Mathematical Resilience

The MAA and AMS recently co-published “Living Proof: Stories of Resilience Along the Mathematical Journey” and the e-book is free to download here. The book was edited by Allison K. Henrich, a mathematician at Seattle University, Emille D. Lawrence, a mathematician at the University of San Francisco and editor-in-chief of the Math Mamas blog, Matthew A. Pons, a mathematician at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and David G. Taylor, a mathematician at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.

Each chapter is written by a different contributor. The chapters are organized into four sections “organized around common themes in the experiences. Part I is about math getting hard and people hitting a wall. Part II is about struggling to belong in math (and is particularly well aligned with the goals of this blog). Part III is about persevering through and overcoming difficulties. And Part IV is about the sometimes challenge of integrating our mathematical identities with the rest of our lives,” Brian Katz wrote for the inclusion/exclusion blog.

“As you read this, we hope that you will find some inspiration and common ground in these pages. We trust that there is at least one story here that you can connect with. For those stories that you cannot relate to, we hope that you will come to better appreciate the diversity of our mathematical community and the challenges that others have faced. We also hope that you will laugh with some of our authors as they recount some of the more absurd struggles they have faced. In the end, we hope that you are motivated to share your own stories as you learn more about the experiences of the people in your own mathematical lives,” the book’s editors wrote in the preface.

Some of the chapter authors are also math bloggers. Here are some highlights about a few of the chapters:

8: “Hitting the Wall” by Laura Taalman

“Math was easy for me, until suddenly it wasn’t. I suspect this is a transition that many people go through,” wrote Laura Taalman, who is a mathematician at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. In this chapter, she describes an honors calculus sequence that was a “real shock” to her, in which she “easily had to work ten times as hard as everyone else in the class.” Yet, Taalman wrote:

“Having to work so hard that semester and develop a thick skin for feeling stupid all the time in a math course really helped me in my career. I don’t think mathematics was ever ‘easy’’ for me again after I got to college; it was always a struggle…But at each step, it was a struggle that I loved working through. I didn’t mind being stuck and feeling dumb. I knew I could get through it if I kept plugging away. In today’s language, I would say that I was lucky to have formed a ‘growth mindset’’’about learning math—I was willing to work on hard problems to find success—rather than a ‘fixed mindset,’ where I judged myself harshly when I didn’t know something. To this day, I still benefit from this mindset, and I’ve basically made a career out of trying new things that I don’t know anything about. It’s in the process of making mistakes and figuring out how to make progress where the real fun begins.”

Taalman writes about “design, math, and failure” on her “Hacktastic” blog.

30: “A Close Call How a Near Failure Propelled Me to Succeed” by Terence Tao

Terence Tao wrote about how his lack of systematic study habits and habit of “improvising” his way through homework and exams, almost made him fail his “‘generals’ — the oral qualifying exams, often lasting over two hours, that one would take in front of three faculty members” in his graduate studies at Princeton University until he “was saved by a stroke of pure luck.” His original write-up about his generals is still available online here.

Tao is a mathematician at UCLA and on his blog, he shares “updates on my research and expository papers, discussion of open problems, and other maths-related topics.

27: “Just Don’t Bomb the GRE” by Amanda Ruiz

Amanda Ruiz wrote about her experience with studying for and taking the GRE. “Every time I opened that GRE study book, I felt like an impostor. It made me feel stupid. It didn’t value my kind of smart. So, I devalued it the same way it devalued me,” she wrote. She subsequently “bombed the GRE,” which put her dream school out of reach.

“If I had been at my ‘dream school,’ it is unlikely that I would have been able to continue to work towards my PhD or, at the very least, finish in a timely manner while caring for my daughter. If I had gone to my dream school, my career trajectory would look different, and I would not have allowed myself to start a family until after tenure, which would have been biologically too late for me. So maybe, in a weird way, bombing that GRE was exactly what needed to happen,” Ruiz wrote.

Ruiz, who is a mathematician at the University of San Diego, is also an editor of the Math Mamas blog.

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