Believe that they are all worthwhile

I wrote this after a conversation with a colleague that bothered me. This was probably a year or more ago. I never sent this. Honestly, I don’t think it would have been well-received. I ran across it again today. Rather than throw it out, here it is.

I think this goes well in partnership with this other blog post:

Hi Colleague,

I couldn’t help thinking further on our conversation from yesterday. What I heard, and perhaps I misunderstood, was a lot of categorizing students into boxes. I think it is easy to put human beings into neat little boxes, especially when we are frustrated. These students are good. These students are bad, and they aren’t worth my effort.

If we can’t walk into a classroom with the belief that they are all good, all worthy, all human, then I think we’ve failed our first and most important job as instructors. Not every student is great at math. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t worthy human beings. And it often doesn’t even mean that they aren’t trying, even though we all know that some aren’t.

They are all incredibly young, and their mission here is to figure out what it is they have to give the world. Maybe it’s math. Maybe it’s not. But I have something important to teach them whether it’s math or it’s not. Sometimes it is how to try harder. Sometimes it is how to study smarter. Sometimes it is no matter what their struggles with math are, that they are valuable human beings. Sometimes it is that actions have consequences.

If I go into it with the true belief deep in my heart that they are all worthwhile, I better open the door for them to learn, whether they are gifted and hardworking or not. If I walk in with the attitude that many (or all) are worthless, then I shut the door for the learning; my attitude itself discourages my students’ best effort.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t find some students absolutely maddening and infuriating and lazy. I’m teaching a 300 person business mathematics class; that leaves me ample opportunity to get angry and frustrated. But I sincerely hope that even if I get angry and frustrated, that I still see them as worthy and capable of doing better than whatever it is they just showed me.

From our conversation yesterday, this is not what I was hearing. Maybe I misunderstood. Maybe you were having a bad day. But I hope that this is what you try to bring to your students — all of them — because I think that they and you are worth the effort.

I was terrified of that business mathematics class; of it being an unending battle in a hostile, math-hating environment. Like I said, there are students that irritate me, but overall, I would say, the concern and warmth I have brought to them has been returned by them. And that is a gift for me and for them.


Dr. Jinx

Introducing Dr. Smith from the National Institutes of Zombie Control and Disease Modeling

We’ve continued using scratch paper to write down the good parts of presenter’s talks.

After the first presentation, I started pulling out some over-the-top introductions for our speakers. Class, please welcome Professor Jones from the National Ocean Research Institute (a talk on Phytoplankton). Class, please welcome Professor Jane Doe from the Institute for Baseball Research and Numerical Modeling (modeling baseball bats and the sweet spot). Class, please welcome Dr. Finance a senior analyst at Morgan Stanley (the efficient portfolio frontier). Please welcome Dr. Mary Smith from the National Cancer Institute (tumor and immune system modeling). And of course, today we had a Zombie Outbreak (4 zombie talks in a row) in the afternoon course, with much madness and mayhem.

I should have brought my This is my Zombie Killing Shirt to class ..

Say something nice

I ran the experiment today. I was rather pleased with the results. Students had no problems coming up with questions at the end of each talk, nor with praise for their classmates.

Here’s an example note. This one accidentally got left behind in the morning class. The student presenting was talking about a mathematical model for tumor growth and immune response.


This student got rattled by time running out for her presentation. Too many interesting things to say, and not enough time. It was still good job, and I am glad to know the classmates agreed.

In my afternoon class, I have two young ladies, neither of whom can make it to the final final presentation period for class, when we will finish presentations and have pizza. I asked them out to lunch next Monday. Both have been through their share of personal and academic troubles, but both have rallied and done well this semester. I want to tell them that I am proud of them.

Final Presentations

The final projects are (mostly) in. Students start giving their final presentations in class tomorrow.

I will pass out pieces of scratch paper to the class and give instructions that they are to write down what the speaker does well and any questions they want to remember to ask at the end. If there’s anything else nice they want to say to the speaker, include that too.

Since I give grades (and criticism), I thought it would be good for the speakers to get plenty of praise from everyone else. I try to give praise too, but with a few students, I admit that I struggle. Hopefully it will be a feel good exercise. Maybe it will even promote paying attention.

Cleaning up messes

The refrigerator gave up the ghost on Sunday. Today it is finally emptied out, although the mess is not completely gone. A few things in a cooler. Should I toss, or are they still cold enough today? Things on the countertops. Should be emptied and tossed. I won’t have a new fridge until the middle of next week. One step at a time. I can get through this.

Projects were originally due today for my class. I gave everyone an extension to Saturday at midnight, since I know I won’t look at them before then. Even with weekly due dates for progress on the projects, some students are far behind. This frustrates me a lot. They will be miserable trying to get finished up. Some ask, “can you look things over tomorrow?” Sorry, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t have a lot of time tomorrow. I will try to look quickly for you if I have time, but that is all I can do.

I’ll be glad when this is all over. Days like today I wonder why I do projects, especially a long project. It would be easier not to, but the learning experience of doing is profound. And there you have it.

Good things today:

  • Lunch with my Goldwater Scholar and a friend of his who I taught a few semesters ago.
  • A visit from a friend who was in my building.
  • The Honor Council Banquet and heading out there with two colleagues.
  • Being able to give a positive report on a student who had many troubles last semester.
  • Some students doing some real thinking and interesting work on projects.
  • I looked awesome and professional in my Hepburn pants, wrinkle free shirt, and jacket today.
  • The ballot on instructional titles passed the tenure track faculty. I could be an instructional assistant professor next semester.

Three (or more) good things

A graduate student who is also a friend defended successfully on Monday, and helped me out by putting together the prize bags for the MiniFair this Saturday.

I had lunch with a friend I haven’t seen for a few months.

I was able to encourage a student working on a project write-up (but struggling with writing) that he is doing a good job.

I invited the dean to attend a student’s presentation. He couldn’t come, but he’s also worked extensively with this student, and I hope he was glad to be asked.

I ordered a new refrigerator. I will have it next week.

I stopped and wrote some good things down here today.

I wrote in my journal today, after a long absence.

Posted in me

What went wrong?

Last week in Mathematical Modeling (morning and afternoon) I’d asked students ahead of time to get up and present one or two of the slides they’ve made for their final presentations. Their mini-presentations went well. After each, I asked the class to tell the presenter something s/he did well.

I felt good about this; they seemed to enjoy it.

I continued with that on Tuesday … only to have about 1/3 or more of my afternoon class, including my scheduled presenters, not show up.

I felt stupid. And bad. Was I wrong last week? What the hell happened? Why was this okay in the morning class but not in the afternoon?

We’ll see what happens in class tomorrow. After that wrap-up to Tuesday, I am not looking forward to it.

I thought some of my readers might like this article on Inequity in the Pursuit of Feminism. I get pretty hot about women’s issues, especially in the academic (math) world where the numbers are way out of whack. My interest is definitely self-serving. It’s good to have it pointed out that others (poor women, minorities, LGBT) have bigger problems than I face, and they deserve my support and outrage.


I’m out at the Wakonse South Conference on College Teaching. This is not the type of conference where you sit quietly and listen to experts. There are sessions to guide us, but you are expected (almost forced) to participate in each. This year’s theme is Reflection.

The opening activity really opened my eyes. We were discussing a taxonomy of learning (not the famous Bloom’s taxonomy, an alternative, simpler, but still quite complex). As the speakers wrapped up, they had us put away our notes, and asked us to recreate the steps in the taxonomy. They had seemed logical a moment ago, and I got only a few things on my paper before I was completely stuck. So much for lecturing on something and expecting your students to remember it!

Then they had us work in groups to try to recreate the taxonomy. Bingo! Within 3-5 minutes, a group of 4 of us had recreated most of the taxonomic chart. That made it clear to me how important peer interaction is. I do a lot of exercises where I ask students to try things on their own, and I don’t do enough of asking them think for a minute, then work with peers. Note to self: change this.

The resort (rustic, not fancy) had a zipline open for us this afternoon. Yes, I had to try it. On the ground, it doesn’t look so bad. Up on the platform, I began to melt with anxiety and fear.

As with so many things, the hardest part is letting go. I had to use my lungs and vocal cords in a loud cowabunga to get myself off the platform.

The second time was easier, but again, the hardest part is letting go.

I contemplated a third time, and decided not to. Maybe I should have. I don’t think it is ever easier to let go.

I am thinking on matters in my personal life. Wondering if it is becoming time to let some things go. In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver is on my mind, so much wisdom, so much pain. I hope for character and courage in facing both the near and the far future.

From In Blackwater Woods:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.


It is the year 2013 isn’t it? I am encountering articles today that make me believe otherwise.

Racism: Georgia high school students organize first integrated prom. Thank goodness for the high school students for having the maturity what the adults should have done decades ago.

Homophobia: Student senate passes ‘Religious Funding Exemption Bill’ (which I think should be known as the “We are some hellacious hypocritical Christians” bill, but then, what do I know?)

Sexism: Groundbreaking Female Rocket Scientist Sure Could Cook. Man, I was worried about that! What if one day I woke up able to simultaneously solve 5 differential equations in my head, but I couldn’t cook for my significant other. What a tragedy that would be.

But yes, all of that still happens today. After my experience in the interview last week, I am saddened but unsurprised.

Dear dear dear Students,

Please see to it that your generation does a better job than mine. I’m sorry we screwed so many things up for you.


Dr. Jinx


The question for you, my dear and knowledgeable friends and supporters, is if I would like the position although only at an appropriate rate of pay (and, hopefully, rank), does sending this help or at least not hurt the situation? I will refuse any offer that is below my salary for 2013.

Truth is my partner is going to have to do the real negotiating for me. The one power I have is to say no.

Thoughtful comments welcome and encouraged. My emotions on this are still strong.

Backstory. I didn’t put all the details of the conversation in. The chair was bragging at one point about forcing other women to take a pay cut to come to his institution. Then he argues that to do anything else to me would be unfair. There are other damning and insulting details. It was outrageous and grossly out of the usual rules of professional interaction.

Dear Chair and Protege,

I have to admit, I am still reflecting on our conversation Friday at wondering if that was an early April Fool’s Day joke that I just didn’t find funny.

With the exception of that conversation with the two of you, I very much enjoyed talking to the other people I met in the department, and in many ways I think the position would be a good match.

However, I am sure you understand that I cannot consider accepting an offer that is not at market value for my level of experience and qualifications. Given my current salary at Texas A&M, this would be between <$12,000 and $15,000 above the salary we discussed> per nine month appointment.

I am also concerned with the rank appointment. It is standard practice in faculty hires to keep employees at the same rank or even to hire them at a higher rank than they had in their previous institution. Given the tone of our conversation, I would like to speak with the dean or someone in higher authority about this.

I hope we can come to terms on this matter.