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.

Bruised all over

I think the title says it all about how I feel about last week and its meetings. I feel like I was mugged and beaten, and the signs should show all over my body. In reality, all the damage is to the soul, all invisible, except for those who look closely.

I know I’ll heal. I knew this might hurt. I knew I might get nowhere. This feels like nowhere. Or marginal progress towards anywhere.

So what happened? First, I hope I don’t have to justify to anyone here why I involved the faculty ombudsperson. After all the misunderstandings I’ve had with the department over my job duties, when it appears that now we have a new one, I went to her and asked her to attend the meetings with me. This was, I think, a good thing overall. Documentation!

One conversation I needed to have was with the Principal Investigator (PI) of the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grant. I am the co-Principal Investigator. I always thought that made me co-responsible for the program. I’ve got a lot of good qualifications and successes with undergraduates and research, and it was logical that’s why I was asked to be involved with the program.

I’ve heard third hand reports of a meeting the PI had with the department chair discussing my position with the REU and credit I should get for the position. Some of what I heard did not match with my understanding. It’s not fair to just get angry. You have to ask the other person their side.

Perhaps he was offended that the ombudsperson was there. Perhaps I offended him. I don’t know. But when I told him I was hearing stories about this conversation and wanted to know what was going on directly from him, he replied with a hostile, “That was a private conversation and I will not discuss it.” Private my ass when I’ve heard about it third hand. But that was certainly a conversation stopper, or hook, and I was hooked and off balance from it.

Things didn’t improve from there. The conversation felt hostile to me. The ombudsperson felt that the PI was apathetic and ambivalent about the REU, rather than hostile. In the course of the conversation, I discovered my duties during the year consisted of nothing more than

  1. Assembling the applications from students.
  2. Sending out acceptance and rejection letters.
  3. Arranging dormitory accommodations for the students.
  4. Sending them an informational email about College Station and TAMU.
  5. Arranging a get-together every other week in the program with lunch.
  6. Arranging for them to give their final presentations.

I was flabbergasted. I confirmed that list more than once to make sure I got that down correctly.

I’ve been doing a hell of a lot more than that. No wonder we want to devalue my contribution if this is all the contribution that is expected. I made sure to clarify that in his mind my performance would be considered excellent — by him — if I did nothing more than that. Yes.

I asked about all of the other expectations that have been placed on me, usually in the form of statements of what my predecessor in the position did. I got dressed down for not, until now, formally requesting a list of expected duties. No, instead I asked, “What needs to be done?” I asked, “How can I help?” I asked, “What is expected here?”

Let’s notice something else about this list. This list is entirely secretarial. And presented to a woman Ph.D. — the only such involved with the program — who has a solid track record in mentoring undergraduate students in research. How insulting can you get?

The last issue I will discuss is whether I was asked to bring a research project into the program last summer. I recall that I asked what needs to be done to find research problems for our group. I was told some came from the PI and his collaborators, but that my predecessor usually brought statistics related projects in and mentored those. This set me up for the expectation that I should do this too, and I busted my ass to make it happen. I mentored two students solo. I was informed by the PI that I had done this voluntarily, for my own professional development. I am sure I commented that I thought it would be good for my professional development to try to do this, but that’s not where I recall us starting from.

The fact is, that I felt obligated to figure out how to get this done, and at a fairly high cost to myself, I did.

It has done me good in the long run, but ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

I walked out of that meeting, back to my office, asked the ombudsperson to please shut the door. I buried my head in my hands, and I started sobbing.

I had less than 20 minutes to pull myself together and get to my next meeting, with the department chair, who seemed rather unconcerned about my report of this previous meeting.

This is still bothering me. Greatly. I have a meeting with all the REU mentors on Monday and I am trying to figure out how to handle it.

With my head held high, and with professionalism. Obviously. But I’d rather hide in my closet.

It was hard to sit there and listen to someone devalue me professionally like that. Especially after the incident this past spring. When I know I’ve been trying my guts out to help, to do what’s right, to do it well. And when I realize I’ve not been given resources my predecessor had to get the job done. I did do it well. I did a fantastic job. Then to find out the job requirements are so minimal and different from what I thought I was supposed to do, and all that other stuff is considered “volunteer work”. I know I was asking good questions. I know I didn’t go into this with a cautious, document everything, legal mindset. I trusted that we all had a common goal we were working for.

Common goals aside, apparently it is more important to put a lecturer in her place than to make sure this program runs well. I’m disappointed in the PI. Disappointed in the department. And disappointed that my internal radar didn’t give me warning that I was dealing with people who are untrustworthy.

This is yet another reason why I don’t want to stay at Texas A&M. Dammit, you idiots. I have done so much for you. Is it too much to ask that you value me accordingly? Good luck finding my replacement.


Some of you may already know that I put my credentials out on the tenure-track job market. Oh, not the Tier 1 Research University market — that’s definitely not my thing. I applied at liberal arts schools and master’s granting institutions where teaching is clearly highly valued.

My ideal position would give me breathing room to do both teaching and research/scholarship. Let me do my thing teaching. Let me explore some ideas. Let me not be so overburdened that I am working every weekend and always freaking out.

I wasn’t even sure I was tenure-track material. All those positions that required research statements. S-C-A-R-Y. I’d seen one of the graduate students’ research statements, and something like that wasn’t coming out of me. So I worked on the things I knew how to do. The CV. The teaching statement. So grateful to the advice I got on those.

But the research statement. What I’ve gotten into I’ve gotten into through my teaching. Undergraduate research projects. I do undertake some collaborative projects, but that’s where they come from. There are some more papers on teaching that I’d like to write. I had one (now accepted) under review at the time. Could that possibly be good enough? I went out and searched the internet and I found Dr. Karen’s Rules of the Research Statement. One page long? That doesn’t sound so scary. I didn’t think I could get even my simple ideas in to one page. She said short. Maybe two pages. And give an overview. I can do that. The simple mathematical biology projects I work on, and my ideas for things I’d like to write got all put together. It ended up going onto a third page with the citations, but there it was. A research statement.

I am so grateful for the mentoring I got; I was surprised to hear from that senior colleague that she thought I’d be competitive at the good liberal arts schools.

Soon (days) after getting my first applications complete, I got my first request for a Skype (phone) interview. It’s been about a month and a half since I first put myself out there. I’ve done three Skype interviews. I have two more coming. Today I got invited for two site visits. Whoa.

I’m excited and scared and intimidated and eager and afraid and mind blown! What am I going to talk about at the general audience 45-minute science talk where I can’t use calculus? How am I going to find time to prepare the talks and classes I’m going to have to do while interviewing? Who will teach my classes while I am gone? How to bring this up with the departmental administration that got me mad enough to apply elsewhere in the first place? Will I be able to negotiate a good starting salary; because I am not in a fresh out of school or fresh out of a postdoc position; I’ve got more behind me than that. After my last promotion I’m doing okay salary-wise where I am (not that I couldn’t do better).

But some of that is tomorrow’s problem. Here I am. Success. Now we make the best of the next step and keep moving forward.

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.


I have a prize student. Some insane luck brought us together. I got assigned to teach a class no one else wanted to teach and decided to make the best of it. He happened to be in the class that first semester when I didn’t know what on earth it was I should be doing. Since I didn’t know what I should have them do, I threatened to make them do two final projects unless they came up with one of their own. I didn’t need threats on this one, to be honest, he had an idea for me. I remember looking at his project proposal, with the professional looking diagrams, and thinking, “Oh my gosh, look at this.”

Thus began a great run for both of us. I thought his work was pretty cool, so I asked him to submit it to the local journal of undergraduate research. He got that published. He made a video for my class that blew my mind, so I had him enter that in another contest. Won that one too.

I saw an advertisement for the undergraduate thesis program. He seemed interested in doing more with his project, so I asked him to apply. He did. Got in. Wrote an undergraduate thesis, and was named runner up for outstanding STEM thesis. He got the nomination for the Goldwater Scholarship and picked that up ($7500!) He went to MathFest this past summer, and walked away with another $150 award.

Now, my student is amazing, but the #1 reason he’s won all this stuff is that he’s had things he wanted to do, and when he was encouraged to apply for things he went out and did it, bringing all of his diligence and conscientiousness into play.

My job has been to stand behind him and cheer, see the opportunities, and apply the professorial push when needed.

He’s the nominee for the Marshall Scholarship, which is one of the 2 year fellowships to do graduate study in the UK. I was proud of that. Today I found out he’s also going to be the nominee for the Churchill Scholarship, which is similar to the Marshall, and maybe slightly better known. Why? Because the original nominee wasn’t working on the application materials, and he was.

So, lesson: Apply. And when you apply, be conscientious about it. Do the work in front of you. I don’t know if he’ll win either scholarship, but in my mind, he just improved his odds. And by doing nothing more than keeping on top of the things he needed to do.

I hope he knows how proud of him I am. Watching all this evolve is more than I ever thought I’d get to see as a teacher. I’m going to miss him when he graduates. What a ride, what a ride! these last 2 years have been.