Swimming in Circles

I get to the end of today, as with yesterday, as with previous days, and I am not sure at all what it is I have accomplished. It feels like I am swimming in circles in circles in circles in circles and getting nowhere at all.

This isn’t quite true. I can tell you that yesterday I met with my colleagues in Computer Science and gathered intelligence about a course I am teaching and the graduate program I am involved in. It was nice to get an invitation to a party (a social party!) from one person I talked to.

Today I went through training so that I can maintain and create my own university website and have it be integrated into the system the university uses. I put up some content, although not a lot. I ordered a tablet and a back-up drive for my computer, and while doing so I just boggled at the amount of time it took to look over reviews and specs. I even found them for a much lower price, but it turns out we can only order from the one place, so I might as well have not bothered with that. Grump.

I have syllabi started for both courses I am teaching, but neither is finished, and nothing ready for first classes or first assignments.

Swimming. In circles. In circles. In circles.

The trick to getting big amorphous projects done is to break them down into smaller, concrete tasks, and then tackle the smaller, concrete tasks. To figure out a measurable outcome and to aim for that consistently. I know that’s where I’m not succeeding. It would be smarter to spend a half hour either once a week or even every day laying out the “what I want to get done” in small tasks, rather than flailing around at one thing then at another without much of a plan.

It would also be good to turn the social media off so that I cannot get side tracked by “you’ve got mail” or another notification from Facebook. Or turn it aside for a while.

Tomorrow is another day. And one of my favorite quotes is

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.

(by Mary Anne Radmacher)

While I don’t feel all that small, it is still the right thought. I will try again tomorrow.

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.

Happy Dance!

I just got an informal acceptance notice for my article to PRIMUS! Backstory here and here.

I’m a little embarrassed that this draft was riddled with typos. But, accepted! Happy dance around the house! This is what I’m doing tonight:

Dancing around the house
(Ally McBeal animated gif with the dancing baby is shamelessly stolen from the internet.)

The small mistakes can be fixed, and I was tired, stressed, getting to the end of my rope, and grateful for some help from a very kind colleague and mentor with the final revisions on it. That minor issues were missed shouldn’t surprise anyone.


  1. Have an idea? Write it up and submit. Just try. And try not to worry that it won’t be good enough.
  2. Stuck on revisions? Little bits of effort, epsilons, can move you forward.
  3. Still struggling? Ask friends, colleagues, mentors for help.
  4. Finally success? Celebrate!

…but first thing tomorrow, I get to work on those last revisions and resubmit.

I am grateful, grateful, grateful to see this through and for all the help and encouragement I got along the way.

Epsilons and all the Little Things that Make Me Happy

I just looked back at http://drjinx.com for 2013. I made 101 posts. There are 52 weeks per year, that is almost 2 posts per week. I a pleased with the result. I updated regularly. I think my writing improved. I know some friends, at least, read my posts here regularly. I spent time thinking about and writing about things I needed to think through. Often it helped. It always felt good to put something up. I think that is success. I won’t make a formal resolution, but a goal for 2014 is 104 post, or exactly 2 each week for the year.

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, but I think I am going to make one. The most powerful lesson I learned last year was the power of the epsilon > 0 philosophy ([1] and [2]) and the 15 (or 30) minute rule. I’ve been preaching the 15 minute rule for a long time, at least when my kitchen has become an OSHA hazard and something must be done to fix it. This year I broadened its applications, and I saw good results. There are a lot of things I need to do that I am scared of. I faced them with the thought that I would just try for 15 minutes. There was a lot of work I despaired getting done, and finding time to get done, but when I decided to just get after it for 15 or 30 minutes, I made progress and I saw it done. So my resolution is to use the epsilon is greater than zero (something is better than nothing) philosophy along with the 15 minute rule this year soon after I realize that my problem is that I’m feeling stuck. And to tell students how this has worked for me when I urge them to try it.

It is both this easy and this hard. Some jobs are so big they overwhelm me. Break them into smaller pieces until you get a piece you can deal with, and then go after that. And then look for another piece. Repeat as needed.

These little pieces of progress make me happy. As do many other little things in my life. On a day to day basis, I think it is the littlest things that often make the biggest difference. Of course it would be wonderful to win the lottery. Or to be offered my dream job. Neither of those is likely to happen to day. But I can buy the ticket and embrace a little bit of unreasonable hope. I can spend 15 minutes on my job application materials, write a cover letter, send my things to someone else to look at and critique, and feel good about getting that done. I may not get started on that book I want to write some day, but I can write a blog post (200 words. Your goal is 200 words. And 100 or 150 is just fine in a pinch). I will be satisfied that I got that done.

1. My original post on the epsilon > 0 exercise plan

2. And a post about an application of the epsilon > 0 philosophy to getting things done.

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.

A lot done

I got a lot done today.

  1. I contacted all of my letter writers with information and, in some cases, specifics about what I would like them to write.
  2. I worked on updating my CV.
  3. I got our department moving forward on the idea of easily-editable, password-protected pages for each of our courses where faculty can post curriculum materials for the use of other faculty.
  4. And this is a good idea, and can be used in some other contexts as well. As someone who has taught so many different classes and reinvented the wheel so many different times, taking advantage of community wisdom would have been nice!
  5. I asked my student for a letter of recommendation. I think some places will think that’s weird. But I think the kind of place that I want to be will look at that and think, “Yes. This one.”
  6. I worked on my Statement of Teaching Philosophy. And it needs more work.

I was at work very late. Then I biked home. And now I am very tired.

It is done

I posted about stress and burnout, resolved to take some time off, and then reality started laughing in my face. I’ve squeezed out a few hours here and there, but not a 24 hour block of time. There’s some statement out there about a battle plan not lasting any longer than the first engagement with the enemy, and that’s exactly what I’m thinking about.

Back in May, I submitted an article on the writing we do in my mathematical modeling class to PRIMUS. In September, it came back from peer review. Since that time, I’ve been slammed with work, problems at work, stressors at work, moving my office at work, a major flood at work, and, well, I hope that is enough to explain why finding time for these revisions has been difficult at best. That my job has no time allocated to scholarly work or research sure didn’t help.

And the revisions weren’t easy. I realized back in May I’d picked a huge topic. That came home to roost; my biggest mandates was to cut my article down and focus. I’d work on the article for an hour or two and get stuck. Then I’d think about it for a week or more and come back to it again. Thus has been my effort all semester long.

I got a boost a week or two ago when one of the graduate students heaped some praise on my Epsilon > 0 Exercise Plan. That helped me realize I should apply the Epsilon Is Greater Than Zero Principle to my efforts on the paper. Sit down with the idea of spending 15 quality minutes on it. Just 15 minutes. You can quit after 15 minutes. Get yourself to do that much, and it is amazing how quickly progress is made.

Today’s long hours had a nice reward. The article is finished and resubmitted. I am grateful for friends and mentors who took their time to help me with the final edits. I am grateful for those who encouraged me to just keep going every step of the way. Those who reminded me: just keep trying. Just keep trying. Just keep trying. I did.

Now I suspect I have another 2 month wait to see if I need to do further revisions or if it is accepted. I doubt it will make the special issue on Writing in Mathematics, because I had too many delays. But then again, I may be just in the nick of time before the final resubmission deadline; there may be some hope. I will see.

Today, if just for a few minutes, I celebrate.


I submitted a paper om my mathematical modeling class to a special issue of PRIMUS: Problems, Resources and Issues in Mathematics Undergraduate Studies. The special issue is on writing and editing in mathematics classes, especially if it is something other than proof-writing, which is exactly what I do.

I was thinking I would write a 10 page paper. My first draft was 14 pages. I had 20 after a week worth of feedback and editing. I was cutting stuff out every place I could!

I was writing about writing, or meta-writing, and I did my best (after some feedback) to stick to writing about the writing and editing in the course. What I do, why I do it, what students should be learning from it. How the topic of mathematical modeling demands it. It is strange to realize how many considerations go in to each major assignment for the course; I didn’t capture even half of it. If I were to try to really put it all in there, I would have a book! Maybe I could write a book about mathematical modeling … or about teaching mathematical modeling.

As a teacher of writing, and one with ambitions to avoid hypocrisy, I had to follow the advice I give to my students. All-in-all, I decided that it is pretty good advice. While I put off getting started on the paper all semester long (not good), I still had about 3 weeks to work on the paper before it had to be handed in (good enough). I wrote almost every day, even just a little bit, writing at least several times a week. I had a first draft done on Monday. I needed to hand the final in on Friday. I sent it to several friends/colleagues and got feedback. Thank you, friends and colleagues who were able to find time to offer feedback. Thank you too, to those who didn’t find time — I didn’t have time to deal with any more comments! I thought about what the comments, and I worked on what I could. I think I ended with a stronger paper than I started with. I fricking hope so! I was up past midnight on Thursday working on it. Friday I read the whole thing out loud to myself in my office. I, indeed, caught a lot of spelling/grammar/sentence structure errors that way. Around noon I was at a point of fixing those last errors and handing it in. So I did.

Now I have to cross those fingers and hope that the trip through peer-review is not too bumpy.

I did it. Toward the end of the semester, I doubted I would get this done. But I did get it done. How did I eat that elephant? As advised, one bite at a time.