Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Raise your hand if you were just rejected by the NSF! Fun times, right? I don’t know about you, but I like to celebrate such occasions with a full re-evaluation of all of my life choices. So of course, I am currently wondering whether I should stay in academic math. It’s a question I have been asked and I have asked myself way more often than my more successful or more white-male-type colleagues have (as far as I can tell). When you don’t fit in, whenever there is some sort of friction, suddenly you have to justify your continued presence.

I wasn’t always wondering if I should do math. In fact, I loved math and was comfortable being associated with math for my entire childhood. College was the first time I hit a set-back. I immediately quit math and moved on with my life. That is, until I un-quit and decided to go to graduate school. Ever since then, I have had two strong and conflicting feelings about being in math.

On the one hand, I love the idea of math. I love the idea of reducing concepts to symbols which can be manipulated to create new knowledge. I love the idea of finding structures in numbers and learning new things from them.

On the other hand, everything about trying to learn and do math, since I skipped those important foundational undergraduate years, has been filled with pain and misery. My difficulties stemmed from inexperience and missing knowledge. Learning abstract concepts goes best when you have analogous situations you’re comfortable with that you can use as reference; I was missing a lot of those. My misery, however, came from my new reliance on other people.

The gaps in my knowledge/experience have meant that to connect important dots I generally need to ask for help. In grad school, we were told that the best way to learn math was to talk to others. This has never worked for me. Every bad math conversation I’ve ever had turns into evidence that I should leave math. People tell me I shouldn’t feel that way, but that’s not how feelings work. You don’t tell feelings what to do. (Empathy tutorial: don’t tell people how to feel about their own experiences.)

Mathematics is social. Mathematics is cooperative. Mathematics does not happen in isolation. This has very real consequences for anyone who feels pushed out socially, even if they remain fond of the subject.

I attended a women’s workshop once that was billed as an Arizona Winter School or AIM type situation, but more supportive since there would be no men to talk over us and presume our incompetence. Great! For everyone else. As it turned out, I had a terrible time. As a black woman with an unusual educational trajectory, men aren’t the only ones who can make me feel unsafe.

I am going to talk about my experience with this workshop because I think it will be helpful, but please keep in mind I don’t have anything against anyone involved. I agree it probably is, generally, a better environment than other workshops. The organizers were great, and everyone in my group was friendly and supportive. None of that was enough, though, to save me from being miserable and walking out of my project. Talking about it recently, a friend started trying to give me advice about not caring what other people think. But when I remember being there, or when I think about the prospect of doing something similar, it’s not other people’s thoughts that bring me down. It’s this overwhelming sense that I shouldn’t even be there. That I don’t belong.

What does it feel like to not belong?

The February issue of the Notices (PDF) celebrates Black History Month and as Talithia Williams says in the Introduction, if there is a theme to the issue, it is the notion of belonging. In fact, “Belonging” is the very next article, written by Arlie O. Petters, which discusses the importance of belonging and how it is tied to successful learning. Petters highlights three components to a sense of belonging: feeling welcome/accepted/secure, being allowed to add value, and for math specifically, the belief that one can acquire mathematical ability through work.

I did not belong at the workshop.

I didn’t see myself in any of the other participants. Logically, I can recognize that the workshop was indeed diverse. Emotionally, though, it mattered that I was the only black American (or perhaps non-immigrant; I didn’t ask). Emotionally, it mattered that most of the diversity was a lighter shade of brown, and that the darker ones seemed to be from other countries. I could see and hear the diversity around me, but there was also a sort of privilege to the diversity that I could feel. When you are the unique person of a certain group, it tells you that your group is not welcome somewhere, and that to a certain extent, you are an unknown. Maybe I was welcome where I was, but I’m not welcome in the broader community, and that means I’m an outsider. It’s hard to feel truly accepted when you know the acceptance is a charity, a hope for the future, or a presumption of similarity, not the acceptance you can offer to someone you understand.

I didn’t see myself in any of the leaders. If anything, the leaders were more white/light than the participants. They oozed comfort and success and a certain je ne sais quoi which seemed to come directly from the absence of men. It is a privilege to feel at the top just because the men are gone. I didn’t interview anyone, of course, but the impression their demeanors gave off were too Lean In for my tastes. Too “the only thing that has ever held me back was patriarchy” for me to relate to. It’s hard to feel accepted when you feel you have to keep your thoughts to yourself. It’s hard to feel welcome when it seems that speaking your truth would shatter their worlds.

I didn’t see myself in my group. Everyone in my group seemed to have a grasp of something. Now, the pep-talk we were all given leading into our working time was that everyone of us has strengths and weaknesses, has things we know and things we don’t, and that we each bring something to the table. That appeared to be true about everyone in my group who wasn’t me. The leaders were able to answer questions about the set-up/background for our project. The other participants were able to find things within their comfort zone, so that even if they had confusion about the particular project, they could focus on a task they recognized from experience.

I brought to the table a fun mix of natural resilience and recently-acquired anxiety. And I don’t want to play the I Can’t Do Math crying game, but graduate school left me in desperate, desperate need of active mathematical/research mentorship. My coding skills are limited, I don’t know how to “search the literature,” and okay fine, I’ll say it, I don’t know how to “do math,” by which I mean after the premise is explained and everyone stops talking and now it’s time to “work on the problem,” precisely zero ideas spring to mind. Half of my brain starts offering me small talk: “That sure is some math you got there, sure is.” The other half of my brain is assessing the situation: “You are contributing nothing.”

One of the things that happens when you don’t belong is that your brain knows you aren’t safe and it starts scanning for threats. (This is also true for kids; children need to feel safe to learn, otherwise their brains will be occupied with self-preservation tactics.) For me, this feels like riding the elevator of emotional well-being. Every interaction or situation is some stranger getting on the elevator with me and pressing a button. There were some positive situations and interactions which brought the elevator up, but these were far outweighed by the number of times someone (accidentally) brought me just one floor down. I came in with a positive attitude, ready to feel comfortable in my ignorance. In our first meeting, I was upfront asking questions and participating. It was only after everyone else settled in and I found myself just gesturing meaningfully at the internet, that my well-being elevator started to drop. And the thing is, you can try to maintain a positive attitude. You can actively be aware of how supportive and nice people are. You can understand that you “deserve” to participate in the program. But when you already don’t belong, each time you ask a question and still don’t understand after it’s been seemingly thoroughly answered, it brings you down just a little bit. Every hour spent contributing nothing because somehow you failed to bring anything to the table, brings you down just a little bit. Oh, and of course, if you’re a woman of color, there’s the casually racist incident that brings you all the way to the basement at which point you figure, now’s my time to leave.

Several people told me they also felt like they didn’t belong, but they said it with no heaviness in their voice, and with no despair hidden in their eyes. (Empathy tutorial: don’t do this.) They said it and laughed and turned to chat with other people. They said they felt how I felt yet somehow they didn’t miss dinner to cry in bed. Somehow they didn’t quit their project on the last day. I wonder why they feel so compelled to share my language, but not my resolve to demand better. I wonder why they are willing to feel this way and willing to allow me to feel this way. What is that? Have we such limited imaginations?

\begin{Interlude}: Anything I say will be used against me
I want to pause this regularly-scheduled blog post for the following digression. I have committed myself to being honest with you. I stand by that, even though it comes with risks. I have made two risky claims here: 1) that my feelings have interfered with my productivity, and 2) that I don’t know how to do math. Now, in fact, the first point should not be risky at all. It is a real thing that potentially happens to all humans. The only reason this is risky is because of sexism (and racism, etc). The only reason this is risky is because many people out there think oppression only exists in the minds of the oppressed. I am not writing for people who don’t believe in sexism, racism, etc. The data is out there. Regarding the second claim, this is scarier for me. Even as some number of you are nodding and feeling like you relate, others will use this as proof that I am not a real mathematician. There’s nothing I can do about that. My experience is what it is, my feelings are what they are. I have decided that it is more important that I give voice to what it is like to be me in academia, than to try to pass myself as someone else and hope to be rewarded. I have decided that being myself is the only way I can hope to thrive. And it’s just a big open question as to whether academia can handle that.\end{Interlude}

I spoke with the organizers at the end of the workshop. They took notes. They are thinking about how to make things better next time around. But, to be honest, the tools at their disposal are limited. Really we need to all be asking ourselves how to make others feel like they belong. All of us need to be committed to reaching out to those we could easily be talking over. We should all be asking ourselves how we are showing marginalized people that they are accepted and safe. If someone is not obviously adding value, what can we do to show them that in fact they are? And if we don’t believe it ourselves, what can be changed so that they can contribute?

I didn’t belong at that workshop, and I don’t belong in academia.

Security in academia is not a thing for those of us without tenure. Can we feel accepted? Have you ever been a postdoc in a place that would clearly never hire you tenure track? Even as you have shown yourself to be an excellent colleague? Have you ever been a spousal hire? Have you ever spent an unusually long time on the market? We are required to contribute to knowledge by publishing results, but is our work valued? Are our personal contributions valued? When who you are as a person and mathematician doesn’t matter beyond what looks good on a CV, what does it even mean to be valued? I suppose we do believe mathematical ability could be acquired, but I was so desperate to get the NSF postdoc because I feel like I am not given the time and resources I need to get where I need to be in order to be accepted. And while we may theoretically believe in work over talent, I am not sure hiring practices reflect that.

I know I don’t belong in math academia because when I take the number of peer-reviewed publications I have and divide it by the number of years it’s been since I graduated, the number is less than one. I know I don’t belong in math because all of my meaningful contributions to the community have been non-mathematical in nature. I know I don’t belong because non-exceptional black women are nowhere to be found in math. (Logic interlude: I know there are no non-exceptional black women in math the same way I know there are no non-exceptional white women, native women, or trans women (etc) in math. I know it because I know (some of) what we have to go through to be here. Logically, this means I consider myself exceptional, but my unconventional route means I cannot prove to myself that this exceptionality is mathematical.) I know I don’t belong because the people who want me here, who see my value, who want my contributions, they want me to destroy academia as we know it. How could I possibly belong?

Where does that leave me?

The truth is some people decide that they belong even when all evidence says they’re not welcome. I’ve met them. They say annoying things to marginalized people like “I don’t need a role model to be someone who looks like me” and “I just work harder to prove myself.” For those of us who don’t belong, but want to stay anyway, we need to find people we relate to. We need to know that there are subcultures of math academia that make sense to us and share our values, even if they aren’t in our current institution. We need to find people we can work with that make us feel like we are contributing.

For those of you who operate more or less comfortably in academia, do more and do better. If you’re on social media, follow people who speak about issues that marginalized mathematicians might be dealing with. Pay attention to your language, what does it say about you? What does your language say to someone who is different from you? Is your language exclusive and off-putting? Do you use language that lets people know you value their point of view? (When someone talks about math, do you look for the inaccuracies and say “No,” or do you look for new ideas so you can say “Yes”?)

I need you to do better, because despite everything, I am trying to stay.

This entry was posted in mathematics experiences, minorities in math, participation, racism, sexism, women in math. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Should I Stay or Should I Go?

  1. Emilie says:

    Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Robin Wilson says:

    Thanks Piper. I can’t tell you how many times I have been at that workshop. I’ve known that I don’t belong since that incident with my classmates overhearing the professor mention the need for metal detectors for those thugs taking advanced math classes. At that moment it became clear not to leave my home world and enter the math world without putting on my heavy armor.

  3. M says:

    Thank you so much for this post and courage it certainly took to publish it. As a trans person in grad school for STEM, much of this resounded extremely strongly with me. All the best (and all the strength) as you continue on in academia.

  4. John Golden says:

    Brave writing, as I’ve come to expect from you in just these few posts. I’m sorry for your experiences, and they break my heart as I think about them multiplied by all those systematically excluded. Regardless of whether you stay in academia now, I think you’re a part of the system getting better. Good fortune and opportunities to you in whatever you tackle next. Though they are rare, I think, there are places in academia with broader ideas of scholarship that would welcome you, especially if you work on teaching the way it seems like you might.

  5. Sarah says:

    Thankyou. Best wishes. I really really value your point of view and your ideas.

  6. Estella Lauter says:

    Dear black women in Math, I am a 77-year-old white woman who experienced almost exactly the same feelings described here in graduate school, in the market, in applying for grants and in jobs until my early forties when I published a book with a university press. No one else can tell you whether or not to stay in academia, but I can say that women (and a few good men) working on behalf of other women made it possible for me to stay. I can also say that the problem with patriarchal attitudes is no small matter and in fields like Math and Computer Science, it is far from being solved. Misogyny and racial prejudice are closely related, and it is often difficult to tell them apart in practice. Both are devastating and both require organized responses. For this reason, women need all the programs we can fund, even if they are not perfectly geared to each participant. I can also say that once you find your place in academia, it offers meaningful work every day despite its imperfections. I am sorry that my generation was not able to make it easier for you to feel as if you belong in your profession! The problem was more stubborn than we realized. We have not given up.

  7. Anna says:

    Hi Piper,

    I never found anybody else who can eloquently describe my experience as an undergraduate mathematics major with haunting, reverberating words. Thank you so much.

    These layers barricading any lasting connections are cemented by language spoken by white, cis-men, that this impenetrable wall that can only be washed away by compassion and understanding. Unfortunately, the math community has yet understood those concepts, because they have always maintained this unspoken and unwelcoming culture, knee-deep in a history that looks down on people not like them. It is odd…many of the white cis-male mathematicians I’ve met have the assumption that everyone is entitled to their curiosity and opinions, that working hard reaps benefits…Yet, they never speak of it. And look at them! Screaming and hissing at those who “attack” their assumptions, their culture. For a world with its head deep in 2018, the math community has only sunken their feet in 1930.

    I want to be honest. I want to think that I can delve into math, and talk comfortably about math with other people without having suicidal tendencies. But the more honest I am with myself, the further it feels like I should disappear from this sickening community. Like you, I keep questioning and questioning if I do belong. It hurts. It’s suffocating.

    Again, thank you. I keep my head up, believing that I can belong, but it seems like the more I believe I belong, the further separated I am from every other budding mathematics student.

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