I don’t harbor many… any? fond feelings about getting a Ph.D.. Maya Angelou said

People will forget what you said
People will forget what you did
But people will never forget how you made them feel.

I remember my mantra from the time. “Get out of the building before you start to cry. Get out of the building before you start to cry.” Often, I would only make it onto the staircase. I remember wanting to kill myself. I remember wanting to hurt others because I was hurting so badly. A Ph.D. is the highest degree of education you can hold, and sadly, I know I am not alone in that my Ph.D. left me feeling like a failure. And full of shame for not having been able to do better than what I did.

I got done; I got out, and I certainly never expected to go back into an academic career. Which is part of the reason why this past year seems so surreal.

My mentor is off at mathematics meeting this weekend, while I am at a teaching conference. She won a well-deserved award for service to students, and, while there, met my thesis advisor. Who was so happy to hear I was starting a tenure-track position, and regaled her with stories of my antics while in graduate school. One thing I was good at was pulling off practical jokes—not dissertation worthy, but an underappreciated skill, nevertheless.

It’s strange to think of him remembering me fondly, when my memories of him and of that time are anything but fond. Even the aftermath, getting the work published, didn’t leave me with good feelings.

I know that this experience has informed my teaching; when students are failing at an activity, I know I do not want them to feel like they are a failure. I want them to leave knowing that I believe in them to find their path, to do better, to change direction if needed or to figure out what is needed to move forward.

I know too that a student’s failure is not a teacher’s failure. I hate to see students do poorly, but I know it isn’t a reflection on me or my teaching. I can care for them no matter how they do. So maybe to my advisor my struggles were just that, my struggles, not a reflection on him. In fact, nothing to do with him.

I don’t know how to fit this in with my story of who I was and what was at the time. I am trying to process and trying to understand. Even after 15 years, my feelings are raw and hurt. I have tried to face my shame and air it. To move forward and to find my identity as a teacher and a scholar. I know in some ways I have succeeded at putting this behind me. I know, too, that I will always carry it with me.

I am at a loss for the story my mentor told me. I can’t make it fit with what I remember, with what I think, with what I feel. Not even looking at it wearing my instructor hat, and trying to see it from a completely different perspective.

I know one thing, which is that if there is one thing I want for my students, it is that not one, not ever, will experience that shame, that hopelessness, that sense of abject failure under my care, on my watch. At least not coming from me. That if they are trying their guts out to learn or do something and not learning or doing, I want to deal gently with their spirits. I want to turn them in another direction, to give them a chance to excel at something else. Because they will find their path eventually. They will be worthwhile human beings even if they are nothing like me.

Mathematical Modeling

Another instructor asked me tonight to talk to him sometime about what made my mathematical modeling class a success.

Where to begin? Love your students, and believe they are capable.

Foster a classroom environment in which everyone is respected, respectful, and everyone’s goals are aligned.

Let students make choices about what they do. Then they will own the work more than if you choose for them.

Don’t be afraid to screw up. Some things will work, and some won’t. Some of the biggest screw-ups will have the most profound learning opportunities. For you and for them. Some of the “failed projects” taught students more than success at some canned exercise would have.

Praise them. Then praise some more. But you can’t do generic praise. You have to look and see the specific things they are doing that are worthy of your words.

Make things meaningful and relevant to them and their lives. But don’t simplify the hard stuff. Let them see the messy. That is what mathematical modeling is all about, the messy interface of mathematics and reality.

Make sure they understand what mathematical modeling *is*, and keep bringing that theme back into their work. Because if they don’t walk out of your class understanding what it *is*, what in the hell have you actually taught them?

Start by figuring out what you think they ought to know and learn from your class. Then design everything you do around those objectives.

Make assignments that you will be eager to grade. That will make your life easier, and their work more interesting. If you find it interesting, they will too.

Don’t be afraid to do something silly or fun because it is silly and fun, the Zombie Apocalypse has been a great modeling project for that reason.

Since it is your job to criticize, make it their job to praise. Make sure they point out to each other the good things they are doing.

Look for success, for creativity, for talent, for competence. And where you find it, nurture it. It won’t always be in those put-together students who always do well at everything. You will find amazing things in your mid-range students and even in your screw ups. Don’t waste those gifts.

Tell them about your failures. Tell them where you struggled. Make yourself a human being to them — let them learn from your mistakes. You don’t have to be right all the time, and you don’t have to have been right all the time. Understand where they are coming from and forgive yourself for those times when you demonstrated their faults.

And did I mention love them? Love them. Love them. And love yourself too. If you bring grace, dignity, integrity, humility and love into your classroom, you will have it returned to you.

Must be making progress

I must be making progress.

The job offer negotiation is on, and it started off from a reasonable position.

I feared getting a low offer for less money than I am making now. I know I would have dealt with that if it had come, but I also know that my spirits would have taken a hit if that had happened. Last year’s incident was more than enough of that for one life-time.

Good news. The offer is for more than I’m making now or would be next year, but not overly generous. I know where I want to be on this negotiation so I said, “I’d like to open at this higher amount.” I got some hemming and hawing and referred to talk to someone else, but it wasn’t a “no way,” and it was respectful. They have some reasons. I have some reasons. All I want to do is meet at a good spot in the middle. I think — I hope — we’ve got a good chance of making that happen.

Money can’t buy happiness, but it can make you awfully comfortable while you’re being miserable — Clare Boothe Luce

Meanwhile the sort-of-kind-of good cop/bad cop routine (in which both players at the school — dean and department chair — are playing both roles) amused me.

I have some more questions to ask about this whole deal. But that’s how this works. You ask questions, you get answers, you ask more. You negotiate. You revisit and refine for a little while.

And one more small victory.

I had a student come by today to do some linear algebra. Over spring break! This is one I sought to put the fear of god into last week on Thursday, and apparently I succeeded. A low score was obtained on an exam. A high score was obtained on a homework. Dr. Jinx wonders how this happened and called a bunch of students in to demonstrate that they do, in fact, know how to do a homework problem. Several succeeded. This one did not. Bad juju. I gave him a zero on the homework problem, and the lecture about how if you put the time into understanding the material, the exam scores would follow right along with it.

I don’t like being the bad cop, but I’m betting that at the end of the semester, having come to terms with this material, this young man is going to be happier with himself than if he scraped by or had to drop out. There is something immensely satisfying about conquering a demon that’s scaring you. I think he can do it. We worked on linear independence and linearly independent functions. He knew more when he left than when he arrived. Success.

I hope I can do what I need to do too. I can walk around the world one step at a time. Watch me.

Be Your Own Hero

I returned exams on Tuesday. Wednesday brought a steady stream of discouraged visitors to discuss performance in the class and on the exam. “This class is abstract, and I’m not comfortable with abstraction.” “This class is difficult.” “I just can’t seem to get it, and I am working so hard.”

What do I say? Sometimes I want to ask, “Well, why haven’t I seen you in office hours before now? Now that you are here, how about you open your book and start working on some linear algebra?” In reality, I find myself saying, “Yes, the class is abstract, but one of the most powerful tools in the toolbox is the power of abstraction. You have to learn to think of matrices as mathematical objects, and vectors as mathematical objects that have rules for manipulation that we can follow, rather than visualizing a rectangle of numbers or a magnitude and direction in 3-space. If you aren’t getting this, something needs to change.” I can make a list for you (and sometimes I do), the top of it is put serious effort into doing and understanding the homework as it is assigned (which has been mentioned many times so far this semester), but you, Dear Student, have to be the one to carry out the actions and the plan.

I am both amazed and not amazed at how few have their books open before talking to me about their grade, and how many leave immediately after, never opening up that book to take advantage of the time and opportunity to work some of the linear algebra that is causing the difficulty.

Thursday I decided to bring the topic of discouragement up in class as an opening activity. What would you say to someone who is discouraged, specifically a classmate who feels that the material is abstract and hard and arbitrary and meaningless? Or someone who is just discouraged about something in general?

What did they come up with?

  1. Keep trying, don’t stop.
  2. Hope is needed for hard work.
  3. Forgive yourself and get to work.
  4. Pray.
  5. Take a step back. Take baby steps forward. Figure out what you know and go from there.
  6. There’s always a solution and always people willing to help you out.
  7. Spring break is coming!
  8. You are not alone, find support from others.

Two and three and five and six and eight, those are some good profound thoughts.

I admitted that this was on my mind for personal reasons as well. I am dealing with discouragement and frustration, though not with regards to our class or my teaching. I contributed some wisdom from what I’m currently reading, Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart. She advises us to

Lean in to your discomfort, and learn from it.

That is what I am trying to do with my situation. And it is hard. But with abstraction and confusion, that’s where you’ve got to go to make sense. Lean in to your discomfort.

What surprises me most about this discussion is the impact. I find it mentioned in notes written on the back of the quiz we took Thursday. In emails from students received over the weekend. One that included a link to this video, passed on to her by her father, full of wisdom and a change of perspective:

Does it make a difference to talk about it, to waste valuable class time on something other than math? I hope so. Especially since that quiz had some disappointing results, indicating we need to buckle down and figure this out. I know it’s tough to learn this stuff, to learn how to think differently. But that’s our job here, this semester.

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.


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.

You are enough

Dear Student,

You almost walked out on a Team Exercise today because you weren’t prepared, and you didn’t want to freeload. I admire that, but I asked you to stay and to learn, because the point of the Team Exercise isn’t the grade; it’s to help the members of the team to better understand the lesson.

At some point we will all walk in unprepared, and have to ask our team to help us out. That’s why some of the hard stuff is Team Stuff, rather than individual. Because I think that having you work together will cause more learning than if I just preach it at you.

I still felt terrible because you did today. And I questioned myself and what I was doing.

I talked to you for while late this afternoon, and there are other things going on in your life. This class isn’t easy for you, and logistics lately have been difficult. I get the feeling there are other things too. You apologized to me, but no apology is necessary. This is my job. I am here to try to help you learn. I know that other things get in the way. I know how they get in the way. I’ve lived that. I just wish you knew it too. You are worthy of being here. Worthy of my effort. Worthy of the help from your team. Worthy of being taken seriously. Worthy of help. Maybe worthy of better than I am capable of giving you.

I know that you are the type of person who wants to be the one to help others. If another came to you unprepared, or unable to get something, or struggling, you’d be proud to be the person to help them out. You’d treat all their problems with loving kindness. That loving kindness that you’d so easily give to someone else is the loving kindness I want you to give yourself right now.

Just hang in there. Just keep trying. And seeing the high level of frustration and pain I saw in your face today, just in case, I want to say: if there comes a point where you realize or decide that this is not for you, I want you to know that is okay too. You are still worthy and worthwhile. Sometimes it feels like we are deep in a dark tunnel with no way to climb out. And I can’t even tell you how to get out, except that you have to just keep at it.

I didn’t have the exact right words to say to you. I can only hope that the ones I had were enough to plant this idea, for it to grow and blossom later. You are enough. Just as you are. Deserving of respect and love and help. If you can’t trust yourself to judge that, I hope you can trust me.


Dr. Jinx

Radical Compassion and Preparing for Class

In the Sunday paper, I read a bit in an advice column about dealing with difficult and unpleasant people. Instead of getting angry, frustrated, complaining, or trying to change them, practice radical compassion. What kind of a life must this individual have to exhibit these behaviors? You don’t have to like the person. You don’t have to agree with the behavior. And you don’t have to stand around taking abuse. Just remind yourself of what the other would have to go through, daily, in order for the unpleasant and difficult behavior to seem like the best option. Then see if you do not find it easier to deal with them in a healthy constructive manner.

That said, there are still a few people around that are above my pay grade. I can apply this principle and deal better, but boy … I would still rather not deal with them at all.


The semester started today, and officially starts for me tomorrow. I audited a graduate level statistics class on Advanced Stochastic Processes today (I bet I could scare someone with those words alone!), and the rest of the day was spent scrambling to prepare my own materials. I am teaching Linear Algebra this semester. I’ve decided to try an experiment in Team Based Learning, where I split the class into 7 teams (45 students so 6-7 students per team) and have them do some work together, some work in teams, and peer evaluate each other. I carefully wrote the syllabus so that if I find that I can’t hold this plan together, the 10% of the grade that would go to team, individual, and peer-review activities instead gets thrown onto homework, or the activity part of the grade gets reduced and homework gets increased.

The first team activity will be a think/pair (team)/share that has each team address a different topic, and hopefully will help the team members get to know each other.

  1. What does it mean to be fully present, whether this is in class, or with a friend, or simply by yourself? How can being fully present help you with with your coursework and grades? How can being fully present help you with making friends and with your relationships?
  2. What are the characteristics of your favorite challenging classes or team activities? How did liking the class or activity influence your actions and attitude?
  3. What are the characteristics of a least favorite class? How did disliking this class influence your actions and attitude?
  4. How do you think that I (the instructor) am a ffected by a class I really enjoy or really dislike?
  5. What are the characteristics of a good teacher? Make a list of actions and attitudes and rank these by importance. (Side comment: they will be giving me standards for performance of my job. These should correspond well to the characteristics of favorite challenging classes and team activities.)
  6. What are the characteristics of a good student? Make a list of actions and attitudes and rank these by importance. (Here they give themselves the standards for performance of their job. These should correlate with behavior in an enjoyed class or activity.)
  7. Identify 5-10 things it is important for you to know about the class from the syllabus or that you have questions about; rank these by importance. (Because so rarely do students actually read the darn syllabus that it takes so much time to put together.)

If we get good answers to those questions, I think we’ll all know what we need to do for the rest of the semester.

I do have some mathematics prepped for tomorrow too!

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.

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.