At this week’s Math Department meeting, we spent the first 15 minutes or so discussing what we do to help “struggling students” succeed in our courses — particularly what resources we provide. Something was bothering me about the whole discussion, so I waited a few minutes before I said anything. Then I realized what was bothering me: the participle “struggling” was apparently being used as a synonym for “unsuccessful.”

This usage has long seemed completely wrong to me. To my mind, I have some students who struggle and do well. I also have some students who are unsuccessful — precisely because they don’t struggle.

It all comes down, of course, to the meaning of the verb “struggle.” Let’s see what a couple of reputable dictionaries say about the matter. In each case I’ve selected the appropriate sense of the word:

  1. to make strenuous…efforts in the face of difficulties… <struggling with the problem>
  2. to proceed with difficulty or with great effort <struggled through the high grass> <struggling to make a living>
  1. to be strenuously engaged with a problem, a task, or an undertaking
  2. to progress with difficulty <struggled with calculus>
—American Heritage Dictionary

Linguists, of course, always insist on being descriptive rather than prescriptive, and yet they usually rely on introspection or on the use of a small number of informants. I suppose a more accurate technique in this context would be to survey a large number of people and find out how they use the word “struggle”; I have no idea what we would find, but at least the dictionary definitions make it absolutely clear to me that we should stop using this verb as a synonym for “be unsucessful.”

On another front, we spent the next 25 minutes of the department meeting discussing how to solve the equation x2 = 2x. I told my Algebra II class about this, since we’re currently transitioning from quadratic functions to exponential functions, and one of their homework problems called for a comparison between y = x2 and y = 2x. They found it an unlikely topic for a meeting — and they were especially surprised that we were so geeky that the meeting ran ten minutes over before anybody looked at the clock and noticed that we had gone past the announced end of the meeting.

By the way, there are three solutions to this equation. One solution, 2, is immediately obvious; a second solution, 4, is not at all obvious until you give it some considerable thought, at which point it “becomes obvious.” The third solution can be estimated by looking at a graph. Finding this solution is left as an exercise for the reader.

Categories: Linguistics, Math, Teaching & Learning, Weston