Wednesday, November 7, 2012

School is bulls*(&

Talking recently with a young man who's had a tumultuous path through college; he's through years of classes but has years more. He wants to get out into the real world and do things. I sympathize.

School is bullsh*(. It is a useful form -- good fertilizer, one might say? -- but it should not be confused with its goal. Government was initially formed as people realized they needed to team up for self-defense, for infrastructure, for management of resources. School was formed as people realized that teaching people to read, do arithmetic, converse, and think about abstract topics made business and life run better. Now school is a stamp. A requirement. It still serves many of the purposes it was initially made to serve, but of course we've lost sight of that. That is normal.

I'm trying to pinpoint what makes me happy and what doesn't. Mathematics: the way it describes the real world makes me happy. Sand ripples in a creek, cream swirling through coffee, Moroccan mosaics, pineapples. I'm not an applied mathematician but I love that stuff. I love modeling.

School, though. Calculus. Calculus! Of course calculus was born out of a desire to describe the world -- but do we care anymore? Calculus, like school and government, now exists to perpetuate itself.

How can I teach when I feel my students would be better served by being alive, active, dynamic, questioning? (This is the only way to teach! But somehow it is so hard.) That spirit is often crushed out by the time students get to college. What can I say at the front of the classroom? Should I show Dead Poets' Society? How do I avoid the deadness that sometimes creeps through classrooms and colleges like fog coming off the ocean into San Francisco Bay?

Students, wake up. School is bullsh(&. Use it to fertilize your real dreams.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The artist's struggle

I like the idea of math and art -- symmetry, fractals, perspective, frieze patterns -- but today after a month of absence I would rather touch on math as art. I said something wrong in my NSF proposal, I realized today on a walk, and it's stupid wrong rather than profound wrong. This is incredibly depressing to me. It's not depressing that I made a mistake -- I make lots of mistakes and don't worry too much. It's depressing that it's a stupid mistake that I would hope I would not make. I worry that I can't hold in my head the things that I know. Yes, I can't even remember what I know. I haven't made my knowledge a coherent web, and so I forget that this is also that and then I say that that is a wave and can't be a particle even though if I remembered it was also this I'd remember that in 1992 McGoucher proved a subtle theorem showing that this is a particle, because I myself wrote a paper about the particle nature just three years ago.

(Fine, I'll stop.)

Anyhow. I am afraid that I am not very good at my art, the art of mathematics, because I have some idea what is good and I know that I am not producing  at that level.

What do cellists do when they listen to Yo-Yo Ma and find themselves wanting?

On good days I remember that I do this for fun, for joy, because I love playing with ideas and discovering new things (new to me, at least). On bad days I think I should find something I'm actually good at.

I call this post the artist's struggle because the only other people I hear this from are painters, poets, and musicians, people who struggle against poverty to keep doing what they love, even if they doubt that they are any good at it. In art it seems respectable to doubt your ability or talent. It's part of the path. In mathematics, I'm not sure. Plenty of well-respected people mention that they still don't think they're very smart, but we know the truth!! They are brilliant people unlike us. Evidence: stupid mistakes. The best part about math: they're provably stupid. In cello, the wrong note just floats away.

Whether or not I'm actually any good at this, I have a job lined up for the rest of the year. Guess I'll keep pretending for now.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Old & crochety: job satisfaction

I met a fresh graduate student in English a few weeks ago at an event near a large R1 that is excellent in many areas. I asked her if she was teaching and she said no, and she was very disappointed. She'd really like to get into the classroom: after all with so many bright and talented undergraduates who could ask for anything more fun?!

I tried to smile at her amazing enthusiasm. Why didn't I really smile?

I've heard from some friends who changed institutions this summer that it feels like the same job in a different office. They don't sound thrilled.

I am trying not to be old and crochety without reason. There are genuine thrills to teaching and success stories and other interesting incidents I could go on about for a while (but then I would not be anonymous!). The romantic image of molding young minds clashes so sharply with the feeling of sitting in the room doing calculus for a grade that it's painful, though, and I grimace instead of smiling. It's not unique to mathematics, and we can break through it to some extent in the classroom -- but it makes it hard to be innocently and freshly excited by the whole enterprise.

When I deal with individuals -- real people -- real students -- I feel much more interested in education and teaching. I can figure out if we're focusing on calculus, on anxiety around tests, on learning to learn. When I think about the larger topic of college teaching I get tired quickly. When I deal with many many individuals, a ceaseless stream of unique beings with their unique demands, I get tired even faster.

What allows for job satisfaction in teaching and what makes it feel like living with a nest of lampreys?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Women and research

This post says it all: "Like we didn't know this." Links there to the NPR story on bias that's been making the rounds and the PNAS story that confirms once again that if you put a woman's name on something it's automatically less competent regardless of contents. Old news, old news.

On the one hand, I don't want to talk about it. On the other hand, I would urge men who care about unconscious sexism and racism manifesting in mathematics to read the story on stereotype threat and consider it. It rings true now that I am observing my own interactions with other mathematicians, male and female, and it's brought home very strongly now that it's NSF proposal time. I can't quite believe that I have anything valuable to say and I very strongly feel the need to be absolutely correct about every statement because I feel any incorrect statement is a reason to dismiss everything I might say. These contribute to difficulty writing the thing and a stress burden that is unnecessary -- unnecessary because there's not a damn thing I can do about it and that stress only hurts me. My stomach in particular.

A saving grace is that I saw a collaborator's proposal and saw some of my ideas in print in that proposal, describing our collaboration. They sounded so valuable and interesting coming from someone else! Cognitive dissonance. A kick in the ass. Get writing.

As an early-career mathematician, it's my first NSF. I've written most of it now. It brought up another point quite strongly, which I can't disentangle from this gender stuff: I don't feel like I've ever believed I could be a research mathematician. From another angle, it feels like something I am not allowed to do. Allowed? Sure, the prohibition is some mythical nonsense other that doesn't exist, but I carry the feeling. When I go to seminars and conferences I feel like a guest with a limited-time pass that will expire, and then I will be kicked out of the club. Mathematics is a paradise I cannot stay in. I'm gonna eat that apple and that's going to be it. I keep making plans for the eventuality, in fact.

Mostly written. I feel slightly ill and slightly thrilled.

Does anyone else feel like being a research mathematician is a transgression?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Women and SLACs: internal instincts

Something I don't fully understand is the gendered nature of where people end up professionally. Small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) have a higher percentage of female mathematics faculty than big state university systems; big state university systems have a higher percentage of female mathematics faculty than R1s. There is certainly room to argue for multifactorial discrimination as a cause for women to "slide down" the prestige ladder over time -- the "gender smog" that pervades our air is, well, pervasive, and so if it affects grant funding rates and paper acceptance rates and teaching evaluations and issues of fit* it's not surprising that even if we only consider anti-child career-devoted women who succeeded in postdocs after graduating from Princeton or Berkeley the percentage at high prestige institutions is less than that of anti-child career-devoted men who succeeded in postdocs after graduating from Berkeley or Princeton. Fine. Discrimination sucks; I want to move on to a more interesting discussion from my point of view.

  • I noticed at a recent discussion that involved a lot of women mathematicians that a far higher percentage were at SLACs than I would have expected at a research conference. 
  • In addition, I've watched some really "famous" women mathematicians move from large state R1s to SLACs over the last five years. (Famous is in quotes because the mathematical community is small -- but they are famous to me!)
  • I've watched a fair number of my own generation of early-career mathematicians try out various jobs, and seen a lot of women try SLACs due to their own interest or someone else's encouragement. Several of these efforts have really not worked out and it's taken a lot of effort for these women to get back into research-focused environments. Conversely, I've seen a few guys who really wanted SLAC or teaching-focused jobs just inexorably pushed back toward less teaching-focused schools.
  • I have watched my own thoughts and emotions, and have noticed my own internal bias that says "Women more naturally fit at SLACs!" This intellectual bias, though, does not actually fit the evidence that I'm observing. It's caused me a fair bit of cognitive dissonance.
I have no empirical reason to think women mathematicians would do better at a SLAC than an R1. The teaching is hard work, the student evaluations are still statistically unfair to women, and it's a tough job that requires a lot of finesse. I have now gotten to know several women mathematicians at R1s who I can say with confidence would be total failures at many SLACs and are brilliant at what they do in terms of research and graduate students. I know there's a cultural bias that pairs women and teaching or women and caretaking or women and mentoring. What I don't understand is why I would internalize that -- I know rationally that it's not really so. I still feel an internal dissonance when I think about pursuing a research-oriented career. I have a hard time having confidence in myself when it comes to working primarily on research, even though it makes me happier than concentrating primarily on teaching. What? Why? This is so irrational. Clearly something unexamined has happened in my psyche.

Cordelia Fine discusses this in her book, "Delusions of Gender". There are a lot of reviews praising this book for its witty writing and excellent science, but it just made me really really depressed. It's talking about my life. There's a whole chapter on women in mathematics that discussed quite thoroughly why succeeding in mathematics as a woman or man makes you more sexist. We all learn unconsciously from what we see every day. Successful women in math see themselves as a minority, an ever-diminishing minority. Successful men in math see women as a minority. How can you see otherwise? It's a fact. The only place you don't see women as a total minority in mathematics is at some SLACs. Some places women are even approaching -- gasp -- 45% of the total faculty!

I have become more sexist as I've continued in mathematics. (You can test your own unconscious bias at Understanding Prejudice.) I can't help it, and it conflicts with my own interests and the truth of my own life. I anticipate that some troll could come along and tell me I'm just realizing that women are worse at (whatever), but the problem is it's not true. I am clearly, measurably better at some things that are not in the unconscious "female" box in my brain. I am clearly, measurably not cut out for some things that are in the unconscious "female" box in my brain. I'm still female. It's a lot to untangle.

* There are a lot of contradictory and complementary studies on bias: a RAND study says NSF awards don't show gender bias, but other studies show NIH and NSF awards show huge bias against US ethnic/racial minorities; another study says women receive teaching awards at a rate comparable to participation in the workforce but scholarly awards at a rate not comparable to men when prestige of publications is considered; there are tons of studies on bias in teaching evaluations and it seems Asians (whether immigrant or from the US) are discriminated against while women in math get higher evaluations if they're exceptionally "warm" while they're heavily penalized if they are not "warm", while black professors get different messages if the evaluation is phrased as "feedback" or "evaluation"; it goes on and on and on... very complicated!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Bicultural Mathematics (SLAC version)

As you may have gathered, I've spent some time teaching and doing research at a small liberal arts college. I'm at a research conference right now where most of my colleagues have not, and there does seem to be a cultural gap. I feel like a bit of an outsider now and then. On the one hand, I know I'm accepted and people do seem to treat me as an equal. On the other hand, I don't feel like an equal. I've often had to email friends for pdfs of journal articles because the published version differed substantially from the arXiv one or it was not posted to the arXiv, and my library did not subscribe to that journal. I've done less research in a month at my SLAC than I have in a week at this conference, simply because of the demands of teaching and advising and service. I've changed my research to a less technical topic so that I could both keep up and involve undergrads, and it's weird to talk to people here because they want to know about my "old" more technical research. I like the stuff so I'm happy to talk... I just feel like I am back into a big stream after spending some time in the slower side branch for a while.

I do believe that people who have been professors for a while appreciate this bicultural feeling to a far greater extent than postdocs and grad students. Postdocs who have only spent time in the R1 orbit, in particular, have not in general had to appreciate what life would be like in any other world. Professors at all schools feel pulled in many different directions: committees, research, public service, teaching, advising, writing, etc. I guess I feel I have more in common with them than with postdocs who have taught a class or two. On the other hand, I am getting a lot of advice from some of these postdocs on grant opportunities in the research world that I certainly didn't hear about to the same extent while in the SLAC world.

This bicultural feeling is somewhat normal for me, I guess -- in actual culture and the country I'm living in and in being a woman in math. I hope it continues to inspire insight rather than just tiring me out.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Coping with Conference Burnout

I've been at a conference for a bit. So many new ideas! Trying to listen and take notes and talk with people about my own work and theirs and what new things might be possible. Somehow this time was different than the conferences this summer; maybe because a new school year has started my reserves were a bit lower and I was pretty burned out by the end of week one. It's also a fairly lectury conference by some standards. By Friday I was no longer able to cope with processing new information or ideas. What to do?

Everyone's different. Some people partied all weekend, some people watched TV, some people went out on nature walks or adventures in town. I tried to respect my introverted nature and spent a lot of time alone or in small groups. I am feeling much better now: the long weekend was quite a blessing. I will be ready to start again tomorrow, I hope.

Once again, I observed younger grad students wishing we'd quit talking math and older mathematicians keeping up the shop talk through dinner and dessert. As a contribution to our understanding of each other, I want to remind those wishing the math would stop that not everyone gets to talk math that often. To those who always keep going on about the mathematics, look around and decide whether that's what you really want to talk about! Sometimes the answer will be yes, sometimes no, and either is alright.

That's what breaks are good for, as well. I enjoyed the weekend in part because I got a lot of ideas during the conference and I wanted to follow up on them. I don't do well on low levels of sleep, so having non-scheduled weekend time to work on mathematics is important. My new ideas have led me down an algebraic rabbit-hole that I'm trying to work back out of now. Algebraic calculations sometimes take me a while. The time to think was useful.