Do I really want to go hiking in freezing rain?

Freezing rain was expected today. I didn’t sleep well last night. It would have been so easy to text one of my hiking buddies, saying I’m not feeling well.

I got out the door. I picked up the fellow hikers from my town. The drive was cold and wet, and I wondered what I was getting into at the rest stop when it was cold and rainy, and I retreated into the car to warm up again.

Then we arrived and it was not raining, not in the Frenchman’s Coulee (a coulee is a ravine, this one near the Columbia river). I found a geocache. We hiked up a wall of the ravine, onto the rib, and it starts to snow, big, fluffly flakes, and I find a second geocache.

Hiking up the rim, looking down into the coulee.

Hiking up the rim, looking down into the coulee.

Despite my worries, I am warm enough in my rain pants and long undies. We hike the rib, come back down to the road, return to our cars, then drive and hike out to the water fall, where I get to find a third geocache. Good hunting today!

View down to the snowy road from the rib trail.

View down to the snowy road from the rib trail.

The waterfall.

The waterfall.

On the way home, I get a driving lesson for inclement weather, continued as we took an alternate route through freezing rain and slush to pick up a missing cell phone. I should be more confident driving in wintry conditions after this.

Sometimes I don’t want to be bothered, and I think something will be uncomfortable, or maybe not that fun, but on the flip side, if I don’t go try new things I don’t get to see new things.

I’m glad I got myself out the door this morning.

Last Week

It is the beginning of the last week before I move. Monday July 28 is moving day.

It is a bizarrely cool morning here for July, nice to sit outside with a small sweater on.

This has never been a perfect house or yard, something has always been asking for my attention. Maybe all houses are like that. But it has been a pretty house, and often a pretty yard, and I am grateful for my years here.

We had a party on Friday from my math colleagues, and a picnic Monday from my bicycling colleagues. I have been very loved by many people. In ways I have undoubtedly not appreciated. I am grateful, very grateful for that.

I am grateful to have found a missing part of myself in teaching. Grateful to the colleagues who helped me get started. Grateful to those who supported my efforts and told me I was doing a good job. It’s been a journey, and it isn’t done yet.

I am grateful for my colleague with whom I am researching. I still feel like a baby researcher, unsure of myself or my worth. Thank you for your trust and belief in me, and willingness to work with me and help me find my feet. After many situations and experiences which haven’t fit, I am grateful to be here, scared of screwing up, but using my lessons from before to try to do a better job.

I am sorry to leave this place, sorry to leave this section of my life. I know there is a new section ahead of me, and many adventures to have, but walking into the unknown is hard for me. Being lonely is hard for me. It will take time to make new friends and feel like I am secure in a new start.

I am grateful my colleagues there are planning a warm welcome — they will help me move in. That’s amazing. Thank you.

Now I need to get to some packing and sorting for today. After all, I only have about a week left.

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.

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.


Even after being up in the middle of last night, today was better. I fell back asleep around 5:30 am, and I didn’t get up until well past 8.

I went in to campus late.

I got done with the minimum I needed to do.

I had a massage. Those really do help. Really do help.

I had a phone interview. I cut it short when they said a typical faculty member was expected to teach 4 courses, with three different preparations and produce 2 papers every 5 years in order to expect to get tenure. Seriously? No thanks. I’m not interested in the position.

I heard a hilarious story about more of our departmental mismanagement. I need to hear the rest of this story.

I mailed a letter to my Dad that I decorated and wrote while I was awake last night.

I told friends about the pending tenure track offer. I informed my department chair so that he would have ample time to consider what kind of a counter offer the department wants to make.

I talked to one of my mentors about negotiating the actual offer. This will probably happen on Monday.

And we’ll see what happens next.

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.

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


One of my students last semester told me he was working 50 hours a week to support himself and go to school. Adding 13 hours of coursework on to that, which means an ideal 39 hours of homework, I calculated he would be working 92 hours a week. Plus transportation to and from. Which is a life without relief or rest or relaxation. It is nothing but work and work and work and sleep. There are some people that can handle that, but productivity studies snort at that. All it does is wear you out.

I did the math with him and told him most people can’t handle that pace. Can you find a better job, or make do on fewer hours?

My student indicated his parents weren’t helping with college expenses. I can smell a story in things like that. I’m from a dysfunctional family that was threatening to cut me off while I was in college. Family crap is hard to take, and he sounded like he had a truckload full.

Now I’m a busybody and a meddler, but there are boundaries that you have to really watch with current students. I kept a weather eye on that one, considering my next move. I thought about asking him (and an adult male friend/colleague who is also dedicated to the well-being of our local college students) out to lunch sometime over the holidays, but I bailed on that idea at seeing some lack of effort reflected in the grades in my class. Maybe that was unfair considering the pressures he was under. I have a principle to hold back a little until I see the effort going in.

But, he showed up in my office earlier this spring semester. I extended the invitation to lunch. I brought my friend along, someone comfortable with uncomfortable truths, who also comes from a background of dysfunction. I allowed myself to pry a little.

Fair is fair, if you are going to pry, you better give the other person a way out, and agree that they can ask you to answer first. My friend and I answered first. Then we got a long story that I am sure wasn’t even the half of it.

It is amazing the things that 15, 16, 19 year-olds have dumped on them by their parents. We know there’s nothing we can do to fix it, but we try our best to provide this one with two functioning (if imperfect) adults who are willing to help watch his back and who are willing to receive that phone call when things are tough. “There’s a lot we can’t solve, but one thing we can do is make sure you get a warm meal and someone to listen.” And if there are bigger problems that seem overwhelming, we’d like you to call us rather than taking on the world alone. Every young person needs an older adult person at their back to help navigate. Every young person needs an older adult person who thinks they are worthy and worthwhile.

That was one part of my work today. Probably the most important part. I can look back at my past, and I can’t help the younger me-that-was. I can help this one. This is how we make peace with our past and all the darkness we’ve gone through. You can’t pay yourself back for those times. You can only pay it forward to some one else, and let those you help do the same.

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!

Look for Love

When I write in my journal about what I want, a constant recurring sentence is that I want to be loved.

Those who know me know that I’ve never found that relationship, I was married once in my early 20s, a mistake, and I haven’t repeated it again since. There have been men in my life, but they come and go, while the coming can be delightful, the going is always painful. Then you pick yourself up and keep moving forward.

I’m 44 years old now, and the dream of having a happy family is fading … faded … away, and it crosses my mind at times, even if I met that partner now, what good would it do? I would like to be loved. But the rest of what I wanted is out of reach. Could I accept the gift this partner would bring with grace, given the difficult feelings I have about what I lost? Except that I never lost it, I just never found it.

Thinking about it is difficult. Where were you when I needed you so badly? That’s completely unfair, and I know it, but yes, that crosses my mind.

But some days, I remember to look around and if I open my eyes and my heart simultaneously, I can see all the ways that love is present in my life.

First of all, you do not control who gives love to you. The only thing you control is what love you give to others. Are you giving to others the things you would want to find?

I think of a weekend spent going over an NSF proposal for a graduate fellowship with my research student, sticking close to the computer, reading drafts and commenting. Telling him, always, and forever, win or lose, how glad I am to have had him in my life for this wild ride we’ve been on. And that is love.

I think of my colleagues and friends, and all the amazing things they do. I try to recognize and honor those things, and let them know when I see them doing something wonderful. Because you can’t observe those things from the inside, you need someone to show you from the outside. And that is love.

I think of a difficult colleague (one whom I’d honestly rather avoid), and a talk I had with him at the beginning of the fall semester. My thought process, “I’m just going to treat you like you are a normal human being who can understand what I’m about to tell you and correct your own behavior.” (I doubt it, to be honest, but you have to give people a chance.) Even though I don’t think that is going to have the result I might desire, that, too was love.

I always think of my students, because on a day-to-day basis I spend more time thinking about how to present lessons to them and all the little extras I bring to class. It is so hard to know what sticks, but you hope that some of it matters, and you hope that some of it gives them strength when they need it. Just keep trying. Do the work in front of you. Try to get started for just 15 minutes. You are my awesome hard-working honors class. And that is love.


That last is one where I have received some feedback. I asked my students to write an optional one page (300-500 word) letter to me reflecting on the semester and telling me what they learned. It is worth 10 points to be averaged in with the rest of the final exam score. Here is an excerpt of one favorite response:

I kept preaching to myself what you have been saying all along, “I am an Honors student. I can do anything.”, and eventually series became less of an apprehensive topic and transitioned into a new puzzle for me to fit into place.

This class proved to be a real difficulty. I am taking 17 credit hours this semester, and I did not anticipate my Honors math class to be the most challenging. The course really pushed me in my intellect – discouraging at times, yet satisfying at others. My favorite memory of this semester was your positive words of advice. It may seem cliché, but I needed a role model this semester to constantly tell me “I can do anything.”, and without you being aware of this, you helped me in many more ways than just in math.

And that, too, is love.

More on this later.