The Secret Lives of Mathematicians: Conversations with Students

This keeps happening to me:

Student: When did you decide to become a calculus teacher?
Me: I didn’t, and I’m not.
Student: …

And then I laugh reassuringly and explain that they are at a research university and that their professors are people who decided they wanted to do research. Many of us do also enjoy and care about teaching, but the way the system works we are basically discouraged from caring too much about teaching. I tell them that the idea is that those doing cutting-edge research in a field are inherently valuable as mentors, role models, and educators simply because we might have the ideas, perseverance, and dedication to make it in academia. Of course, this is a highly flawed philosophy. (Some of this was discussed in Edray’s post which you should read if you haven’t already.)

My teaching/existing style includes a perhaps unusual amount of casual, informal, honest conversation. Without these conversations, many marginalized students would never come across various bits of information that turn out to be essential to making informed educational/career choices. At my school right now mathematics seems to be something of an unpopular major. I wonder how many potential mathematicians we lose just because they don’t even know what we do.

But like, I don’t wanna teach math

Last year I spent some time trying to understand why zero percent of my calculus students were math majors. At my school, students are supposed to declare a major of sorts right away, so it wasn’t just that these were new, unsure students. These were students who were happy enough with math to have made it to calc 3, but basically scrunched up their noses at the idea of actually majoring in math.

Almost my entire class when I suggested they major in math.

When asked, they basically all said something about jobs. If I had to sum up the mentality it would be “I just want to know I’ll have a job that’s not teaching math.”

I remember being similarly ignorant about what one would do with a mathematics degree. I entered college thinking I would major in math, because that was my best (i.e. easiest) subject. I wasn’t so concerned with employment (back in 1998 I thought getting a degree was basically enough and I would deal with the details later), nor were my friends as far as I could tell. At the first sign that math wasn’t easy, I dropped it (shout out to Carol Dweck), and only picked it up again when I realized I would have to figure out a job and my humanities degree was not making things any easier.

I remember having no understanding of the difference between graduate students, postdocs, and full professors. They were all my teachers, and teachers were people who had forsaken their own experiences in order to raise/train the next generation. Not for me!! When I decided to get a graduate degree in math, it was really just because I couldn’t afford to stay an extra year to finish the major as an undergrad. I had a(n embarrassing-to-me-now) job in mind. It was only in researching graduate programs in math that I discovered, Hey! There is such a thing as mathematical research! My professors have secret lives creating new knowledge! How come nobody told me??

If we told you, you’d have to become one of us.

Personally, I was really excited by the idea of doing research. (I still am, though much of the sheen has been rubbed off by negative experiences of Mathing While Black and Female.) And I wonder if I could have actually benefited from going to a research university, if I had understood that’s where I was. Or what if anyone had realized that I was taking Calc 3 and Linear Algebra out of high school and that I might mistakenly take my “low” grade as indicative of something more than just being new to college. They might have pointed out that math is vast and disliking one type of math is totally valid (though actually I didn’t dislike Linear Algebra, I just messed up at life).

Anything else?

Somehow most of my students are still not impressed at the prospect of doing research (why not??), but there are other jobs as well! Of course, I don’t really know what they are either, and at any rate, my memory of being a student is that a list of jobs is way too abstract and meaningless. People need narratives. They need knowledge to be in the air. They need to have met people with relatable stories. Are we providing them with these stories?

One thing I do tell them, somewhat reluctantly, is that we live in a society that has a messed up relationship with math and math education. I fight against the Genuis Myth, but the fact is that anyone associated with math gets an automatic boost in the eyes of others. “Oh, you were a math major? Wow, you must be so smart! I hated math.” Numbers are unavoidable in life, absolutely every industry has jobs for people who are not afraid of numbers. I tell them having a math major makes you special in a non-specialized way. It tells potential employers that you have magical powers and that your skills are flexible (unlike engineers, say, who learn how to solve specific problems in specific ways).

Honestly, I don’t know that I’ve convinced anyone. I think I get a few people to come to the dark side just because students are impressionable and believe it or not, I’m a super fun person in real life. At any rate, I think we as mathematicians need to work on our PR. We interact with students every day and yet all they know from us is algorithms, that we don’t like when they say one divided by zero equals infinity, and that they are probably nothing like us.

What do you tell your students?

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4 Responses to The Secret Lives of Mathematicians: Conversations with Students

  1. Amanda says:

    I tell my students about my own path…that I didn’t take math past my first year of undergrad, then didn’t come back to it until after I graduated with a degree in “Social Change and Social Control.” It helps some to realize that there is not just one way to get there, and quite frankly I’m glad I didn’t study math intensely at age 18-21, I needed other things, like to learn about life and justice and my role in this world. I am also glad I didn’t study math at UC Berkeley, where I did my undergraduate degree, because that level of competitiveness, would have turned me off of it for sure.

    On the other hand, all my mentors (shout out to my amazing mentors) were professors. And a big part of the reason I am in academia is because I didn’t feel like I had skills or access or knowledge of jobs outside of academia (or teaching in general). So how can I mentor my students otherwise? I still don’t really understand everything else that is out there. Are there jobs where math majors actually do math? Or are they jobs that like to hire mathematicians because of adjacent skills? Are there particular skills they need to be hirable? Are programming skills essential or negotiable?

    I have a proposal to solve that part of the problem. I think there should be a summer “internship” program for faculty to work at these companies that want to hire our math students. They pay us a professional salary, and we in turn can train and mentor our students with a better understanding of how mathematicians work outside of academia. If this was a thing, I’d be eager to sign up.

    Thanks for this post Piper, and for restarting this conversation.

  2. Barbara says:

    Both with students and with occasional meetings with schoolkids I say early and often that mathematics open many doors, by listing what my institution’s former PhD students ended up doing.

    About the “genius myth”: since we’re a soccer country, I say that only very few mathematicians are like Messi*, but to make the sport go on you still need teams to play in and teams to play against, coaches and supporters, down to third division players and kids who play in the park.

    *I would naturally say PelĂ©, but I’m no longer sure my students know who he is.

  3. David Pierce says:

    Thanks for raising the question of what our students know. As it happens, the students of my colleagues and me in Istanbul are already mathematics “majors,” since one enters a department in Turkey from the start, not just a university. Most of our students are women. Many of them may expect to be high school teachers or to work in industries like banking. Some want to be university “teachers,” without perhaps knowing the research side of the job. They may learn something about this from talking to us (we seem to be pretty accessible) or by attending (or just knowing about) the department’s weekly general seminar. Our students may learn something of the life of the mind also from hanging out with us and other mathematicians at the Nesin Mathematics Village, a wonderful place where I have given courses since 2008: it was written about in the Notices of the AMS, Volume 62, Number 6 (June/July 2015).

  4. Rosalie Belanger-Rioux says:

    Dear all,
    thanks Piper for your post, it’s essential for us to be thinking about these things. I wanted to inform readers of 2 great opportunities:
    – PIC math offers summer training for faculty who want to have more connections with industry and who might like to send their students to internships or to have them work on industry projects, etc
    – the BIG math network has lots of resources and blog posts (informational or narratives-based) for both faculty and students interested in Business, Industry and Government.
    I hope this helps!

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