Semi-annual visit

Twice a year I fly up to see my Dad. He’s in a nursing home not too far from where I grew up.

I’m lucky, I have friends in the area, so I can visit Dad and combine that with visiting people that I want to see. Part responsibility, part fun.

No matter what, visiting the nursing home is always hard. I haven’t been to a cheerful one yet. People in various degrees of disability and distress, unable to take care of themselves. Some, I am sure, are making the best of the life they have. Maybe some are very content and happy there, but I don’t see it.

Dad has been sleepy and fairly unresponsive this trip with one notable exception. Yesterday he greeted me with the question, “Are you wearing a bra?” “Yes, Dad,” pulling out the strap, “see?” “I can see your nipples,” was his reply. Today I made sure to wear a patterned shirt. Meanwhile my sense of comfort in my own clothing is diminished.

I have to admit, Dad did this before the dementia set in — or maybe the dementia was setting in long long ago. This is not the first time for the bra accusation. One of the worst was when the two of us were sitting in a crowded restaurant, and he burst out with a loud, “My, you have a lot of hair on your face.” Thanks, Dad.

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

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.


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.