you to know you’renot doing it wrong. Just like punk rock, the only way to fail is not to try. We caught up with him at the Ace Hotel on a rainy day in downtown Portland to learn more.
Your project was a massive success. When did you realize it was blowing up?
Once it was funded in 18 hours with, like, 24 days left. [laughs] I knew then I may have made some incorrect estimates about what level of participation I would get.
Why do you think that is? What made it spread the way that it did?
Well, I’m not entirely sure. Attention to detail, maybe? It took three weeks working with my video partner to get the project video together. Improv comedy’s really easy for me, because there’s an audience telling you what’s funny — if they laugh, do more of that, and if they don’t, you’re not doing it right. It’s a lot harder with video, but we actually sat down and had a discussion about it: “Is one snore funny or two?”
And I think there were several aspects that were primed for virality. Even the name, “Punk Mathematics” — it’s two statistically improbable words stuck together. I think that helps overcome the initial reluctance to click.
Even the logo, actually — that was David’s idea, the little word “math” with the anarchy symbol in it. You sort of know what it might mean, but not quite enough to get away with not clicking on it.
Some projects are high-concept enough to spread far beyond your own network. The fact that you could encapsulate the project in a couple novel words definitely helps.
Yeah. You know, when I was talking about it with friends, we kept coming back to the idea of a trailer. We wanted to get enough across that people understood what the project was and what its ambitions were, but not try to describe every detail. It’s not a business plan, you know? It’s inspirational, trying to get enough people to understand that you’re contributing to something that could potentially be really freaking awesome.
It’s been a few weeks since the project ended. How’s the writing going?
It’s going pretty good. At this stage I’m mostly working on a proposal, trying to break it down into the major sections that can provide a nice little coral reef for the rest of the book to build off of.
My first book was a NaNoWriMo novel, and it was just sit-down-and-type-as-fast-as-you-can. You know it’s going to be terrible, but that’s okay. So it’s a pretty different experience, going in with significantly more structure and a ridiculous number of notes.
I’m approaching some of it as though I were teaching a class, because when I’d teach, I would look at what textbook we had and then try to generate some various freeform, weird activities to try to whack the students’ perception enough that they’d stop trusting their intuition long enough to think about things.
The downside was that we’d go somewhere kind of interesting, and then it’s time to go back to what the textbook wants us to do. So, it meant that the weird exercises I would come up with, we could only go so far but we couldn’t just say, “You know, this is so interesting we’re going to spend the next five weeks riffing on this stuff.”
But now you’re involving the backers of the project in the development of the final book?
Yes. The basic phases of the book are the writing and researching phase, and then a six week period of gaming and online weirdness. And then, after we see what we develop from that, I’ll continue to edit and write based on what we came up with during the gaming portion.
You’ve seen Gameful, her new Kickstarter project?
Yes, absolutely, it also did really well.
No offense, but I don’t think I ever had a math teacher I liked. They always seem to foster this terrible fear of failure and experimentation in kids.
Learning, in general, is a complex blend of motivations. And then, when the subject in question is mathematics, everything is invisible, so it can be challenging to motivate someone to think really hard about totally invisible things.
And what’s strange is that students so often feel that if they don’t get it than something horrible is happening, like they’re failing; everything is awful. If they got it, then they wouldn’t be in the class in the first place, right?
So, of course it’s hard. You need to throw in enough of an example that someone has a concrete understanding of why this is interesting, but if you rely too heavily on concrete examples, then students can tend to get wrapped up in the details of the example and miss the big, abstract picture.
It’s a really challenging dance. Giving someone a complicated but well-explained concept, and that’s motivating for them to do some really hard work to try to figure out how the thing actually works. This is also separate from developing some kind of mathematical intuition, which is mostly what we ended up doing on the podcast.
If you’re really trying to learn math, there’s no way of avoiding doing a large number of problems and really getting into the trenches. But I can talk about topology in a bar and we’ll have a good time, because you can bring up some of the weird pictures without making someone first go through elementary set theory and all this stuff before they can understand why I say that a coffee cup is a lot like a donut.
Your rewards were great. Has anybody used the 24-hour hotline yet? Any late-night math emergencies?
Not yet. I’ve blocked off a certain amount of time to deal with my big catalog of notes, and in a few weeks, I’m going to start opening the phones. I’m hoping to get is calls at four in the morning about prime numbers.
Ideally, I’ll be able to figure out how to record calls so we can do something like a radio show where the host has no idea when the guests will arrive, which just tickles my funny bone. I’d like to be able to post on the website — you know, you hear me shouting about polynomials while there’s, like, club music going in the background. Like, this just sounds like a good time. [laughter] We’ll see what happens.
Also, as should probably be abundantly clear by now, if you start talking to me about math, I get really excited; I start waving my hands around and I want to keep talking about it. So the notion of people just randomly asking me math questions is always a good time. I always liked it when my friends would call me at the bar and I’m having cocktails and talking about calculus. That’s my idea of a good evening.
I loved reading in your Technoccult interview about how you came to love punk rock — it gives you a simple vocabulary to participate in a larger community, and you don’t have to be afraid to fail because you simply can’t do it wrong.
The thing is, a mathematician’s main output is wasted paper. When I was working on my own degree, I was wrong about so many things so much of the time, and was constantly confused. And the way for me to succeed was not to get way smarter, it was just to get a wider tolerance for failure.
I felt that that had a lot to do with punk. Things that are just noise, and are ugly, you can still make something really good out of them. It’s the same thing with bad ideas that you have in math; when you find that your really neat idea totally doesn’t work, you usually learn something about the problem.
Did you take it personally at all when students failed to get it, or not try, or just give up?
Mostly it just seemed like there must be something else that I could do to try to fix this. I never was offended, not that I can think of. Maybe there’s a student that I’m blocking. [laughs]
I used to teach a class called “Excursions in Math,” which was a kind of “Math for Liberal Arts Majors” sort of class. And that was really neat because, on the first day, everyone was extremely skeptical. And they were my favorite kind of audience, where you have to kind of win them over, and show them that there is something that is genuinely interesting going on here, so I actually kind of like having to work for the acceptance.
Do you think that’s similar to the audience for your book?
Yes, I think so. This is way too specific, but when I think about the audience for my book, I keep thinking about Boing Boing readers. Mostly just because they seem like this neat bunch of people. Like, some of them are doing a bunch of weird hardware-hacking things, but then they have a sort of artistic sensibility.
But mostly I’m thinking about adults or teenagers who are willing to believe that there might be something there but they’re not entirely convinced. That’s my core audience — someone who’s interested enough to give it another look, but they’re not experts, and they’re really not sure if they should spend any time thinking about this.
We have this world in which your first instinct should always be not to click the link, maybe because of distraction and everything, so you kind of have to really convince people that they should spend any time thinking about weird imaginary things.