A new AMS blog — Living Proof: Stories of Resilience Along the Mathematical Journey — was recently launched. It follows the publication of the book by the same name (jointly published by the AMS and MAA). The book, which was edited by Allison K. Henrich, Emille D. Lawrence, Matthew A. Pons, and David G. Taylor, tells the stories of 41 mathematicians. It’s available as a free e-book download here.
Henrich is the editor of the new blog and Pons is the co-editor. (They are also joined by associate editors Jen Bowen, Susan Crook, Chawne Kimber and Anisah Nu’Man.) In an interview conducted over email, I asked Henrich and Pons some additional questions about the book and their plans for the new blog. (The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Rachel Crowell: For folks who might be unfamiliar with the Living Proof project, can you please share in a few sentences what you would like for them to know about it?
Allison Henrich and Matthew Pons: Living Proof is about sharing our stories—the good, the bad, and everything in between. We hope that people will find comfort in reading about others who have had experiences similar to their own. Our aim is for Living Proof to help our community to become more open and accepting by recognizing, on the one hand, struggles that are common across the community and, on the other hand, long-standing biases the community has had that have disadvantaged mathematicians with different backgrounds. We also hope the stories in the blog point the math community to places where we need to focus energy to eliminate those biases.
RC: Since Living Proof: Stories of Resilience Along the Mathematical Journey was published earlier this year, what kind of feedback have you received about it?
AH and MP: We have received incredibly positive feedback. Many folks in the community have voiced their support for us, the editors, and those authors who contributed to the book. Several people have wondered why it took so long for a project like this to come about. Students have told us in person and via email how much the stories have encouraged them or opened their eyes to situations they wouldn’t have imagined.
RC: How did you decide whose stories to include in the book?
AH and MP: We were pretty open here. We reached out to about 100 people and accepted most of the stories that were submitted to us. For most of the submissions, our editorial team worked with authors to fine-tune their writing in order to clarify what happened and what message they want to pass on to others. After submitting a partial draft to the MAA and AMS, we discovered the need for a bit more diversity in several areas. So, we sent out a second round of invitations to a smaller, targeted group of people. In general, we tried not to exclude any piece unless it really didn’t fit with the goals of the project.
RC: Can you tell me a little bit about your vision for the blog?
AH and MP: The main goal of the blog is to continue sharing stories. The book contains 41 stories, which cannot possibly represent the variety of experiences out there. For instance, we just had our first anonymous post by someone who struggled with alcoholism and severe depression on the tenure track. The story is quite different from anything in the book, but a valuable one for people to read—especially those in our community who might be silently struggling with similar issues of addiction, substance abuse, or depression that involves suicidal ideation.
Another goal behind sharing more stories is that more themes will begin to emerge. A single story about imposter syndrome has limited impact, while 20 stories that all involve people struggling with self-doubt can help others realize just how common the phenomenon is.
We have also talked about having posts that synthesize themes in several stories. In addition, we are excited to have posts about how people are using Living Proof in their classes or with advisees.
RC: What are some of the things you hope readers will be able to take away from the blog?
AH and MP: The takeaways are essentially the same as mentioned above for the book. We want the conversations about how to address struggles and build resilience to continue. We want to shine a light on the places where folks don’t want light shone. We want to acknowledge and appreciate the path that each of us has to walk and work to make it a little smoother for the next few generations.
RC: If you could share three pieces of advice with math students (especially those from underrepresented groups) who are overwhelmed and feeling uncertain about whether there is a place for them in math, what three things would you pick?
AH and MP:
- Whatever you are feeling or struggling with, it is highly likely that someone else who has had a very successful career has been there. And even though you might not be able to talk to them or read their story (although, our hope is that you can!), at the very least you can find some comfort in the fact that you aren’t the first one experiencing this particular struggle.
- Find mentors. Find professors, colleagues, and friends who can listen to you when you need to be heard, who can advocate for you when you need someone to speak to others on your behalf, and can give you advice when you’re not sure about how to navigate a situation. Tell them what you are struggling with. Ask them questions.
- Your self-worth is not defined by how well you did on a math test or what you got on the math GRE. It is not defined by what others tell you about yourself. If you are struggling with learning math, that does not mean that you are stupid or a failure. If you got an A in your math class, that does not mean that you are a genius. The more we can decouple our self-worth from our performance and accolades, the more resilient we can be to challenges and the less likely we’ll be to develop egos that will push others away from us. (For more on these ideas, see Francis Su’s story in the book and the story by Anonymous in the blog from November 2019.)
RC: Are you open to folks contacting you if they’re interested in contributing their stories for the blog? If so, what is the best way for them to get in touch? Are there any guidelines they should keep in mind about the types of stories you’re looking for, beyond the general theme of resilience along the mathematical journey?
AH and MP: We are absolutely interested in folks contacting us. We are pretty open about what types of stories we are looking for. People are welcome to contact us to discuss ideas before they start writing if that works best, or they can write something, send it to us, and we can get back to them with general feedback before an official acceptance/editorial process begins. Folks can feel free to reach out by email to Allison Henrich (firstname.lastname@example.org), Matthew Pons (email@example.com), or any of the other members of our editorial team (Jen Bowen, Susan Crook, Chawne Kimber, and Anisah Nu’Man).