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.

I promise that in the future I will wear underwear while teaching class.

Lately I’ve been looking through old teaching evaluations. About a year and a half ago I taught a “monster” course, meaning the initial enrollment was 300 students.

My biggest challenge with the class was to keep it a human environment. Under such circumstance, it is really easy to depersonalize students, and for students to depersonalize an instructor.

I pulled up those teaching evaluations today. There was a lot of negativity, but one comment leapt out at me in particular

“It would be nice if she would wear undergarments because many people have noticed it when she is walking around the room trying to get to know us.”

I had to laugh, but WTF? I am guilty of many a fashion crime (ugly shoes including Birkenstocks and sandals with socks comes to mind), but failing to wear appropriate foundational garments (bra and undies) doesn’t happen.

Studies show that the chief targets of student incivility are women and young faculty members. It’s pretty easy to conclude this is probably a disgruntled male student making a derogatory sexual comment to me.

I am certainly not the first female faculty member to deal with comments like this. (Aside: if you have any gems, please do share so that we can all appreciate them.) My immediate supervisor was appalled at the comment, and said “I have NEVER seen you inappropriately dressed or without undergarments!!!” Since I’m unlikely to be interviewed for the university paper, I probably won’t have to put up with a hostile follow up conversation with the dean either.

Along the way of joking and thinking about this incident today, I read about

  1. The not-so benevolent nature of benevolent sexism
  2. Dressing for academia (as a woman)
  3. That I should wear makeup in order to look more competent.
  4. Handy tips for our male allies in academia.


A friend and I had dinner last night, and one of the topics we talked about was shame. Something else in our conversation made me think that he would like to watch Brené Brown’s TED talk on The Power of Vulnerability (one of the most-watched TED videos)

I hadn’t quite processed at that time, that she had a second video about shame, but when I watched it again, I knew I’d seen it before.

Shame is one of the hardest things for people to talk about. It is painful to live through, and just as painful to hear, and so we try to hide it. But shame thrives on secrecy and isolation.

Dr. Brown defines shame this way:

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance or belonging.

The last time I had an intense bout of shame was during my first semester when I started working at a university after a long sojourn as a software developer. I gave a talk to the Numerical Analysis seminar, about a paper I had recently gotten published. The talk was too short, and I didn’t have to do anything beyond some fairly basic mathematics to get my result. It felt like everyone filed past me, not speaking to me, and I had days of crisis, tears, trying to get help from my therapist, not knowing where to go or what to do. But definitely not talking about the incident with anyone who was there; I wanted to avoid all of them. I think I told a friend who advised me to ask someone there how it went, and one thing I knew for sure was that I couldn’t do that. I was completely terrified of what the response would be. I am still not sure I could ask someone who was there that day about it, and that was 5 or more years ago now.

This stirs up all the memories of my graduate school experience, where, no matter what I did, I felt like I had disappointed my advisors and hadn’t met the standard. I remember going home from an oral exam that I passed and crying for hours, feeling like a failure. I remember words, “Maybe you are like a retarded third grader who can’t learn how to read.” I remember many days where my one success was not starting to cry until I got out of the building. And the sense that my Ph.D. represented my ultimate failure as a human being to be what I wanted to be.

Clearly one of my shame triggers is being unworthy as a mathematician. Of being unable to do anything but second rate or easy work.

Today I was videotaping a lecture. A student asked how I knew a certain equation was the equation of a plane, and on tape, I couldn’t figure out what to say. I was stumped, although I know I know this answer. I said it was because a linear constraint in 3 dimensions solves to a 2 dimensional space. Because I just do. You’ll learn more about this in the next section on the cross product, and more yet in linear algebra.

In office hours I struggled with a few questions (some were hard) and eventually managed to put together the neat answer to the plane equation for my student, after several tries to write the notation properly. It’s not like I don’t know the notation. I was feeling queasy and uncertain and anxious and uncomfortable. That was enough to keep the notation from coming out properly.

I kept thinking, I caught that on videotape. I can’t show that videotape to anyone, They will think I am stupid, or that I don’t know my subject matter, that I am incompetent.

And that is shame. Not as bad as those other, earlier, times. But shame. I am writing here, so that maybe these things can see the light of day. So that they can be exposed to empathy. Because openness and empathy are the two antidotes to shame.

And I wonder, dear readers, what stories you might be brave enough to tell me about shame. Maybe not publicly. Maybe not here. Maybe in person, sometime, or by private message. I hope that if you honor me with your confidence, that I can provide the empathy that helps ease the experience of unworthiness and isolation.

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.

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.

Gratitude Exercise

Another long day today. I am home, I am tired, I need to do more. But not tonight. Tonight I am finished with work. If I opened it up, I would just inch through whatever it was, hardly making progress, slowly getting frustrated.

One thing might make a difference before bed. A gratitude exercise.

What is a gratitude exercise? You just have to make a list of things, little things, big things, whatever, that you are grateful for. Things that make you happy. Things that make your life better.

Don’t expect a gratitude exercise to fix your bad mood completely, but it helps a little bit in the moment. In general, it helps me to keep a positive attitude, and to keep me happier. We have to see the good things in our lives to be glad to be ourselves and to live this life. And in the end, it is very trite, but also very true that happiness is wanting what you have, not getting what you want.

With that:

  1. I am grateful for a colleague who agreed to write a letter of recommendation for me, and who has been a constant supporter of mine since the day we met.
  2. I am grateful to have a supervisor who understands my values, and agrees with them.
  3. I am grateful for another supervisor (one I don’t like as much) who stood up for me today.
  4. I am grateful I made progress on one of my “missions” for the semester, to get some faculty Wiki space, password protected and away from students, so that we can more easily share course materials.
  5. I am grateful for a visit from a student that I am concerned about.
  6. I am grateful for students who are becoming/have become colleagues and friends.
  7. I am grateful for green beans, grown in my garden.
  8. I am grateful that I managed to run a successful Undergraduate Seminar series this semester.
  9. I am grateful for anxiety medication, a different one, that is actually working. Feeling normal most of the time is so much nicer than feeling like something awful is about to happen most of the time.
  10. I am grateful that I only have to write my Honors exam this time, and not also write a make-up for the common exam.
  11. I am grateful for funky clouds this morning, even though I didn’t get to take a picture of them.
  12. I am grateful that gratitude exercises so often make me feel better.

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.