What’s your biggest academic or professional moment? by Houssein El Turkey

During our research retreats, my research group, Creativity Research Group (CRG), uses our lunch/dinner breaks to get personal. To facilitate our discussions in a fun relaxed way, we have often used the New York Times article “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love” and similar questionnaires. During our most recent retreat we asked each other: “What’s your biggest academic or professional achievement/moment?”

As I did not go first, I had a minute or so to run through my academic career to quickly reflect on which moment “sparked the most joy” in my life. Was it achieving one of the highest ranks in the high school exit exam in Lebanon? Was it achieving the highest GPA in my cohort for four consecutive years in my undergraduate studies that got me a full scholarship as a result? Was it being accepted and fully funded to the master’s program at the American University of Beirut, one of the most prestigious universities in the Middle East? Was it being accepted and fully funded to two Ph.D. programs in the US? Was it passing my qualifying exams, then general exams? Was it my first publication with my advisor? Was it defending my dissertation successfully?

It was none of the above. It might sound snobbish, but I don’t think I have struggled in the formal setting of schooling. I always had the motivation to study, do homework, put in the hours, and most importantly ask questions when I did not understand something. As a student, I asked my peers and faculty questions in the classroom, hallways, office hours, etc.  I did not mind spending time to problem solve and prove mathematical statements. These study habits made testing less of a struggle for me, but I still believe that forming a full understanding coming out of a class was my number one study habit.

I tried to never leave a class not understanding the big picture, even if it meant hijacking the class at times. As I come from an underprivileged, big farming family, I had made a promise (to myself) to always advocate for myself. Now, as I stand on the other side, I wonder if I was that obnoxious, selfish student who only cared about his own learning. Maybe at times I was, but I was also a peer instructor, at least informally.

Many of my peers used to copy my notes from class, my solutions to exam reviews, and ask me various questions on content. These instances and many similar situations have helped me to come to peace with my advocacy for myself. I do not view it as a selfish act anymore. In a way, I think advocating for myself was also advocating for others!

I sometimes wonder if my advocacy for myself has defined me as “rebellious.” For example, I would not tolerate “bad teaching” during my undergraduate studies. If you’re teaching Real Analysis by just reading theorems and proofs from the book, you got some heated commentary from me as your student. In Real Analysis, this actually developed into a protest activity where I led the whole class, except two students (Traitors!), to boycott the lecture and instead go to the chairperson. If your style of teaching is that problems can be done “MY way or NO way”, I probably protested by pointing out a different way of solving a problem. If your style of teaching was dismissive to questions, I stood up in class and demanded, “I’d like you to answer my question before moving on.”

I was fortunate to have only a few of those “bad teaching” experiences in my life. I am very grateful for having some of the most inspirational instructors, starting from elementary school up to my PhD. I am very grateful to have had an amazing Ph.D. advisor, Professor Jonathan Kujawa. I will always cherish his encouragement and support. Most importantly, I am indebted to Professor Nazih Nahlus who taught me during my time at the American University of Beirut. His advice and mentoring paved a path for me to pursue a Ph.D. program in Mathematics. Before chatting with him, I had never heard of a place called Oklahoma, but as he had done a postdoc there, he recommended it to me. I must say I am glad I followed his recommendation because my six years in Norman, OK were an absolutely a wonderful part of my life. I should mention that his deep interest and experience in Algebra has had a profound impact on my interest in the subject. Without his guidance, I would not have been where I am right now.

My experiences as a student have carried over to my current professional career. As a faculty member, I am now on the other side of mentoring students who have a keen interest in mathematics, and I try to emulate Professor Nahlus and be the voice that pushes my students to follow their dreams and aspirations. Additionally, as a program coordinator, I have gotten the chance to observe the teaching of my fellow faculty members. I still can’t tolerate the above teaching styles.

I have finally come to the conclusion that my advocacy for myself as a student has extended to an advocacy for ALL students. For instance, I now advocate for active-learning equitable practices in my classes and during department, college, and university meetings. I wonder sometimes if this advocacy gets me stamped with: “Houssein seems to be a difficult person to work/deal with.”

Maybe it does! Sometimes, I have struggled to communicate my ideas in the “best” (possibly Euro-centric) way.  Recent encounters have pushed me to reflect on the way I communicate. Am I phrasing my thoughts in a strong demanding voice? Do I use “I” too much (I’ve been told)? Am I too direct? Does my advocacy for my ideas come across as “rude”?

Maybe it does to some people! Reflecting on my struggle with the academic job market in 2014 gives me this impression. I had many phone, Skype, and even on-campus interviews. On paper, I still think I was highly qualified, but nothing panned out. In April, I was still searching for a job, and self-doubt had started to sink in. “What’s wrong with me?” is an inevitable response to rejection letters/emails. They have found someone else who was a better fit. A “better fit”? But I excelled at schooling, teaching, and research; that can’t be it. What is it? Now looking back at that time, I think my lack of success on the job market might have been more about communicating in a “certain” way, a skill that was not part of my training at that time.

It does take a few people to believe in your abilities to keep moving forward! On a Saturday, in late April of 2014, I was at a Lebanese festival in Norman, OK. My friends and I were about to perform our traditional line dance “Dabke” after having some delicious Falafel and Taboule. My phone rang with Area Code 203. I took the call; I could not hear properly, so I ran to a nearby parking lot. That was the day that I became a University of New Haven Charger!

Houssein El TurkeyDr. Houssein El Turkey is currently an associate professor of Mathematics at the University of New Haven. He is the Mathematics Coordinator at the University, a University Research Scholar, and a Faculty Fellow at their Center of Teaching Excellence. Before that, he completed his Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Oklahoma in 2014, where he studied Representation Theory of Lie Superalgebras.

After graduation, he developed a keen interest in qualitative and quantitative Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education (RUME). One of his main interests in this area is studying ways of fostering mathematical creativity in the undergraduate classroom. Since 2014, he has been a part of the multi-institutional Creativity Research Group studying mathematical creativity, which has secured an NSF-IUSE grant to explore connections between mathematical creativity and mathematical identity in the Calculus classroom. He co-authored several publications and presentations in RUME.

Outside of academics, he enjoys cooking Lebanese food and being on the tennis court.

Nahzih Nahlus

This short piece is dedicated to Professor Nazih Nahlus. His belief in me and mentorship have encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D. in Mathematics. His passing in 2018 was one of the saddest moments I have experienced, but he will always be remembered as my favorite mentor.

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