Tears for Texas A&M

Dear Texas A&M,

I found myself crying on my bicycle ride home late tonight. I realized I was mourning the loss of our relationship, though it isn’t quite over yet. I can’t see a way forward. I haven’t been able to see a way forward for a while. You may have better days ahead of you, but I think they are going to be without me.

Since we are at the end, there are a few things I want to thank you for.

First, thank you for giving me care of your students. Every day, I have been honored to be in classrooms with them. Every semester, I have gotten to watch them grow in intellect, but more important, in spirit. I have watched these young people learn that they have the power to effect change in their lives.

Second, I want to thank you for what you’ve taught me about myself.

I wanted to teach, but I didn’t know how good I would be at it. I still don’t live up to my own standard most of the time, but I keep growing and getting better. I’ve been grateful for the Center for Teaching Effectiveness. For Wakonse South. For my superb Academic Professional Track Colleagues in Math. They embraced me when I was a visiting assistant professor. They welcomed me into their ranks three years later as a lecturer. They supported me when I went up for promotion. They helped me figure out how to write a syllabus, how to write exams, how to work the classroom computers. They’ve been generous with their notes, week-in-reviews and course materials. They’ve accepted and helped me lead when I’ve been asked to do that. They’ve given me many insights into better teaching.

I came to you thinking I didn’t really ever want to do math or programming again, but slowly, day by day, class by class, you’ve brought me back around to seeing my love for both. I find myself talking over and over again in class about the wonder of the material I teach. And I’ve found myself programming Project Euler problems in my spare time.

You helped me find mentors that have helped me to be able to pull my professional academic credentials together and see that they are worth something on the tenure-track market. If I hadn’t had these people to believe in me first, I would have had a hard time believing in myself. And they’ve been right. I am getting interviews. I may not be right for every school, but I have skills that are extremely valuable in the job market.

Last, you’ve taught me that I am not a doormat; I will stand up for what is right. This past year has been so so hard for me, as I’ve watched things happen that I could not, with integrity, remain silent about. It has been terrifying to speak up. To continue to speak up. And to realize that speaking up required me to start looking elsewhere for employment. I am sad that a better conclusion wasn’t in the cards for us. And I’m angry with you for not having better to offer after all I’ve given to you. But the bottom line is that I am stronger for having lived through this. As angry as I am about what’s gone wrong, I cannot help but be grateful for the growth.

One concept that’s always been dear to my heart is the idea of Aggie Honor. As often as we have students violate our honor code, when you sit them down to talk about it, you can tell that being Aggies and embodying that honor means something to them. Honor means something profound to me too. Integrity. Willingness to do what is right even at a great personal cost. Willingness to speak up when I would prefer to remain silent. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen much honor in you lately, and that makes me sad. I believe you can do better, Texas A&M.

We are going to have some difficult discussions tomorrow. I don’t expect change to happen for me with you, though I hope it happens eventually. I hope, more than anything else, that you can find your way back to honor. To see yourself as I see you. To bring to our students our very best.

I hope you are up for it. I’m not sure I can keep believing in you for now, and that’s part of why I have to go. I know that it is through our darkest moments that we have the most profound break-throughs. I hope for one for me. I also hope for one for you.

With love, and profound sadness,

Dr. Jinx.

The March Forward

Wednesday I have two meetings. One with my REU PI and one with my department chair, both addressing problems I’ve been having with regards to my job responsibilities. I seem to not understand what they are? If someone as conscientious and as careful as I am is this confused, that is a sign of severe departmental mismanagement.

The path is integrity. Face problems head on. Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen to what others say. But brook no nonsense. There are things that are not okay. Know my boundaries and limits, and know what I hope to achieve.

I am going to plan for a high anxiety morning. I will have my medication on hand. I will take it the night before to get to sleep if I need it. I will meditate. I will breathe in and out, pausing slightly between exhale and inhale to feel the moment of nothingness.

What is it I tell my students? Believe in yourself. Bring integrity to your work. Have honor. That’s all I need to do here. Believe. Have integrity. Have honor.

I know that no matter what I do, it may not (probably will not) fix anything. But at least by following this path, I will have done what I could.

A friend posted this to Facebook this morning:

“Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient allover the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.” — Howard Zinn

I hope that by bringing this problem to the attention of those with oversight responsibilities at the university, if change will not happen from within the department, it will be encouraged from without. There are good people who care about doing things right. Maybe not enough of them. But they are there, and some of them are in the positions of authority that they should be in.

I will not be a good, obedient girl. I will question authority. I will do so politely, professionally, respectfully, and forcefully. Fearfully too, but hopefully the only people who will know that are the ones who would offer me support, strength and love.

Assume nothing and open your heart to embrace the good

Dear Student 1,

We took you to brunch today, wanting to give you, if nothing else, another experience of two functional adults in your life who care about you and who are checking in with you to make sure everything is okay. Curious about your life and wishing you the best.

No, you aren’t going to pay for the meal when you are out with us. Pay it forward, to your kids if you have them. To some other struggling young person you encounter later in life. We can’t fix our pasts. We can’t fix your present. We can only try to give to you some of those things we wish we’d had back then, most especially some older adults who just like you and who are willing to go to bat for you.

We talked for a while about the future. My friend talked about finding a place to settle down; that was important to him. And me, what would I advise? I would advise you to expect nothing. It is nice to have a place where you are settled down, but you may not get that. Just when I’ve thought I’ve settled into a place, there has been a reason for me to leave it.

The biggest disappointments I have had are the things I always assumed I get, and didn’t. Assume nothing, except that life is going to be difficult. You will struggle, but you will find your path. It will be hard. That you can assume. Plan for adversity in the future so you can take care of yourself if the worst case happens. But don’t plan out the rest too much; allow yourself to walk through with open eyes and open arms for opportunities and people you will want to embrace.

And if you ever feel stuck and discouraged, try not to be afraid to change. Your worst moments will make your best stories — trust me on this — once they stop hurting you so much. You just have to get through them.

You can have a run of bad luck that goes on for months or years, but if you can just hang on, you can come out the other side.

And in the meantime, no matter what you do, no matter where you are, no matter where I am, if you need someone, please call. If you want to share some success, please call. Just keep my number handy for those moments, and know every time I will be glad to hear from you. I know I’m not your Mom. I’m not anyone’s Mom (that was one thing I wished for my future that I didn’t get). But if I can be your next best thing, I hope you know I’ll try my guts out for you.

With love,

Dr. Jinx (who hopes that word won’t freak you out)

(And, yes, I’m going to ask you and my male friend/partner in crime to lunch or something again in a few weeks and keep doing this until you are convinced that here we are and we mean it and we aren’t going anywhere.)


From Student 2:

Dr. Jinx,

I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for the amount of work you put into teaching us Linear Algebra.

Let me first say, this is in no way an attempt to “suck-up” or any such effort. My grade will be earned fairly regardless of any fallacious tactics to woo over a professor. 🙂

I just know how important it is to let those you contribute so much to your education know they are doing an excellent job. I feel I begin the homework and other assigned work with much more confidence and understanding of the material. This is highly due to the material you have provided (i.e. reading guided note taking, online notes from class for reference, posted solutions, and availability outside of class.) Take my absence from your office hours as a sign that you have taught well enough that there is no need for outside assistance.

Expect to see a high score earned on my first Exam!

Thank you!

Dear Student 2,

You had no way of knowing what I’d be doing today. I was out on my bike and started to have an anxiety attack. I cut the ride somewhat short to get back home for some medication, and along with the medication I found your note.

Thank you for helping to lift me out of that funk of self-doubt, where I am afraid that everything in the world is wrong and me along with it. I wonder sometimes how many of you are hating me for teaching a hard class, even though I know an easy one won’t serve you well in the future. I feel guilty for all the times I’ve had to be gone this semester. For struggling to find time to give you. For not working further ahead, taking each day as it comes, doing what I can, and hoping it is enough. For not being able to give you a better big picture of this wondrous subject we are learning. For not having time enough to explain all the examples, and resorting to the advice that you read them in the book.

Because there it is, at the end of the day, if you are enjoying learning, I know what I’ve done has mattered. I can’t make math into a video game (at least, I haven’t figured out how yet), but at the same time, it shouldn’t be torture. Little puzzles to figure out, one after another.

Thank you for your thanks. Today it meant the world to me. And I did print out what you said, cut it out, and tack it onto the bulletin board by my desk.

And, for darn sure, you better ace that exam.


Dr. Jinx

On Being Angry

For the past few days, I have been angry. I have been wronged. I have been afraid. I have been treated unjustly. And so, I have been angry.

Here’s the thing. I don’t like being angry. I don’t like myself when I am angry. I don’t want to continue to be angry. At the same time, that I am angry means there are problems to be solved, and things to be fixed. My anger helps me to do that.

Can I find a better way?

What would a better way be?

Is there a path to peace with those who wrong you? With those who do wrong knowingly?

What if I was the teacher, and these were my students doing wrong? How would that change things?

I get angry with students, frustrated, tired. But one thing that’s different when I am dealing with students: in these young people, almost without exception, no matter how bad the behavior may be, I am always trying to see through to the possibility that they can do right and grow into honorable, kind, productive human beings. In my interactions with them, I want them to see themselves as those honorable, kind, productive human beings. Or, with the possibility of becoming those honorable, kind, productive human beings. Whatever bad behavior I am called upon to address: it is their behavior; it is not their identity. I want to leave them with that image of themselves as greater, rather than lesser. I open up my heart as wide as I can so that they can see themselves as I can see them, full of promise, hope, possibility, honor.

You may have made a mess. But you are not a mess. You have all the potential that you need to be someone worthy and worthwhile. You get to decide what you do next and how you handle this. Choose well.

Can I do this with a 60 year old department chair too? Can I even try to see this from where he’s at? There is the world he knows well, the world he’s lived in, and the things he’s been taught because of his position. There is a major assumption of privilege. An ignorance of the day-to-day lives of those who report to him. Ignorance of the careers of those who require his good judgment and wisdom in handling our concerns. Perhaps he knows nothing of this. Never considered it to be important. Never saw the people in front of him as human beings, with ambitions and motivation just like him.

Is there the possibility of growth, honor, better in the future?

Of course there is a possibility for growth, honor, and better in the future. There may have been too much bad for me to want to remain for the long term. But can I uphold honor while advocating for fairness, can I be peaceful when addressing wrongs? Can I be courageous in facing those with more power than I have and, armed with little besides my integrity, be a force for good?

That is the standard I set for myself. To let go of the anger. To arm myself with integrity. To see the good and to help others see it. To allow myself to walk away where there is nothing to be gained or when too much has been lost, but to open the doors wide to change for the better where change is possible.


I’m following up to Wins and Losses.

Here’s the letter I sent declining the interview.

Hi 4— and 3–,

The conversation with 3– yesterday and 4—‘s follow-up about what {your university} is looking for have raised a few issues that make me doubt that the strengths I would bring to {your university} are what {your university} will value in the tenure and promotion process. Consequently, I think it is best that I decline the invitation for a campus interview at this time.

A longer explanation:

I think 3– knows that I think one of the leading strengths of my application is my ability to work with undergraduates on projects and, in particular, mentor undergraduate research, but this doesn’t seem to be well-placed in the tenure and promotion process at {your university}.

With 4—‘s letter: my current plan of research is interdisciplinary. We would expect publications in good journals, but not necessarily math journals. This, coupled with my conversation with 3–, leaves me wondering how I fit with what {your university} is really looking for.

I would welcome having the invitation revisited later if you feel that I am a better fit for your department than what I am currently seeing.

I also wish you best of luck in your search. Definitely keep doing the phone interviews; it is better for everyone if you interview and hire candidates that can give you what you want.

Best regards,

Dr. Jinx

You want to see flummoxed, the department chair (3–) and search committee chair
(4—) clearly weren’t expecting that. I got a 3 page email reply from the chair, and both urged me to reconsider.

Unfortunately, there was no more clarity in the 3 page email reply from the chair than there was in the initial phone conversation. This department wants undergraduate research and wants to raise its profile. They have no idea how it fits into their department. If it doesn’t produce peer-reviewed research papers in good journals, it really doesn’t matter for much of anything. Notice, we are discussing undergraduate research. If a publication in a good journal is 1/3 of the requirement for me for tenure, this is a fantastic accomplishment for an undergraduate and that undergraduate’s mentor.

And, as valued toward teaching if it doesn’t result in a peer-reviewed publication in a good journal, this is an uncompensated overload.

Not. Impressed.

I think I’ll send them a follow-up on Monday reiterating the problem and stating that this is the sort of mess I am good at cleaning up. I’ll followup that my hourly consulting rate is $250, and I would be happy to help them figure out how undergraduate research should be handled in their department and the tenure and promotion process. If they would prefer not to hire me given my relationship to their search, I would be happy to recommend a colleague.

Or maybe not. We’ll see how much energy I have over the weekend.

In any case, in reply to the previous blog post and follow up, a friend wrote:

I’ve got to tell you, I have been delighted by the thought of you turning down that interview. You are an academic badass Jinx! I hope I can be as good at listening to my intuition and going for what I want instead of whatever is offered to me when I return to the workforce.

You are a hero to me right now!

That made me feel good. I replied, “I think I’m going to have a hard time wiping that cocky smile off my face today.”

I needed it. Some controversy with the department came around to roost again. It appears once again, within my department, that I am mistaken and confused as to what my job duties are. Now, I am a careful and conscientious person. I think that repeated, documentable, problems with this, especially when I have produced evidence in writing about what I’ve been told are my duties that are in conflict with what others are telling the chair, should cause the department chair to stop, look, listen and, for goodness sake, think when given information that once again indicates that I don’t get what I’m supposed to do. Jehosophat.

And could we please take a moment and consider all the things I have done, the level of competence with which they have been done, and the once again, the documented lack of resources that I was given to get them done.

I should have some credit built up by now.

But I’m not tenure-track faculty. I don’t even get the courtesy extended to make me part of the conversation about my duties.

The department chair walked in when I was discussing these issues with my immediate supervisor. He tried to duck out quickly after asking his question. I didn’t let him. I let him know that

  1. That I, up until this year, did not want to leave Texas A&M, but I am now on the job market.
  2. The lack of clarity with regards to my duties is one of several reasons why I am on the job market. I can no longer see staying at Texas A&M.
  3. That lack of clarity, especially this repeated extenuating lack of clarity, in someone’s job duties is unacceptable to me and should be unacceptable to him as department chair.
  4. That while I liked him and was glad when he was first appointed chair, this is, in fact, an embarrassment to our department and calls into serious question the professionalism of our administration.
  5. The REU principal investigator threw me under the bus. And I am angry about this.
  6. I should be included in these discussions about what I am doing and what I am supposed to do.

I was polite, professional, and not about to brook any nonsense. He said I need to hear his side of it. In a meeting. Later. And ducked out of there.

I contacted the dean of faculties to inform them of the situation and request mediation at this meeting. Which is not yet scheduled. I wonder how many weeks this will take.

Academic badass. It was one hell of a stressful day. But bring it on. If we are going to fight this battle, we are going to fight this battle. I am going to do my best to get this crap straightened out for my colleagues’ sakes. Me, however, I think if I get any kind of an acceptable offer I am out of here in the fall. Maybe at the end of the spring.

Little lost letter

I send a holiday letter to my Aunt Em (one of Dad’s oldest friends), even though I don’t hear back. She must the same age he is, 86 or so? Her husband died about 15 years ago; on a day Dad was visiting me. I may never forgive that boyfriend for not waking me up from the nap I was taking when that call came in. That was Dad’s best friend, and he sat there, stunned and alone in his grief while I slept. That boyfriend was clueless.

A year ago, I got a “this person has moved to this address” and my letter was returned, but I saved the address. I sent another one this year, somewhere up in Wisconsin. I don’t expect to hear back, but if she’s still alive — and her mother lived to 100-something — I want her to know that I think of her still, and fondly.

I got a letter from one of her sons tonight. My letter was received and enjoyed. She’s got dementia, like Dad does, and is living in a facility in Chicagoland, so maybe I will go visit her the next time I go see my Dad, if her son gives me the address.

Sometimes love is in the little things that you aren’t convinced really matter at the time you do them. The little things that would be so easy to skip. Just another holiday letter; I’m not even sure I have the right address. You just do them anyway and hope. Sometimes those letters make it, not to where you sent them, but to where they needed to go. They gave someone a smile, maybe only a brief one, but that’s all you could really expect to do.

A picture of strength and grace

A rain lily to represent how I am feeling.

Right after Christmas, I had breakfast with two bicycling friends from Austin. I didn’t think about it at the time, but the three of us, in larger and smaller ways, have all struggled or are struggling with spiritual wounds. One friend’s wife passed away suddenly about a year ago. The other was denied tenure at his university in the cruelest possible way. He was passed by the department and the dean and then denied by the president of the university. He’s still working in the same department as a senior lecturer. Me, I lost an important relationship this past spring.

We talked about a myriad of things. Bicycling. Loss. Continuing forward. Still being angry. Things we hope for the future. The good things about our lives right now. How much it hurts.

I didn’t think about it when I made the invitation, but the one thing I took away from that breakfast was a picture of strength and grace. What I saw in my two friends, dealing with their situations, is how I want to deal with the adversity in my life. I would beg not to be sent that much pain. But if I am, that is how I want to I deal with it.

Picking Green Beans

Green beans

Green beans

Picking Green Beans.
Wow, a lot! From this plot I threw together back in August.
In Texas there are two growing seasons,
Spring and Fall, with everything dying off in the heat of summer.
It is trite but true that hope plants a garden.
Hope looks to some reward in the future,
some uncertainty and tries anyhow.

Recent years have been a long, hot, dry summer,
and parts of my heart and hope feel withered, barren and dead.
Pain and despair are familiar companions.
Do I cling to them, keeping them near, fearing to be alone?
Or is everything that has happened happenstance?
Probably a mixture of both; we work to make our own fate,
but fortune intervenes, sometimes for us, sometimes against.
And there are long runs of good luck and bad luck.

May the good luck not go to your head,
not make you think that you are the deserving, the special,
the one who cared the most and worked the hardest.
For surely you did care much and work hard,
but fortune helps.
Those who didn’t succeed may have cared just as much or more,
tried just as hard or more, only to see their hopes crumble.
If you succeed, nurture compassion.

May the bad luck not go to your heart,
not throw you into despair or the feeling of worthlessness.
Take stock, by all means, of how you got here.
But do not blame yourself for mistakes,
not even if they are truly yours. Accept.
Forgive. Correct. And keep going.
Try to find the strength to hope for a change in fortune.
Bad luck must eventually turn, right?
If only you can stay in the game. But sometimes it doesn’t
turn fast enough, and we have to accept the aftermath.

Our gift is compassion, and our challenge is to apply it to ourselves.

This green day, this blue sky, the sun warm on my shoulders,
and a breeze caresses my skin. Green beans for dinner soon,
because hope planted a garden and won this time.
Breathe in this temperate moment.
Try to bring it to the hot to the cold
to the hurting place inside.

Anxiety Medication

Hello. My name is Dr. Jinx and I have an anxiety problem. Generalized Anxiety Disorder, as far as I can tell, not that I’ve ever had anyone other than a general practitioner take a crack at it. It’s one of those things I have to figure out how to live with and deal with.

About a week and a half ago, I went on a different medication. It was one I had used successfully before, but there was a good reason to go off it. My then-significant other and I hoped that, despite my advanced age, we might get pregnant, and this medication is not recommended with pregnancy. So I weaned my way off of it, doing sometimes okay, and sometimes worse, while we tried and hoped. I had another medication I could take for immediate crisis. It was okay, but not great.

That part of my life ended rather suddenly, but I never returned to the old medication that had worked relatively well for me. I toughed some things out I shouldn’t have, and finally began relying on my back-up medication more. And more and more. It was time for a change.

It is working like a charm. I feel normal most of the time, which means, I’m not feeling on edge all the time, waiting for the axe to fall or the other shoe to drop. I know that it is a matter of days or weeks before “normal” stops feeling like the wonder it is right now. I better write about it, so that I can remember it later.

In my handwritten journal, I’ve written over and over again, “Please make the anxiety go away. Please find a solution to my anxiety problem. Please make it better, this is so hard.” For a little while I am here, and it is better. I wish I could give this to everyone who is suffering; a respite.

When I’m suffering, on edge, I think I should be strong, hold off taking anything, breathe through it. It’s a personal failing, is it not, to have this condition in the first place. So many bad situations that I stayed in far too long, thinking quitters never win and winners never quit. But there are problems that you just have to run away from. In this case, in my case, medication that I just need to take.

A wise friend has said to me, there is something about emotions that just needs to be witnessed. Yes. I need the pain to be seen, and the relief to be seen. Maybe in someone seeing, we can begin, between us, to make sense of it.

The Advantages to Being Female

One of my students was rubbing his face this morning in a characteristic gesture that I recognize from my past week of extreme stress.

“Hey,” I called out, “is everything all right?”

He told me he was really stressed. I don’t know what I said; we got started with class. We talked for a moment about questions and concerns with regards to the exam tomorrow night. Then I taught my lesson.

I had a crowd after class, someone wanting to learn some math, some concerned with logistics, and the young man who was rubbing his face, who wanted to tell me what was up.

Apparently he made an error in recording his exam schedule, and missed an exam he was supposed to take yesterday at the disability center. The instructor wouldn’t make alternative arrangements, and he has to take the exam with the rest of the class without the additional time he’d normally get.

You don’t see young men get to the crying point often, and when you do, you know they are under a phenomenal amount of stress.

You can’t bullshit someone in a situation like that. “Oh, it will be all right,” that’s just empty words. We know it’s just one exam, but to this student at this time, it’s the entire world.

You want comfort at times like that from a caring authority figure who can let you know absolutely that you are okay and you are not a fuck up.

I’ve been paying careful attention to how this one has been doing all semester; he’s not getting the disability accommodation on my quizzes, and it’s my responsibility to make sure that situation is working for both of us.

I put my hand on his shoulder, and I told him that if he was doing in that other class what he was doing in mine, and he could calm down between now and that exam, that I was confident that he would get through it okay. More than okay. I’m convinced he’ll do well.

I know that’s still just empty words; it requires my authority and his conviction of my ability to stand in judgment to carry that message through. It couldn’t make everything better, but I think it helped.