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We’re All Math People

Dr. Eugenia Cheng’s math club proves that to be creative is to be a math person.

By Featured, SAIC

Illustration by Katie Wittenberg.

What if I told you that some art students study math for fun? Math might seem out of place at an art school, but SAIC has a math club. It began this fall semester when two graduate students approached Dr. Eugenia Cheng, Adjunct Professor of Liberal Arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), about speaking in their class. The students quickly realized they wanted to explore mathematical concepts in greater depth, and Dr. Cheng offered to lead a math club.

The club – unofficially known as “Cool Cats” (get it?) – is composed of people from all different academic backgrounds. In this way, it embraces SAIC’S integrally interdisciplinary nature. Not only do we get to learn a new skill, but we are also able to apply mathematical modes of thinking to our daily lives. In an email interview with F, Dr. Cheng explained that both math and art are “deep ways of thinking about the world around us; both use abstraction to gain insight into reality.”

The club functions like a class specifically designed to teach category theory, Dr. Cheng’s primary area of research. We are the full equation: we have textbooks, a classroom, a professor, and students. In a nutshell, category theory is the study of abstract systems of functions similar to abstract algebra. It encourages us to take a step back so we can distinguish patterns without all the messy details (like numbers). Dr. Cheng remarks, “What we’re doing is very serious high-level abstract math that encapsulates how abstract thinking works and how contemporary mathematics is done.”

Fellow Cool Cat Kevin McGarth’s (MFA 2019, Sound) interest in pure math speaks to the clarity of formal logic in a philosophical context: “Logic can help artists understand complex propositions and determine how to unpack and formulate commensurable arguments for or against a viewpoint.” In his own practice, Kevin finds these methods of critical thinking help him perceive common problems in new ways.

Similarly, Cat(egory theory)-lover Jordan Vela (BA 2020, Architecture), applies critical mathematical thinking to his career in architecture. Vela illustrates the intersection thus: “The aesthetics of classical art through drawing and painting and the beauty of abstract mathematics are the two main supporting pillars that give meaning to my aspirations.”

Contrary to the belief that mathematicians are all smarty-pants hermits, math is actually a very social discipline. We regularly collaborate outside of our scheduled class time to work through problems — and talk about our love for math. Category theory can be tough to learn, so collaborative work is essential. But, as Kevin points out, “The sensation when something ‘clicks’ is a strong motivator to take on new problems and ideas.” The class is a safe space to ask questions and be supported in our pursuit of abstract understanding.

I never enjoyed math class in middle/high school. I was a C student throughout. Despite my dad always telling me math was about practice, and no one is born good at it, I was discouraged. It wasn’t until college that I fully appreciated the truth in my dad’s words and began to apply myself in math classes. I experienced the excitement of understanding complex problems and the enjoyment of proving abstract concepts as a team (all high-level math classes involve collaborative problem-solving).

Now, upon learning that I am taking Dr. Cheng’s class, people often seem impressed and respond with something along the lines of, “You must be some kind of math whiz!” Though I ended up with a math major, I am certainly not a human calculator. But I am happily developing my abstract critical thinking skills.

The study of math, especially abstract math, is not exclusive. Anyone can do it. A major problem with how math is usually taught in school is the “cumulative curriculum” structure. Teaching mathematical concepts in a linear progression, using lots of memorization, creates ever-increasing hurdles for struggling students. Memorization in particular is neither a useful nor profound way of thinking in mathematics. Schools should instead introduce abstract math earlier on in order to promote students’ abilities to make connections, discover different points of view, and understand new concepts. If we reengineered this type of curriculum — “old-style problem-solving math,” as Dr. Cheng calls it — we could help close the gap between what we view as math people and non-math people. It is in fact possible for anyone to learn abstract math like category theory without a traditional math background.

A note to those of you who are afraid of math: There’s no such thing as a “math person.” Math is creative by nature; “It’s about developing an understanding of concepts in your own way. It’s something anyone can do if they apply themselves and just enjoy the process,” says McGarth. Math is all about continuous practice, just like improving your skills in drawing or ceramics.

Jordan Vela emphasizes, “If you’re intelligent enough to solve any complex problems in life, you can very easily enjoy solving problems in mathematics. The most difficult hurdle is overcoming the drab and intimidating notation that generations of peculiar people have boringly invented. However, once you can speak the language, your thoughts are completely set free.”

Eugenia Cheng does SAIC a great service by teaching this class and exposing students to this type of math. If there is demand for more category theory in the future, Dr. Cheng says she would be happy to share her knowledge with more students.

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