Keep In Touch

First day of a new mathematics seminar, a tried idea that has not had much success in my department before. We need to create a better community with our majors, and, well, no one has any other ideas. I took point on putting it together. My first idea was a meet and greet with games for faculty and students. My colleagues indulged me, and we had students and faculty continue playing well over the hour mark, and feedback was good that this was fun. I was pretty sure I could see it in the students. I think there were even some good conversations about how math could be seen in the games. Cross fingers we can carry this momentum forward to victory!

I get a little overexcited and overstimulated by things like that. I came home wanting a hug. My wish was to be granted, the following arrived in the mail today, from a former student. 20160926_194126 She’s recently completed a tour in the Peace Corps, and enclosed was a souvenir and postcards from her post-Corps trip as she returned to the USA.

I had a voicemail waiting as well from another student who took the GRE today and kicked some serious GRE booty. Somehow I got some credit for that, but I’m not the one who was butt in chair doing the studying.

I tell students that I love to hear from them in the future. If ever they want to write and wonder if they should, YES, YOU SHOULD. And it’s true; I absolutely do.

Do I really want to go hiking in freezing rain?

Freezing rain was expected today. I didn’t sleep well last night. It would have been so easy to text one of my hiking buddies, saying I’m not feeling well.

I got out the door. I picked up the fellow hikers from my town. The drive was cold and wet, and I wondered what I was getting into at the rest stop when it was cold and rainy, and I retreated into the car to warm up again.

Then we arrived and it was not raining, not in the Frenchman’s Coulee (a coulee is a ravine, this one near the Columbia river). I found a geocache. We hiked up a wall of the ravine, onto the rib, and it starts to snow, big, fluffly flakes, and I find a second geocache.

Hiking up the rim, looking down into the coulee.

Hiking up the rim, looking down into the coulee.

Despite my worries, I am warm enough in my rain pants and long undies. We hike the rib, come back down to the road, return to our cars, then drive and hike out to the water fall, where I get to find a third geocache. Good hunting today!

View down to the snowy road from the rib trail.

View down to the snowy road from the rib trail.

The waterfall.

The waterfall.

On the way home, I get a driving lesson for inclement weather, continued as we took an alternate route through freezing rain and slush to pick up a missing cell phone. I should be more confident driving in wintry conditions after this.

Sometimes I don’t want to be bothered, and I think something will be uncomfortable, or maybe not that fun, but on the flip side, if I don’t go try new things I don’t get to see new things.

I’m glad I got myself out the door this morning.

Starting over and making mistakes

I really thought I’d mostly had the teaching gig figured out when I was at TAMU.

Then I come somewhere new, and man, I am back at square one again.

It has been a frustrating and difficult quarter.

I have made so many mistakes. I didn’t assess what my students already knew. I found I had many assumptions about what they knew that were not true. I had many assumptions about how classes like the ones I am teaching were structured that were not true. I had assumptions about the advice I was given that were not true.

And this has all hurt my students and me, much to my frustration.

Still. I have managed to turn things around in my calculus classes. I am doing a lot better at knowing what to do and how to do it, and how to reach these students. I am still worried that I did them a big disservice at the beginning of the quarter, but there isn’t anything I can do about that now. Or, rather, I have been doing what I can in consistently assigning review problems on that material, so that it wouldn’t get forgotten, and might be improved. (I think there are some problems that I have assigned 2 or three times now … they should be getting better at those … right? 🙂 )

One consistent source of extreme frustration for me has been my graduate class. It is small. And the aura of bad attitude (mine and theirs) has come to permeate that class. I don’t want to go, and I arrive in our classroom with only a few minutes to spare. I notice that students are consistently late. Students don’t take notes (and haven’t from the first — easier to take pictures of the board when I was using the whiteboard; now I use a tablet), and I’ve even had several borrowing pencils in class when I have asked them to do something. The homework is too hard, and it takes too long to do. Etc. etc.

I know that me being negative isn’t going to turn this around, but oh my gosh, am I ever having a problem not going straight into anger and sarcasm. WTF, students, coming to class without a pencil and not fixing that problem right at the beginning? WTF, not taking notes? I’m not wondering why you are having difficulties retaining then information later, and even the recollection that the information was discussed.

I know their expectations of graduate school are probably also being challenged, just as my expectation of graduate students are being challenged. It’s not a continuation of undergrad. There are hard things to be done, and faculty expect that you are going to suck it up and get it done. If you are missing pieces that you need to succeed in a class, well, you are responsible for finding them out and getting the help you need. Or to go back and take a prerequisite course and then take the class over. We expect you to start your work early enough to come ask us questions if you are confused or cannot do it. And we don’t expect you to be pestering us late in the day it is due or insisting that we have to help you because something is due this day.

I dread having to teach that group again next quarter, but there it is. I have to. And so I have to work on figuring out how to help us all get happier. I have to also think about teaching this class in future quarters and how better to prepare students for the rigors ahead.

Meanwhile, I’m tired. The 5 day a week teaching thing has its advantages, but it also has its downsides. I never feel quite ready for what comes next. I know I will get through this. I know it will get easier. But here and now, it’s tough and I am frustrated.

That said, one thing I am glad of. And that is that I made time to write tonight.

Solo Camping

I remember the last time I camped alone in this tent. At least, I think it was the last time.

I camped at Colorado Bend State Park in Texas, in May, with the intent of doing a bike ride the next day. Before heading out, I stopped in Austin and I had lunch with my Ph.D. advisor.

We talked about many things; my unhappiness with my job, desire to try teaching. He said something insensitive; he’s infamous for being oblivious.

I asked about a professor who was my terror when I was working on my doctorate; a man who was known for pawing his female students, with the stereotypical black leather sofa in his office, who always wanted to shut the door and sit next to you on the sofa. Hella no, I opened his door wide, and I pulled over the hard wooden chair, but when it was time for my defense, I was worried that one would make trouble for me.

My advisor said he had no idea what I could be talking about when I said I thought that professor was creepy. All he could recall was that Prof. Creepy wanted to hire some unsatisfactory job candidates. I remember a lull or change in our conversation, broken perhaps 10 minutes later, when my advisor told me about Professor Creepy’s nuclear divorce when he, indeed, ran off with one of his female students, leaving his wife and kids high and dry. Professor Creepy went on to become the department chair at another august institution; I can’t imagine they found his performance satisfactory. I also don’t think my advisor connected his story to my comments, though I am certain that my comment connected some subconscious dots, bringing forth the story.

What I remember most about the camping is the explosive tears, the incredible feeling of being lost, of being stuck, of not being good enough and having no way to ever be good enough. Deep, deep, deep shame for being who I was, with only my abilities.

With little sleep, I didn’t go to the bike ride the next day.

There was mountain biking in the park, but after getting up and getting together, I ended up on a hiking rather than a biking trail. My frustration peaked.

It was unseasonably hot, and the campground had no showers. I swam a bit to clean up, but in the end, I just packed up and went home early, running away from that moment, that vision of myself, that truth.

I didn’t interact with my advisor again for 7-9 more years.

It was quite a few years before I came back to that park, newly in love with my then-companion. I remember a magical hike we had as we got lost trying to find a geocache. I have the pictures, and that happy memory.

Today, I find myself again alone in this tent. I am not thinking about trying teaching any more; I will start a tenure track position in the fall. If I had known what success I would have as a teacher, I might have started on this path sooner.

In the ensuing years, I have had deep disappointments, and I have had moments of great joy. Part of me is very very sad for the painful moments, and also angry for this part of my past. Part of me is deeply deeply grateful to be here, now, in this moment.

Did I just smile for 3 hours straight?

I think I must have smiled for 3 hours straight. This was my first time at graduation on the stage as faculty. Giving the diploma to my student was awesome in and of itself. I think my smile almost broke my face.

I got to give my research student his diploma at graduation.  Here we are, backstage, immediately afterwards!

I got to give my research student his diploma at graduation. Here we are, backstage, immediately afterwards!

If that was not enough, one of our associate deans was there, and he provided some mentoring. He told me I could move around on stage and go greet the students backstage if I knew them. Every time I recognized a name of a student that I knew, I jumped up, and went to give out congratulations and hugs. The other faculty probably thought I was nuts. I didn’t care. I think the students were glad to see me, glad I recognized them (although sometimes I did mis-identify which class they took from me), glad I was there with congratulations and hugs. I loved it. I just loved it.

Eventually I figured out who to talk into taking photos.

The only regret for the day is that I missed taking a photo with a friend graduating with a Ph.D. early in the ceremony. But I got to be there. I got to be a part of it. I got to see it. That made it a great day.