115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

What Does Ptolemy Have to Do With Me?

Felicia Martinez, Saint Mary's College of California

How can reading ancient math and science texts give students the tools they need to navigate the present, volatile moment? How, too, can the activities involved in such “reading” help students understand the value of “otherness” ? I will address these questions and some  methods of teaching ancient math and science in a humanities setting in this paper.


We are in an age of difficult classroom “moments,” moments which can flare up, seemingly out of nowhere, to consume the dialogue and scorch the sense of classroom community. These moments, born of the present, complicate our role as teachers to the degree that it is not simply the challenges and difficulties of the text that regularly provoke passion and insight from our students, or their feelings of anger and pain. There is an outside interlocutor, constant, often destructive, challenging out students’ senses of who they are and who they want to be. How can we help our student navigate such a world? Part of the answer lies in making the ideas of “community building” and “personal responsibility for one’s own education” specific tasks rather than vague hopes, but also efforts that are connected, interrelated. As I hope to illustrate, an unexpected ally in this effort has been, in my experience, the reading of math and science texts in a humanities setting. It is not the “greatness” of the the so-called “great books” that seem to make a difference, but the practical effort of working through something seemingly “other.” In challenging my students to ask, “What Does Ptolemy Have to Do With Me?” I am asking them to engage with an “otherness” that they need not face alone; I am offering a new voice for the students to question together and on an equal footing. In this paper, I will describe the classroom activities that have seemed most effective to me in teaching ancient math and science texts, including “reading” math, thinking about kinds of logical progression, and student board-work and demonstration. In offering my students these activities, I am challenging them to see beyond themselves and to treat “me” and “we” as vitally related, or as collaborators and friends.