More on shame

A friend posted on Facebook,

Dear advisors of graduate students,

Please read, comment on, and edit your student’s paper before it is submitted to a journal.

A cranky reviewer

She’s right and criticizing the correct person, but I can’t help but feel for the student.

You see, I was that student.

I hope my friend writes something like, “To the senior authors/advisor of the student on this paper: seriously, you couldn’t put the time in to comment on, edit, and help put this paper together? You do know that is your job, right?” and, “To the junior author on this paper: Your senior authors/advisors let you down. This isn’t your fault. You are probably doing all the right things. You can’t control them. So don’t take my comments as a reflection on your ability or worth; they aren’t. And keep trying. You are doing work that has merit, and everyone benefits from professional critique before a paper is submitted. Even senior faculty.”

I know that even if my friend correctly calls out the advisor, it might be the student first reading those reviews. She’s right to call out the advisor. But oh, do I ever feel for the student.

I hope the student is stronger than I was.

Even 13 years later, I still have tears in my eyes thinking of that night and how I felt. I was so ashamed of myself, for not doing a better job. For not being more. For not knowing how to write that paper correctly. For being an ignorant student, instead of the expert professional I thought I was supposed to be.

Shame thrives in darkness and isolation. Talking doesn’t make it go away, but it makes it a little bit better. A little less frightening. A little more like adversity that I have overcome, rather than a sign that I am a failure as a person.

The one thing I have been able to do with all the pain is to use it to offer my students something better. I don’t ever want them to feel like that.

Past, present and future

I had a Thanksgiving visit to a faculty colleague’s house. We got to talking about graduate school after dinner and the feelings of inadequacy it seems to bring out in everyone. These feelings relate back to my earlier post on shame. He described the dogged persistence by which he finished up, and he is glad to not have research responsibilities anymore in a teaching-focused faculty position.

As for me … I am glad I am not in a research position, and as I wrote earlier, I feel like a failed researcher. Graduate school sure kicked the stuffing out of my ego. But there’s a part of me that isn’t convinced that I couldn’t be a good researcher now (although exactly at what is still an open question) or couldn’t have been a good one then. The one thing I am sure of is that you can put a perfectly motivated, intelligent, creative person in the wrong circumstance with the wrong people, and you can tear her down so badly that she is almost unable to function. So that she starts to hate things that were enjoyed activities to begin with.

Yes, a good part of that was my own damn fault, and I know it. No one teaches you when to quit; that sometimes the only way to make something better is to run away from it. I should have found other people and another direction, but when things didn’t work, I was far too busy blaming myself, feeling like a failure. That does not help give you strength to pick yourself up, walk away, and start over.

I got on Project Euler this summer; discovering that I do really like programming was a revelation. After leaving my last software job, I thought I had made a huge mistake going into the field. Must’ve been guilt or pressure, being one of the few women who could to go on and pursue math and software. But that’s not right either. Over the past years of teaching, I keep discovering that I do love problem-solving, math, and programming, and not just when I am working with students. I enjoy them in their own right. And what does that mean?

I am always going to be a teacher first; give me students and they will take priority in my life. I want more than that out of life too. I want to write articles and books; I really want to write things that people read and care about. I don’t want to just write musty math articles.

I know I approach problems differently now than back then; now I’m all about finding the low hanging fruit and plucking it down. Way back when I was in graduate school, I wanted to understand the things that most confused me. Which is, for the record, not the best way to pick a thesis topic.

One thing for certain is that we cannot go back and fix the past. The only thing we can do is learn from it, and use our lessons to help ourselves and others. I don’t know where my journey will take me; maybe into more research and maybe not. One thing I am always telling my students is that they are capable. They are worthy. They are strong. They will find a way, even though it may not be what they currently imagine. And that is the message I need to bring to myself. I am capable. I am worthy. I am strong. I will find a way, even if it is nothing that I currently imagine.

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.


  1. You have a right to your feelings.
  2. You have a right to set boundaries to feel safe.
  3. Anyone who attempts to revoke your right to your feelings or to set boundaries is someone scary.

Now, it may just be that the person is clueless, but lack of empathy on this is a danger signal that you cannot ignore.

Predators and bullies will try to negate your feelings and push you into situations where you don’t feel safe. The only defense you have is to own your feelings and to own your boundaries.

A predator will flatter you to let your guard down. A predator will cast you as a bitch if you don’t do what they are asking.

You know how this plays out in a bar: “I’m just trying to buy you a drink! You don’t want me to buy you a drink? Why are you being such a bitch?” No one has the right to argue with you when you say no. This is the clarion call of the predator. Hell, yes, I absolutely am such a bitch. I do not want your drink. I said so clearly. Now buzz off.

But a bar is an easy situation. What happens when this is your boss? “Can’t we just have a cup of coffee and talk this over just the two of us?” If you don’t feel safe, you have every right to request that a neutral third party is present. But for many it’s harder to set this boundary.

I think I am lucky that I do not find either of these situations ambiguous. Trigger my lack of trust, and I will take action to protect myself. Even so, I still get the arguments.

On this count, I am flabbergasted.

I am shocked by how many people are unable to see or unaware that when a boundary like this is set, that if you wish to reestablish trust, the only way to go about it is to be very very respectful of the boundary. No sneaking around it, no flattering your way out of it, just respect and forthrightness.

This is one of those topics that makes me see red.

If there is one book you should read on this topic, it is The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker.



Some days are not what you want them to be.

I was up with anxiety in the middle of the night.

I woke up anxious this morning.

Anxiety is not the world’s best productivity tool for me, although it is one hell of a good tool for getting out of bed in the morning. I flit from one thing to the next without really accomplishing anything. If I’m not sucked deeply into a book, I can’t even really read.

So the day has gone so far. I took some more medication, and maybe I am settling down now. With the bad taste in my mouth from an unsatisfying and unproductive morning.

For me, anxiety is this uncomfortable feeling in my stomach and chest. When it is bad, it is a sense of impending doom. When it is mild, it is merely uncomfortable.

Anxiety is a very functional emotion in the correct circumstances. It evolved long ago, and it is awesome for keeping someone alert and on guard. If I needed to be alert for animal or human predators coming to get me, anxiety would be my best friend for vigilance. In the modern world, where much of what we need to do involves calm and concentrated effort, in particular, blocking out everything around us and only paying attention to the task at hand, anxiety is a substantial foe.

What have I learned about dealing with anxiety?

First, acceptance. You cannot will it away. You cannot think it away. For some, cognitive approaches work well. I am not one for whom this is so. Do the thoughts cause the anxiety or the anxiety the thoughts? I think it is a circular system. That said, being meticulous about finding things to be happy about and to be grateful for will help improve your mood, even if it does not take away your anxiety. Be mindful and generous and count your blessings.

Second, treatment. There are medications you can use. Finding the right one can be hard, but they can be a lifeline. They have been for me. Talk to your doctor. It would be great if you could talk to a psychiatrist, as they are the real expert in treatment of these problems … but I haven’t figured out how to make that happen yet. Too many people with far more serious psychiatric illnesses than mine, and too few doctors to treat them.

Third, compassion. If I must live with this, the one thing I can do is use it to help others. In particular, students with test anxiety or math anxiety or however it comes about. I can be a role model of someone who handles it reasonably well. I can provide acceptance, acknowledgment of the real difficulties involved in dealing with it, and some ideas of ways to cope.

Fourth, awareness. What situations and people are healthy, productive, warm, accepting, make you feel good? Spend more time in/with them. What situations and people do the opposite? Spend less them in/with them. And be aware, very aware, when you see behavior in others that gets to you, that their behavior is a reflection on who they are NOT on you or your actions or your character, and two, you cannot change another’s behavior, you can only modify how you react to them and whether you interact with them in the first place.

If you suffer from anxiety too, I wish I could make it better. Since I can’t, take meticulous care of yourself. You are worth it. Hold your head high, even when you feel that it is beating you down moment by moment.

Project Euler

Lately I’ve been thinking about what I wanted to do with an honors class I am teaching in the fall. The three things you can give a student that will help them most in the future are: good communication skills (make them write, make them give presentations), programming skills, and work on decent-sized projects that go beyond the routine weekly homework. These are discussed in this Washington Post article: Starting College? Here’s how to graduate with a job.

I’m getting burned out on teaching large projects and lots of writing. That’s not appropriate for this class anyhow. But I could throw in some programming problems. And we might do a small project with some writing/presentation. Or we might not! #1 Rule for the Moment: take it easy on yourself, Dr. Jinx. You have a lot of irons in the fire, and you work too hard.

One of my students recently pointed me to the Project Euler ( website, which is a compendium of nice problems requiring programming and basic mathematics to solve. I am sure friends into math and programming have mentioned this site to me in the past, but I didn’t have the motivation to go check it out.

There are several small problems early on the site that I can use for my students. Then they get more interesting/harder. What I wasn’t expecting was how much fun I would have solving these.

I’m 21 problems in. The problems are getting harder. I am building a small library of general-purpose tools to make solving them easier.

I worked in software for 10 years, and when I got out, I questioned myself on many counts. Did I really like doing math, or was I just sucked in because I was one of the few women who could, and I seemed to be reasonably good at it? Did I really like programming, or did I just get sucked into it, too? While it seems possible that other paths might have been good ones for me, it also seems that I got a first-hand look on how environment can deeply effect your enjoyment of things. A poisonous environment can cause you to start to dislike and feel incompetent at activities that you are actually reasonably competent at and enjoy.

The number one advice I tend to have for students is to find people and environments that make them feel good about themselves and spend more time in them. I wish I had gotten and taken that advice myself.

Whether you are a supervisor or a teacher or a Ph.D. advisor, good advice to keep in mind is to put some thought into keeping the environment supportive and healthy. While yes, whatever you are doing is work, if you can make work fun, you win. Your employees and students will work hard and happily for you in that case.