Ordinary Kindness

At lunch with a friend earlier in the week, my wallet/change purse dropped onto the sidewalk without me noticing. An hour later, before I even realized it was missing, two Aggies were knocking on the door to my office, returning it to me. I didn’t get their names; I was too surprised to discover my mistake. I know I said thank you, but it deserves being said again. Thank you. Ordinary kindness like this is one of the things I love best about College Station and my TAMU students in particular.

It was the end of class today. One of my students with a robust sense of humor let me know he hadn’t missed a single class. I blew him a kiss much to his and the rest of the class’s amusement. Ordinary kindness. Thank you, thank you for that moment.

Another had his wife and small child by class today, at least before the hour started. I think I got the blowing kisses idea from the little one, who blew a few at me. I returned the favor. Life’s happy little moments; I’m always glad to meet a student’s family, parents or children or spouses.

End of the semester wrap up — I had time and took a few minutes and shared some of the wisdom I have struggled with.

  1. Figure out what work activities you do that make you feel happy and alive. Do more of that.
  2. If you aren’t liking what you are doing, try other things until you find something that makes you happy.
  3. Some people are just mean. Avoid them.
  4. Find people who make you feel good and spend more time with them.
  5. Don’t waste your 20s. Don’t spend time in relationships with people you don’t really like and whom you aren’t treating well. Don’t spend time in relationships with people who aren’t treating you well
  6. Realize that we think that we are going to get through school and get a job or a family or whatever it is, and we will have arrived and things will be good. But we don’t always end up where we expect, and even when we do, there are always problems. Life is struggle. If there is one gift I could give you, it would be resilience.

We ended class a few minutes early, with hugs and handshakes and wishes for good final exams.


This semester I have two students who are honors course contracting my classes. This means that they want honors credit for the class, and we create a written agreement about what they have to do to get it. In practical reality, I write the contracts with some broad leeway so that we are doing extra work but the exact details are somewhat fluid, and easily customizable to my needs or the students’ needs. Sometimes I think I should be more formal about it, but so many classes like this I don’t teach very often, and so, no, I don’t have enough mastery of the material to really know ahead of time.

One of my honors students has not been showing up to class. I get that he’s generally smart enough to learn the material on his own. And I also get that the engineering school is being a gigantic problem for him with group projects and teammates who aren’t helping. And a grandparent recently died. I can cut him some slack once for missing my class, but I think he’s missed two or three in a row. And this isn’t the first absence.

I called him in to talk to him about it the other day. “Look, I know you are under a lot of stress, but make it to class. Think of it this way, would you want a letter (of recommendation) writer to say that you were reliable except when you are stressed and busy?” I shouldn’t have said that. I’m not going to put that in a letter, even though I’m annoyed. And even though I am annoyed, this is still a student that I just plain like. I should have poked more into how he was doing first. The poor kid was like a whipped dog for the rest of the day, either from me or from exhaustion.

I felt like such a heel. On the other hand, I really think he should be coming to class.

So lesson one, write it into the honors course contract. No absences except for excused absences or with prior consent of the instructor. I have to go to extra effort for you, you show up to class.

Lesson two, listen first. I already know this one. It is the execution that’s sometimes is lacking.

Lesson three, focus on the positive. I really wish I’d said instead, “I miss you when you don’t come to class.”

Lesson four is just a question for my readers. What should I do now? If I could write a Dear Student letter, what should it say? Oh, heck, here’s a first try. What do you think?

Dear Student,

I called you out for not coming to class the other day. I think I did a bad job of that. I wish I had asked you first what was going on in your life that caused you to miss class. I wish rather than getting on your case, I had told you that I missed you when you don’t come to class. I wish I had written it into the honors course contract so that we both would have agreed to that ahead of time. You looked bad the rest of that day, and I’ve been feeling bad since. I hope you will accept my apology for handling that badly. And I hope you will come to class. I miss you when you aren’t there.


Dr. Jinx


We are learning about linear transformations in linear algebra. These are just functions from one vector space to another that preserve the structure of the vector space. I had students do a team exercise to determine if a number of transformations, such as derivatives, integrals, translation of a vector by a constant vector, multiplication by a matrix are linear transformations.

I get that the linear algebra is new and confusing to students, but I was amazed (I probably shouldn’t have been) by how many found the function definitions to be difficult. After all, we learn about functions in high school. It’s just the linear algebra that’s new and confusing, right? Not quite, as it turns out.

I think this is a case where new knowledge confounds old knowledge. Because we are learning about something new, students lose their ability to keep their mathematical wits about them and apply their old knowledge to the situation. They start to believe that something funky must be going on, and then they try to use the new stuff all over the place. It doesn’t work.

Between my first section and the second, I reinforced the basic function concepts, and it might have helped a little bit. It didn’t help a lot. I know many students got it. I know some didn’t. My hope is that those who have been keeping up with the material might have had a learning curve, but then they learned from their teammates what was going on (or me, when I solved the exercise), and now they know what to do.

I hope I can reinforce the idea that you can go a long way in life if you can keep your mathematical wits about you. Uncommon sense. Apply your uncommon sense. Others call it common sense, but I don’t think it is!

From there to here

I was asked what journey I took to go from writing software back into a tenure-track appointment.

A short answer would be that I have been very fortunate in my misfortunes; perhaps good at making lemonade out of lemons.

Here is a longer answer, still greatly abbreviated, omitting several years of unhappiness, discouragement and failures, and the unhappiness, discouragement and failures that were interleaved with the successes. I will mention in my first 4 years of teaching, during 3 of which I was not even full-time, I taught 10 different undergraduate courses from freshman to senior level. Starting over new every semester was hell, but it certainly established that you can throw me into a class almost at random, and I will make it a success.

As I found my stride with teaching, I was lucky that one of courses here rejected by the tenure track faculty was mathematical modeling, and inevitably, I got assigned to teach it along with two other new courses that year — as if the one difficult new course wasn’t enough on its own. I took a summer’s worth of anxiety medication trying to figure out what in the hell one would do with that course — projects, obviously, but what and how and … ???? It certainly didn’t help that everyone I talked to told me that this was one of the most difficult courses if not the most difficult course they had ever taught and that they were glad I was teaching it and not them. I figured if I wanted to teach a senior level course, I better be good at this, and I better like it. No pressure! I went to the Course Design Series offered by our Center for Teaching Effectiveness which reminded me to design around what I wanted students to learn. Apparently I had some good ideas.

I also think I just kept getting lucky. I acquired a talented undergraduate and independent thinker in the first iteration of that course, who became my undergraduate research student. He’s an electrical engineer in alternative energy (solar hot water heating), with a double major in mathematics. I was the one encouraging him to continue doing what he was doing, and lo, I became his research mentor. He wrote an undergraduate thesis, won some nice scholarships and awards — we had a great three years together. I will miss him to pieces when he graduates this year.

Through the modeling class, I mentored some smaller undergraduate research projects that could go to Student Research Week, or MathFest, in our undergraduate journal, or to a Writing Center competition. Simply encouraging students to submit their work when I see them doing something interesting makes such a huge difference.

I talked two young women who did interesting projects in my class into presenting at MathFest, and that meant I had to go myself. I talked about the writing I have students do in the modeling course. The session I was in led me to an opportunity write an article on that topic. This has been accepted to the journal PRIMUS. I have plenty more ideas that can go in PRIMUS. I just have to find time to work/write them up.

I never would have guessed how much fun it is to take students to conferences; seeing things through their eyes, taking them somewhere fun for lunch, going to talks with them. Up until that point, I had sometimes hated, sometimes tolerated, but I had never enjoyed a math conference. I overheard my two talking about not understanding a talk, and rather than being intimidated like I would have been, they were peeved that the presenter didn’t define his terms. Conclusion: it was a lousy talk. Go team! I helped teach them that as we learned how to put together presentations.

Ever since going to MathFest, I’ve gotten together with those two several times a semester for lunch. They are now finishing their master’s degrees, one in the Bush School, one in Wildlife in Fisheries.

The professor in Wildlife and Fisheries Science who advises my student had earlier worked with me to design a project for my class since he does a lot of mathematical modeling. This has grown, in turn. He puts me in his grant applications for attracting female mathematically talented students, and he and I are working on a project and getting some more ideas for publications together.

That puts together a track record of successful teaching, mentoring undergraduate research, and miracle of miracles, I was even on track to cobble together a scholarship program for me.

I was also lucky that I befriended the first woman tenured in the Math Department. We started talking because she’s been teaching writing in mathematics classes for years. We have lunch together once a week. Add to that some good/bad luck in that the department has been particularly dysfunctional in my direction this year when my credentials are strong.

She has been the best mentor ever, encouraging me, always happy to look over my materials and make comments and, most importantly, tell me when they were good and that she thought I would be successful. 5 tenure track campus interviews and two offers later, and we conclude she was right about that. I think I would have found the courage to apply on tenure track without her, but her encouragement and ready assistance made certain of it. I will never be able to pay her back, but I sincerely hope I have been paying and will continue to pay it forward to my own students in the future.


I don’t harbor many… any? fond feelings about getting a Ph.D.. Maya Angelou said

People will forget what you said
People will forget what you did
But people will never forget how you made them feel.

I remember my mantra from the time. “Get out of the building before you start to cry. Get out of the building before you start to cry.” Often, I would only make it onto the staircase. I remember wanting to kill myself. I remember wanting to hurt others because I was hurting so badly. A Ph.D. is the highest degree of education you can hold, and sadly, I know I am not alone in that my Ph.D. left me feeling like a failure. And full of shame for not having been able to do better than what I did.

I got done; I got out, and I certainly never expected to go back into an academic career. Which is part of the reason why this past year seems so surreal.

My mentor is off at mathematics meeting this weekend, while I am at a teaching conference. She won a well-deserved award for service to students, and, while there, met my thesis advisor. Who was so happy to hear I was starting a tenure-track position, and regaled her with stories of my antics while in graduate school. One thing I was good at was pulling off practical jokes—not dissertation worthy, but an underappreciated skill, nevertheless.

It’s strange to think of him remembering me fondly, when my memories of him and of that time are anything but fond. Even the aftermath, getting the work published, didn’t leave me with good feelings.

I know that this experience has informed my teaching; when students are failing at an activity, I know I do not want them to feel like they are a failure. I want them to leave knowing that I believe in them to find their path, to do better, to change direction if needed or to figure out what is needed to move forward.

I know too that a student’s failure is not a teacher’s failure. I hate to see students do poorly, but I know it isn’t a reflection on me or my teaching. I can care for them no matter how they do. So maybe to my advisor my struggles were just that, my struggles, not a reflection on him. In fact, nothing to do with him.

I don’t know how to fit this in with my story of who I was and what was at the time. I am trying to process and trying to understand. Even after 15 years, my feelings are raw and hurt. I have tried to face my shame and air it. To move forward and to find my identity as a teacher and a scholar. I know in some ways I have succeeded at putting this behind me. I know, too, that I will always carry it with me.

I am at a loss for the story my mentor told me. I can’t make it fit with what I remember, with what I think, with what I feel. Not even looking at it wearing my instructor hat, and trying to see it from a completely different perspective.

I know one thing, which is that if there is one thing I want for my students, it is that not one, not ever, will experience that shame, that hopelessness, that sense of abject failure under my care, on my watch. At least not coming from me. That if they are trying their guts out to learn or do something and not learning or doing, I want to deal gently with their spirits. I want to turn them in another direction, to give them a chance to excel at something else. Because they will find their path eventually. They will be worthwhile human beings even if they are nothing like me.

Mathematical Modeling

Another instructor asked me tonight to talk to him sometime about what made my mathematical modeling class a success.

Where to begin? Love your students, and believe they are capable.

Foster a classroom environment in which everyone is respected, respectful, and everyone’s goals are aligned.

Let students make choices about what they do. Then they will own the work more than if you choose for them.

Don’t be afraid to screw up. Some things will work, and some won’t. Some of the biggest screw-ups will have the most profound learning opportunities. For you and for them. Some of the “failed projects” taught students more than success at some canned exercise would have.

Praise them. Then praise some more. But you can’t do generic praise. You have to look and see the specific things they are doing that are worthy of your words.

Make things meaningful and relevant to them and their lives. But don’t simplify the hard stuff. Let them see the messy. That is what mathematical modeling is all about, the messy interface of mathematics and reality.

Make sure they understand what mathematical modeling *is*, and keep bringing that theme back into their work. Because if they don’t walk out of your class understanding what it *is*, what in the hell have you actually taught them?

Start by figuring out what you think they ought to know and learn from your class. Then design everything you do around those objectives.

Make assignments that you will be eager to grade. That will make your life easier, and their work more interesting. If you find it interesting, they will too.

Don’t be afraid to do something silly or fun because it is silly and fun, the Zombie Apocalypse has been a great modeling project for that reason.

Since it is your job to criticize, make it their job to praise. Make sure they point out to each other the good things they are doing.

Look for success, for creativity, for talent, for competence. And where you find it, nurture it. It won’t always be in those put-together students who always do well at everything. You will find amazing things in your mid-range students and even in your screw ups. Don’t waste those gifts.

Tell them about your failures. Tell them where you struggled. Make yourself a human being to them — let them learn from your mistakes. You don’t have to be right all the time, and you don’t have to have been right all the time. Understand where they are coming from and forgive yourself for those times when you demonstrated their faults.

And did I mention love them? Love them. Love them. And love yourself too. If you bring grace, dignity, integrity, humility and love into your classroom, you will have it returned to you.


I realize that a year ago was the break-up, the awful interview, the approval of instructional titles in my current department, and, when the handling of that was so badly botched in the Fall, the beginning of my journey to a tenure-track position. I feel a lot of melancholy. It has been a hard year. Things fell apart, but then something else seemed to come together for me. I had such hopes for a good career where I am. And then things fell apart again, putting my feet on this path.

I have been terrified and sad and alone so much of this year. Chin up. Moving forward. Trying to keep a smile on my face, but sometimes far from succeeding.

Things come together, and they fall apart. This has been a year of both. I hope next year will be coming together. But I fear the next falling apart, whether it is next year or further off. How much more can I take? As much as I need to. That’s how much.

It is time to start moving forward on a number of things. I have gotten moving. And I’ve gotten sick, which has me temporarily stalled out. Every stall scares me a little, but I know that big scary things just get done. They get done one step at a time. All you have to do is keep stumbling toward your goal.

In the midst of all this, I find myself wasting time with a game, 2048: http://gabrielecirulli.github.io/2048/. It’s nicely mathematical, and you think I’d figure it out easily, but as much time as I waste, here too, I am still struggling. I have made the 1024 tile. Persistence. Persistence. If I make 2048 once, am I done? Can I quit?

I am sad to be leaving what has been my home for 12 years now. I am eager for new friends and new opportunities. I am scared of the challenges that lay ahead of me. I am excited to see what new things I will do.