Eigenvalue issues

Photo courtesy of Blake Israel

With the confidence that only a college freshman can have, I registered to take Linear Algebra during my very first semester at Tech. I walked into the class imagining I was taking some collegiate level continuation of algebra II from high school, and boy was I wrong. During the very first class period at 8:25 a.m., instead of going over the syllabus as I was expecting, the professor started explaining the concept of “n-spaces” and I felt completely lost. 

As syllabus week came to an end and the rhythm of the semester started, the class continued to grow throughout the semester seemingly without reprieve, and my dread to attend class lectures grew exponentially. 

Although my other classes were certainly challenging beyond my experience in high school, they never felt like trying to solve an impossible problem in quite the same way that linear algebra did. Every time I showed up for my linear algebra class, it felt like I was descending further and further into madness in my attempts to try and understand the class content. 

For each concept I was unable to grasp or visualize in my head, there were four more concepts that the original idea was the logical basis for. My inability to conceptualize vectors and matrices beyond the numbers they contained turned into my inability to understand the “intuition” that was supposed to guide the calculations required for the second half of the course. I had to learn the hard way that when professors say that the content “builds upon itself,” they may actually mean that. You may be totally lost for the rest of the semester if you don’t fully grasp the more fundamental concepts of a class. It felt like no matter how hard I studied, how many times I reviewed the homeworks or how many of the interactive examples from the textbook I tried to follow, I could never catch up to the pace of the class. Throughout the entire class, I never seemed to be alone in this struggle, as almost every person sitting around me also felt like they were also just as lost as me. 

Whenever I was sitting in the library crying over trying to decipher whether or not a matrix was diagonalizable, there was always another person there with me. 

As the semester continued to drag along, it started to feel like the odds were stacked against me. Not only was it my first semester in college, but I was registered for two math classes, a lab science, a history
requirement and GT 1000. 

I felt more overwhelmed than I had ever felt before, trying to juggle the mindset required for calculus and also the more conceptual mindset required to understand linear algebra. After I had two back-to-back math midterms lasting from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the same night, I vowed to never again take a class at 8:25 in the morning or take two math classes at the same time. The camaraderie surrounding the struggle of linear algebra, not only with those in the same class as you but with every other student that has taken the class, was the first time that I experienced one of the running jokes that unifies Tech’s campus as a whole. 

Before taking linear algebra and my first semester of classes at Tech in general, I had never experienced a scenario in which I had to be able to separate my academic performance from my happiness and self worth. 

I learned many lessons the hard way during my first semester at Tech while taking linear algebra. I learned lessons from not letting my grades determine my worth, to not ever taking two math classes in the same semester, to never again registering for a class before 9:30 a.m., but to this day I never really learned how
to calculate an eigenvalue.