Sheila Tobias, who defined ‘math anxiety,’ dies at 86

When Sheila Tobias finished her freshman year at Radcliffe College in 1954, her professor in a natural science course congratulated her on her achievement. But for years, she felt worried that he had discouraged her from taking more science classes. When she finally asked him, he said that her limited scientific background had made her ineligible for a science career.

“I think everything I’ve done since then stems from the thrill of that course and the door closing through no fault of my own,” she told Physics Today magazine in 2020. “I had to go back to that. Become a feminist and meet women like myself who have been thwarted in their careers. “

That experience inspired her for the next two decades to explore what she calls “math anxiety”: the jitters that make bright, mostly female, students, Avoid math as it becomes increasingly difficult. She wrote about the concept in 1976 in Ms. in an interview with the Arizona newspaper The Tucson Citizen in 2007.

“She describes for the first time that there is no mathematical mind more than a historical mind,” Ms. Steinem is quoted as saying. “It’s just that people learn in different ways.”

In Ms.’s article, Ms. Tobias writes: “Math anxiety is a serious disability. It is passed down from mother to daughter with the fondness of the father. (“Your mother could never balance a checkbook,” he said affectionately.) Then, when a coworker recognizes it in an employee, she may be barred from trying any any effort or new task by the threat that the new job will involve some work’ data or table or function. ‘”

Miss Tobias, who expanded the article into the book Overcoming Math Anxiety (1978), died on July 6, 2021, in a nursing home in Tucson. She is 86 years old. Her death was not widely announced at the time; It was recently brought to the attention of The New York Times by author and journalist Clara Bingham, who learned about it while seeking to interview Ms. Tobias for an oral history project about the liberation movement. women.

Tobias’ stepdaughter, Mari Tomizuka, said the cause was complications from a subdural hematoma from a fall.

Tobias is also survived by her stepchildren Frank, David and John Tomizuka and 13 stepchildren. Her marriage to Carl Tomizuka, a physicist, ended in his death in 2017. Together they wrote “Breaking Science Barriers: How to Discover and Understand Science” (1992). A previous marriage, to Carlos Stern, ended in divorce.

Ms. Tobias became vice president of operations at Wesleyan University in 1970, the year women were admitted to the college’s freshman class for the first time since 1909. Soon after, she began studying the student’s transcripts. female students and noticed a disturbing pattern: They were avoiding math. , or any other major that requires knowledge of mathematics, like physics, chemistry, or economics.

She told Physics Today: “The bright, ambitious female college students just ‘slipped out of the quant’.

In 1975, Ms. Tobias opened a math anxiety clinic at Wesleyan and recalls writing math symbols on a blackboard and asking students, “Are these symbols hostile to you? “

Although math anxiety also affects men, Tobias sees it as a feminist issue at a time when the women’s movement is at the forefront.

She told Physics Today: “I’m talking about math as an example of the feminist term ‘learned impotence’, and how men stop us because academic impotence has made us unable to learn. fully competitive.”

Sheila Tobias was born on April 26, 1935, in Brooklyn to Paul and Rose (Steinberger) Tobias.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in history and literature from Radcliffe in 1957, she worked as a journalist in Germany. She received a master’s degree in history from Columbia University in 1961 and worked in print and television. Cornell University appointed her assistant to vice president of academic affairs in 1967.

That same year, she helped organize a Cornell conference on women attended by Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique” (1963). Tobias also teaches a women’s studies course, believed to be one of the first in the country.

She left Cornell to join the Wesleyan in 1970 and remained there for eight years. She also became a counselor for math departments at colleges and authored (with Peter Goudinoff, Stefan Leader, and Shelah Leader) of a book about unraveling the military: “They Buy Guns.” for Your Butter? A Guide to Defense, Weapons, and Military Spending” (1982).

Judith Stiehm wrote of the book in the journal Women and the Military Quarterly Report: “The attraction is in sweet reason, not fear, indignation, anger, or chauvinism. “With the publication of this series, we all lost our reason; each of us could easily be armed to argue.”

In her research on math anxiety, Ms. Tobias found that many college students have a similar fear of science. That led to the book “They’re Not Stupid, They’re Different: Sticking to the Second Floor” (1990), written while she worked for the Tucson Research Company. The book explored why students forgo science for other subjects. As part of her research, she paid liberal arts graduate students to take first-year chemistry and physics courses at the University of Arizona and the University of Nebraska and take notes on the experience. their experience.

She told The Hartford Courant in 1991: “What they discovered was that most courses were still competitive, selective and intimidating, and that there was little effort to create a sense of community among the courses. average science student.

She found that some students – both boys and girls – disliked science because they thought they spent too much time studying formulas without knowing why they were learning them. Others said science courses failed to connect what they were studying with the wider world.

Ms. Tobias teaches war and peace studies at the University of Southern California; on women’s studies at the University of California, San Diego; and about history at City College of New York. She has written several more books on science as well as Faces of Feminism: An Activist’s Reflections on the Women’s Movement (1997). She is also a top official with Veterans’ Women’s Rights of America.

“She was very strong and outspoken,” Alison Hughes, former director of the Center for Rural Health at the University of Arizona, said in a phone interview. “She has a great mind – she challenges everything.”

Muriel Fox, founder of the National Foundation for Women, called Tobias “a leading thinker in our movement”.

“She was always looking for new ways of thinking,” Ms. Fox said. “She’s a rebel.”

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