Why passing my oral examination felt like a failure, by AJ Stewart

Thump, thump, thump, thump,…. Is that my heart? Why am I so nervous? I shouldn’t be nervous. It’s just a question. Come on, AJ. You know the answer. What is it? I know I know this. Why can’t I come up with something? Just say anything. Say something.  

The voice of one of the professors on my committee shook me out of my anxiety.

“I think we should move on.” 

I turned away from the chalkboard and saw four emotionless faces distributed throughout the room. I was about 45 minutes into my oral examination. It only got worse from there.

Often, part of finishing a Ph.D. program involves an oral examination. This oral exam is conducted outside of any class structure and is usually the last formal examination of graduate school. Professors ask the graduate student questions from their research area, which the student must answer in the moment. My oral exam was my chance to prove to myself that I belonged. To get rid of the nagging sense that I didn’t measure up. It wasn’t about my mathematical knowledge. It was about my identity. My very existence.

I had clung to my mathematical ability as the thing that would give me everything. It was the thing. The only thing. It was how I would raise myself up. And without it… well, I didn’t want to think about that. I never felt confident. Of course, if you were in a class with me, you wouldn’t doubt my confidence. I was always working, always answering questions, always looking ahead. But this never came from a stable place. It was a sign of my insecurity. I felt like a fraud. And rather than slip into the background, I made sure everyone knew I was smart. Deep down though, I had a doubt. Was I a mathematician?

It was no longer just an exam. It was a trial. I would be judged, and my committee would determine the truth. Was I just a conman from Florida who had sweet-talked his way out of the swamp and into the ivory tower? Or was I a talented researcher? When I stepped up to that chalkboard, it felt like a matter of life and death.

It started off fine. I was setting up the assumptions for the most recent paper that my advisor and I were working on. I needed to define Witt vectors as well as some of the canonical maps used in their construction. But when I was asked to describe what I meant by “lifting” an element from Z/p^{n-1}Z to Z/p^{n}Z, my mind went blank. If someone had asked me the same question the day before, I would have scoffed. But in that moment, I froze.

“I think we should move on.” 

This was the beginning of a series of questions that made it clear that the committee didn’t care what I knew but was more interested in what I didn’t know. I knew about line bundles of projective space over complex numbers but faltered in the characteristic p case. I could state the Riemann-Roch Theorem and use it in various applications, but I couldn’t complete a proof of it. Most of my answers were interrupted with other questions that either expanded or deepened the solution I was presenting.

It was a miserable experience. I said “I don’t know” more times than I could count. I felt like a failure. All of those hidden feelings of insecurity overwhelmed me. When I left the room to let the committee deliberate, I was despondent.

After five minutes, the committee came out, and my advisor said, “Congratulations!” I had passed. It didn’t feel like a success though. The minute they all left, I went back into the room, curled up on the ground, and cried. I just cried for about an hour.

Was I a mathematician? The voice in my head said, “No.”

My committee was doing their job.  They were there to measure my mathematical ability. But they never asked about any of the other skills that were integral to my mathematical identity: how I connect with students, find interesting applications of mathematics, support my colleagues, or lift the spirits of first year graduate students.

To them, these things weren’t part of being a mathematician, and therefore were absent from the assessment. Their system of measurement was based on their knowledge, their identities, their values, and their world view. In order to succeed, in order to measure up, I needed to be one of them. But I wasn’t. I’m not. I never will be. I don’t want to be.

When I look back on the experience of my oral exam, I realize that I was measuring myself against people. People that accomplished great things. People that I idolized. But people that also supported my own toxic behavior. I didn’t know how to both be myself and be a mathematician. I thought that these two things were mutually exclusive.

I was wrong.

Everyone can be a mathematician. One’s identity and mathematics are not mutually exclusive. People all over the world dance and play music. When they dance, they are dancers. When they play music, they are musicians. Why should we limit the title “mathematician” to only those privileged few that suffer for their knowledge? I felt like a failure after my oral exam because I didn’t live up to standards. It has taken me a long time to realize that it was the standards that failed, not me.

I think we should move on.

Mathematics has spent too long defining strict boundaries–demanding that people live up to some set of standards to be called a mathematician. Mathematical expression is more than just a written formula. It’s an action, a feeling, a part of humanity. Math is for everyone, just like music or dance. When a person finds a creative way to solve a problem or can explain a complex idea simply, they are a mathematician. And if you feel like I felt during my oral exam, like a failure or like you don’t belong, know that you are a mathematician, in the best sense of the word.

:-DAJ Stewart was born and raised in Florida, where he spent a lot of his time fishing, snorkeling, and catching reptiles. His childhood was hectic, and he never felt school was important. After barely graduating high school, he spent years cooking in restaurants until he finally decided to attend the local community college. He excelled in math and left Florida for California where he got his B.A. in mathematics from Humboldt State University. After completing his undergraduate degree, he moved to Oregon and got his Ph.D. from University of Oregon with a focus on algebraic geometry, birational geometry, and Hodge theory. His current research is in nonlinear algebra, applied algebraic geometry, algebraic statistics, and data science. He hopes to focus more of his future research on quantitative justice. He is currently an instructor at Seattle University (which was his first job after Ph.D.) but will be moving to Washington D.C. in Fall of 2021 to work in Congress as the 2021-22 AMS Congressional Fellow.



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Leaving is an Option, by Jen Townsend

Living Proof has wonderfully highlighted that most burgeoning mathematicians encounter (and persevere through) self-doubt, setbacks, and failures. These stories illustrate how you can make a place in mathematics.

My story is about how self-doubt and a key failure pushed me to leave my PhD program. How even though my priorities had shifted away from research math, this was a decision I struggled with and felt like a failure over. How I’m grateful I made that choice, and how even though you can make your place in mathematics, it’s really okay if you ultimately decide that you don’t want to. I’ll also remind you that it’s possible to find a fulfilling math-y career (or non-math-y career!) without going the PhD -> Postdoc -> Professor route.


After falling in love with the distilled intellectual challenge of mathematics as an undergraduate, I ignored the advice of a favorite professor who warned me “if you want to make it through grad school in mathematics, don’t take time off beforehand” and spent a year working in a low-level software job. At the time, I thought she was warning me about forgetting content. Later, I realized that by taking a year off from academia, my priorities had started to shift.

Early in grad school, I realized the “pure exploration of knowledge for knowledge’s sake” which I’d previously admired now felt selfish and unmotivating. I’d come to enjoy working on tractable problems driven by concrete issues, where I’d implement solutions quickly usable by others outside my narrow field.

Math also seemed harder and lonelier than I remembered–partly rosy retrospection and partly because I’d relied on great teachers to help me build intuition and see the big picture. In grad school, the professors were less focused on quality teaching, and I struggled to follow lectures and fill in holes–never quite gaining the deeper understanding necessary to draw connections and apply techniques as quickly or ingeniously as I wanted.

Between research and studies, I also questioned whether the effort and frequent self-doubt were worth it. My year away from math revealed there were jobs that I would find satisfying, that would also pay decently, and–best of all–where I wouldn’t feel like an imposter. Was it worth putting myself through 4+ more years of self-doubt? And even if I emerged on the other side, would I get the jobs I wanted? Even if I landed my “dream” job, would I be forever trying to prove to myself that I was good enough for math?

And was I undervaluing the joy and impact I could have teaching lower-level mathematics or finding a different career?

I started investing in teaching (because it brought me joy), taking statistics classes (a field I’d ignored in undergrad and realized the value of during my year in industry), and quietly revised my schedule so that at the end of 2 years I’d complete a master’s degree, in case I decided to leave. I felt ashamed and guilty that I was even considering leaving without seeing the PhD through. It felt like a betrayal of the professors, family, and peers that had invested and believed in me. It also felt like a betrayal of self: like I was admitting I might not be good enough.

In the second year, I failed my qualifying exams (subject matter tests you must pass to move forward with your PhD). I wasn’t alone; others failed too, and they soon started studying to retake the exams. But for me, the failure felt like a nail in a coffin: validation that in order to get my PhD and succeed in the career it led to, I’d constantly struggle, constantly confront failure, and constantly need to prove myself. I no longer thought a PhD would make me happier or vastly change the type of work I wanted to do, but for a time, I planned to stick it out just to prove that I could (and avoid disappointment or judgement from others).

After a lot of reflection, I (mostly) accepted that I could fail to get my PhD and not be a failure. I started applying to jobs that didn’t require a PhD at various community colleges and in industry. I told myself that if I got an offer, I’d leave with my master’s… and that’s exactly what happened.

Life after leaving

I’ve known others that leave math for wonderfully diverse fields. I instead landed pretty close to my envisioned career: for seven years I taught mathematics at a two-year degree-granting institution, Bellevue College. In this time, I got tenure, served as department chair, developed and taught a wide range of classes (from pre-algebra to linear algebra, discrete math, and statistical modeling), and I worked alongside fantastic colleagues. It was fulfilling work with students for whom my teaching could make a real difference: first generation college students; people who’d never “got” math before; returning students balancing studies, career, and children; brilliant minds; and yes, even the occasional aspiring math major. I didn’t need a PhD to teach cool math and inspire students. I even got to live a dream I thought died with my PhD. I led undergraduate research by piggybacking on grants with nearby research institutions (and via informal reading/research groups when I didn’t have grants).

About a year ago, I left Bellevue College (the second hardest decision in my life) to start work as a senior data scientist at Microsoft. My new job has some room for statistics research, but all grounded in problems that can directly improve products and end-user experience. My colleagues are incredible people, many of whom earned their PhDs and chose industry over academia. We promise you: there’s a life beyond ivory towers.

Though persevering in mathematics can lead to a fulfilling career, quitting a program (or mathematics overall) can too. Ultimately, failure can be a thing to overcome, or it can be a catalyst to make a change you’re otherwise hesitant to make. I questioned, I failed, I chose to quit–and I have never regretted that choice.

Staying in math is a valid choice, but if you are feeling shame about considering a different path, remember:

  • You are not alone in questioning whether you want to continue in mathematics. In fact, when I started talking about my doubts and frustrations, I found that most of my peers shared them to one extent or another.
  • Math has highs and lows; setbacks are common in studies, research, and job hunting. Failures are ok. It’s also ok to leave after a failure: failure can be a good catalyst to pursue action that you’ve been debating for a while.
  • No career choice is exactly as you envision it. Speak to math professionals about what their honest day-to-day job looks like. How frequently do they work nights and/or weekends? What takes up most of their time? Are there aspects of their work which are invisible to an outsider? In the end, the work might appeal to you more (or less) than you expect. Speak to people in other careers and ask the same thing. Sometimes the day-to-day work matters more than your passion for the subject matter.
  • Most of the elements that spark joy from mathematics are available in careers that don’t require a PhD: problem solving in computer science, data science, public policy and more; teaching at high school or community college. Smart and interesting people are everywhere if you know how to look (though no community is quite like the math community).
  • It’s not too late to change careers, whether you are an undergrad, a grad student, a postdoc, or further along in your career. Your analytic skills are valuable, especially if you invest in supplementary skills that let you apply them to different fields. Statistics and coding are the obvious choices and provide access to a number of careers.
  • It’s (obviously) much easier to change directions if you have the skills and a path into your new field. It’s also easier to find a new job if you are currently employed or in school. Unless your situation is toxic, invest in building skills and find an opportunity while in the relative safety of your current position.
  • It can be really hard to ignore what you believe others will think of you. Remember that they don’t live with the decisions you make for the rest of their lives–only you do. And see point #1: most of them understand your motivations. Heck! Some will even be jealous of your decision!

Jennifer TownsendJen Townsend (happily not PhD) is a recovered mathematician, a former and future community college math professor, and a person who is currently finding her way as a data scientist. She attended Scripps College (with visits to the Summer Math Program, SMALL REU and Budapest Semesters in Mathematics), and she entered the ACO PhD program at Georgia Tech before mastering her fears and mastering out. After seven years of teaching at Bellevue College, she now works as a senior data scientist on the Experimentation Platform team at Microsoft.

Jen is happiest on day three of a backpacking trip; mile 15 of a bike ride; while curled up under her cat, reading a book and whenever she effectively communicates a difficult topic in an inspiring way.


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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chaos, by Robin Blankenship

In the beginning, I had a favorite professor. The early morning class was undergraduate Number Theory, and I often found myself sitting outside the room taking notes through the window, too embarrassed to enter late. I visited his office every week to talk about the math I was learning to stay ahead of the class and became genuinely obsessed with Number Theory. Before, I was just simply good at mathematics. Now, people would kick me in the grocery store line because I would be so deeply involved in thought that I would forget where I was. I was in love with math like I had never been before.

He told me, “Robin, I see how you think, and I want you to know that you think like a graph theorist. Promise me that you will take Graph Theory at your earliest opportunity in graduate school.” Of course, I promised immediately and enthusiastically. This professor gave me great advice on many occasions, much of which I have passed along to my own students, and I eventually did study Topological Graph Theory for my PhD.

But first, I decided to attend a university for a master’s degree. Having never written a big paper, I needed a step to prepare for a “big school in a big city.” To my surprise, despite graph theory being on the books, they had not actually offered it in recent years. Unable to fulfill my promise, I fell back on my first love. My first graduate course in Number Theory was as inspiring as my undergraduate experience. I asked the professor to be my advisor, and he agreed. Excitedly, I took the armful of papers that he gave me to begin exploring the possibilities.

The next few months were full of growing sadness and dismay. I couldn’t read those articles. It was like they were written in a different language. I was too proud and embarrassed to admit that I didn’t have a clue about how to do anything with what I had been given. I grieved alone. I kicked myself over my failure to make any progress whatsoever, and I could not bring myself to admit it to this kind and caring professor.

My spirit utterly broken, one fateful night I gathered the stack of number theory articles into my arms and headed to the 3rd floor stairwell. At 1:00am, the halls were dimly lit and my steps echoed off the walls. I was weeping uncontrollably, and tears rolled down my face to fall on the papers that I clutched in my arms. Frustrated and angry at myself, I threw that stack of papers down that stairwell with all the gusto and fury that I could muster. The papers most beautifully spread in the air and fluttered about, landing on almost every step from the 3rd floor to the 1st floor in a lovely spiral pattern—except for a small stack that landed on the bottom floor with a most satisfying “thud.”

That was when I heard a voice from below, “Robin, is that you?” Startled, having assumed I was completely alone, I jumped back.  I wiped the tears off my face and peeked over the railing. “It is you!” Oh, this professor was in just the right place at just the right time. He did not ask me to explain, but he began picking up the papers while talking soothingly, and he said he would deliver the papers to my Number Theory professor himself. I began to help, and soon all of them were whisked out of sight into his bag.

He presented me with a 3.5” floppy disk containing programs written in BASIC performing iterations on Lorenz difference equations and Henon maps. He suggested I investigate changing parameters to see what happens. We would go on to determine breaking points when the equations would begin to exert chaotic behavior. I officially became a student of Chaos Theory, a fitting tribute to those papers cascading down that stairwell.

After much study, the day finally came for me to defend my thesis in public. I expected a small audience of friends and committee members. However, my advisor had new-fangled ideas about the technology that could be used for such a presentation, and I became the first student at my university to present using a multi-media platform, a precursor to PowerPoint. An hour before my talk was scheduled to begin, I left the department to have a snack and calm myself down in my clubhouse that I had built in the woods nearby. When I returned, there was a crowd of people standing outside the department looking through the windows. Curious as to what was going on, I walked up, peeked through the windows, and asked them what they were looking at. They informed me that somebody was about to give a presentation that had never been given before.  The room inside had every seat filled and people standing along the back and side walls.  It slowly dawned on me that they were talking about MY presentation. My heart skipped a beat, and I felt weak in the knees.

My advisor had one more trick up his sleeve. As I nervously began opening my slides with their buttons and hidden code to cross reference definitions and create animations, to my astonishment, the very first slide after the introduction was not one that I had created.  He had put a hilarious—to him at least—page saying, “It will all become clear soon!” I immediately felt panic. I knew that I had not completely fixed all my reference buttons to refer to page names instead of numbers, and that would mean that those clicks would take us to a page after the intended one. Oh no!  There was nothing to do but keep going and hope for the best. It turns out he went through the entire presentation just to make sure that wouldn’t happen, and the talk went smoothly. And that, my friends, is how I learned to stop worrying and love chaos!

Dr. Robin Blankenship has been an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Morehead State University in Kentucky since 2005.  Born and raised in the Appalachian Mountains, she obtained a B.S. in Math at East Tennessee State University. She went on to earn a M.A. in Math at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington followed by a Ph.D. in Topological Graph Theory at Louisiana State University-Baton Rouge. Following her PhD, she did post-doctoral work in Math Education at Appalachian State University where she ran the Math Mobile, delivering hands-on activities to grades 2-5 in addition to creating a variety of math and science camps.  Since then, she has written a play called “Last Fraction Hero” that has been performed to over 32,000 students. Dr. Blankenship also loves to work with undergraduate research students. When not doing math, she loves all things outdoors: camping, hiking, caving, swimming, kayaking, and going on improvisational adventures.


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Sometimes Failing Is Part of the Process, by Michael Bush

As I’d wager is true for many mathematicians, I was ‘good’ at math growing up.  From learning to add and subtract in elementary school all the way through AP Calculus, nothing but A grades. Though I earned my fair share of B’s (and even a few C’s) on assignments in my undergraduate math courses, I still had the idea that, overall, I was ‘good’ at math. Adjusting to grad school was a bumpy road, full of twists and turns, both in the classroom and out, but I managed to make it work. Or, at least, that is what I had told myself prior to the winter break of my first year. It was the Friday before spring semester started and, more importantly, the day of my first attempt at the Preliminary Exam for Real Analysis. As the phrase ‘first attempt’ implies, I failed the exam that day. To this day, I still remember going to get the test results from the Graduate Studies Director in my department; we had to get our test results in person, in their office — no finding out via a bulletin board posting with anonymous IDs or being notified over email. “On Vector Spaces, you did well. On Real Analysis, you did not do well.” The latter of those two matter-of-fact sentences felt like a devastating blow at the time. In some ways, it was devastating, as something that I held to be my identity was shattered; after all, if I was ‘good’ at mathematics, then I wouldn’t have failed an analysis exam.

Due to the fact that spring semester courses started just two days after the exam, I was already in the swing of things when I got the results, which was both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it meant that I couldn’t afford to dwell on the results once I got them because I had so much to focus on with coursework and TA duties, so I just pushed along somehow. On the other, it meant that I didn’t have any room to process what had happened immediately afterwards. In the following weeks and months, I did some periodic soul searching. Time and again, my introspection landed on the question of belonging and whether this was the place for me. Eventually, I started to ask others (both older grad students and professors) this question, and the answers that I got revealed a pattern that was surprising to me at the time. No matter how exceedingly smart or immensely determined a person seemed, they always had their own tales of when mathematics presented a challenge to them that seemed insurmountable or shifted the way that they viewed their connection to mathematics.

Following a dozen or so of these conversations, I learned a couple of lessons. The first was that there was a name for what I was feeling: imposter syndrome. The state of mind that one doesn’t belong in a position that they are in or that they somehow tricked the world into seeing them as something that they are not. Lesson number two was that imposter syndrome is perfectly normal to go through, especially after a major setback. And the third thing I learned was both the most important and hardest to swallow: sometimes in life you fail, and that failure is okay. Mistakes are great as they provide moments for us to grow and blossom as individuals; failing gives us a chance to look critically at our personal habits and approaches to math (and life in general).

By the time it got to the day of the retake, I had stopped asking if I was ‘good’ at mathematics because that was never really a question that needed to be asked (or answered). Instead, I asked myself if I enjoyed mathematics and wanted to continue studying it. Since the answer to both of those was a resounding yes, the next question I asked was what I needed to do in order to ensure that I could keep doing what I loved. This ultimately meant adopting completely different study habits and making passing that second attempt at the exam my number one priority. This shift in perspective led to me passing the real analysis preliminary exam and every other written and oral exam I had on the path to candidacy status in my PhD program.

Throughout my graduate studies, I took on several leadership roles, ranging from being a peer mentor to an officer in the student chapters of various professional societies within the math department to even being the president of the entire graduate student body at my university. Whether meeting one-on-one with a new mentee or giving a welcome address to hundreds of incoming graduate students at orientation day, I always make sure to leave off on this adage, “Success, both in life and in graduate school, isn’t about never getting knocked down. It’s about standing up one more time than the number of times you get knocked down and finding the strength to do so, both from within and from the community of learners and scholars, friends, and family around you.”

Michael Bush is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Delaware, where he has already earned an MS in Mathematics. For his bachelor’s, he attended The College of Wooster, where he double majored in Mathematics and Physics. He has been inspired and mentored by numerous mathematicians, including his current thesis advisor Constanze Liaw and his research advisors at Wooster, Jennifer Bowen and John Ramsay.  His previous work in physics was mentored by John Lindner and Cody Leary. Currently, his area of research lies in complex and functional analysis with applications to differential equations.

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How did it go? Reflections on teaching college math during a pandemic, by Allison Henrich and Matthew Pons




This is how math faculty were doing as they finished up their fall terms in one of the most challenging years that many people on this planet have ever endured. We asked several math professors to respond to a survey reflecting upon their teaching experiences and, more broadly, their experiences working in the middle of a pandemic. Twenty mathematicians responded. Here’s what we learned.

The most common challenge that more than half of our respondents acknowledged was the blurred lines between work and other aspects of life. Many of us are parents, working from home with our children and perhaps a partner who is also trying to fulfil the duties of a full time job. Others of us don’t have children or other family members to care for, and work expands to fill all of our time.

“My biggest challenge was making lecture videos with a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old playing in the background and interrupting me. To deal with this challenge, I went to the car to make videos, borrowed a colleague’s basement to make some videos, and timed making videos with my husband taking the kids to the park on weekends.” 

“My biggest challenge was having enough time to devote to my job while also having a toddler at home. The time I would usually commit to work changed dramatically and lessened quite a bit.” 

“The biggest challenge for me is work life balance. Being in a support role to so many people through such a stressful time takes its toll. Sometimes I feel like the giving tree.” 

Whether or not we have a full or an empty house, working from home means there are no natural boundaries that separate work from non-work. As a response, one casualty of these blurred lines is our self care.

“I built up my body up through healthy habits over the summer, and then I coped with the challenges this fall by slowly destroying it through numbing booze during the semester.” 

“The combination of teaching more than normal, trying to be as flexible as possible with students with regard to due dates, and no longer having separate “work” and “home” spaces has made it more difficult than normal to turn off “work mode” and focus on self care.” 

Another casualty is our scholarship.

“To manage the reduced hours available (and the increased time teaching online demanded), I had to step back entirely from research, which meant papers not written, promotion not applied for, projects not started or continued. I had no choice—there are simply not enough hours in the day when the kids are not in school. Though it’s really frustrating and depressing, I’m on the other side of tenure, so restarting everything once the kids are back in school is not as fraught with pressure and panic as it must be for my junior colleagues in the same time-stricken situation.” 

Survey respondents were also challenged by either having too many people around at home, or too few.

“Working from home for me means that I don’t leave the house much. It is lonely.” 

“My biggest challenge is social isolation of self, friends/family/colleagues, and students.” 

“My biggest challenge is living and working from home with a husband also working from home, two kids in remote school, two pre-school aged kids, and a baby. I don’t sleep and the house is a mess.” 

The dearth or wealth of housemates aside, people found it difficult to mentally juggle work and thoughts about the pandemic, politics, and social justice issues.

“My biggest challenges have been no child care, no breaks from working, and worrying about my health and my family’s health. I don’t have pre-existing conditions, but since I’ve had bronchitis/pneumonia at least four times, I don’t really want to experiment with getting Covid. Plus, my emotional response to national events has been a challenge. Sometimes I read the paper and want to vomit.” 

“I’m not well. Family politics plus terrible teaching conditions are heartbreaking.” 

“My biggest challenge has been my grief (and sometimes anger) at the foolishness of people in this country.”

“My biggest challenge has been staying sane while loved ones and students make questionable decisions to gather and ignore science.”

Working at home during a time of national and international turmoil creates a variety of challenges, but for math professors, teaching mathematics remotely poses its own special set of problems. Some people are teaching face-to-face, some online, and there are some who teach using both modalities, or need to be prepared to pivot from one to another mode of instruction at a moment’s notice.

“My biggest challenge is the uncertainty from day to day. How many students will be in class today and how many out due to quarantine or isolation? What if I or anyone in my family wakes up sick? Can I quickly pivot to online class?” 

“I tried to set up course formats that would allow me some leeway (and the students  who might get sick or quarantined). I recorded lectures, realizing that some things would just have to be flexible during this semester. Amazingly, some of my colleagues were shocked when students started getting sick and quarantined. Some of my classes got moved to e-learning and some streamed. I had to do *stuff* to get my school to let me teach online. Being forced to teach face-to-face would have been a disaster because my kids had a grand total of 6 days of face-to-face school this semester.” 

For those teaching in person, fear of getting sick and potentially passing on the coronavirus to a family member is a significant factor in their lack of well being.

“(I have) anxiety over getting sick or bringing this home to my husband and kids.”

Regardless of how people are delivering content to their students, teaching in a pandemic has required a major redesign of courses and learning new skills. In some cases, this has had some positive results.

“I am proud of my decisions to (a) remove nearly all timed assessments from my courses, (b) incorporate a feedback and revision process into all written homework assignments in my courses, and (c) implement standards-based grading for the first time in a course (despite the pandemic). I feel like this helped reduce some of the increased student anxiety this term and helped us shift our focus away from grades and towards learning.” 

“One silver lining is that all of the remote stuff has really forced my hand to adapt some new uses of technology.  I have a shared spreadsheet setup (using the “importrange” command) that allows me to share my homework grade book with students.  I will definitely use this again in the future!” 

“I am most proud of learning the new video technology, especially when I am teaching remotely to students in quarantine at the same time as teaching to the in-person students.  I also feel I am mastering the “art of the Chat”!  For example, the freshman engineers in Calculus who were hesitant to speak up in a Zoom classroom would answer questions readily in the Chat, and would post some really funny comments, too. The nonverbal banter was a delightful surprise!” 

A common complaint both about teaching in a remote setting or teaching in person with social distancing is that building community in a classroom and forming relationships with our students are incredibly difficult tasks.

“I’m relearning the basics of student-teacher interaction, as though I’m back in my first year. Video/Zoom/Email-based relationships are difficult for me, as I normally rely on the communal energy and subtle non-verbal language one receives (and gives) in a physical gathering.” 

“My university managed to stay in-person for the semester (masked and socially distanced, of course), so my biggest challenge in the classroom was the loss of group work for the in-person classes.  I love having students discuss the concepts and collaborate together, whether planned or spontaneous, and my classes felt empty without this communication.  The energy that comes from those interactions was gone, and I couldn’t read student’s facial expressions well when I was teaching, because of the masks.” 

“My biggest challenge has been student engagement during class. It’s hard to get students to talk during a normal semester sometimes but it’s even harder when 6 ft apart and in masks.” 

“My biggest challenge was the lack of energy that exists in all instructional formats. Remote teaching felt like a clinical means to an end, and in-person was stripped of a sense of warmth by the need for safety precautions and constant state of change and uncertainty.”

Some of us are also trying to chair departments during this pandemic. On top of teaching challenges, those of us who are also administrators lamented the lack of recognition of the massive amount of additional work and the added emotional strain that chairs face at this moment.

“Being a chair, I would like faculty to know that for as much as they are going through, their chairs have to go through the same and still must take on everyone’s issues and problems. If people could just say thank you for doing the job they didn’t sign up for, it would go a long way.” 

But there is more human connection for some during this time. Professors are reaching out to their students in ways that—for many—they never have before. Care for students has taken center stage.

“To help students who felt disconnected from and dispassionate about the class, I had flexible (almost 24/7) office hour availability, and encouraged students to reach out about class and non-class issues they may be having.” 

“I have been responding to student disengagement by reaching out to students who miss classes/assignments and offering sympathy, extensions, etc; using standards-based grading to get students to take ownership of their learning in key areas; and scheduling follow-up “oral make-up quizzes” on Zoom to force one-on-one discussions with struggling students who miss office hours and/or class.”

“I am proud of how I put the students first. I know that the leniency that I allowed in my classes was meaningful to them. I’m glad that I could offer them support in this really strange, stressful time.” 

This care for students is being felt. One of the most joyful experiences people have had this quarter is hearing their students’ appreciation.

“I’m most proud of the fact that the students responded positively in their end of the semester surveys (also known as “teaching evals” at some schools) and in their last emails to me. They clearly understood that I cared for them and saw me as an empathetic and supportive teacher.”

“I’m most proud when I receive emails of gratitude from students (more this semester than ever before) telling me how much they appreciated my effort and how they felt a part of the course, even when remote, or thanks for my patience with their individual needs. I told them on the first day of class that I would lead with patience and compassion, and I hope I was successful in doing so.” 

For many, it is challenging to find a silver lining. They just keep putting one metaphorical foot in front of the other. There’s something, though, about knowing that they’re not alone in their struggles. Sharing our challenges in teaching and in life right now is one of the best things we can do. One of our survey respondents said, “Completing surveys like this and talking to colleagues (especially at other schools) is therapeutic and helps me to feel like I’m not alone in this struggle.” 

You are not alone.

We would like to thank the following people for contributing to this blog post: Robert Allen, Jennifer Beineke, Heather Cook, Mike Diehl, Adam Giambrone, Katherine Heller, Emille Lawrence, Martin Montgomery, Emily Olson, Sara Quinn, Partick Rault, John Rock, Robert Rovetti, Anne Sinko, AJ Stewart, Sue VanHattum, Abigail Wacher, Marion Weedermann, Nancy Wrinkle


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Balancing the Love-Math Equation, by Anonymous

The different parts of a person’s life, such as family, friends, and careers, don’t exist in a vacuum. Disruptions in one area can have massive effects on another. For me, my personal life had almost catastrophic repercussions on my mathematics career.

When examining my romantic relationships from my early twenties, I find that I had often become the caretaker, filling the roles of girlfriend and mother to my boyfriends. And this was certainly the case with the partner I was with during the first couple years of my PhD. This person was brilliant, kind, and exciting, but also had a lot of deeply rooted issues that had me taking up a third role: therapist. At school, I would take classes, study, and teach. Then I would come home, work on homework, do all the cooking and cleaning, and help my partner work through whatever was affecting him that day.  Looking back on this experience, it is clear that this was an incredibly unhealthy and unbalanced relationship, but in the moment, I saw that the person I loved needed help, and so I helped. This “help” drained me, bit by bit.

Even though I was exhausted, I did well in my classes. At the end of my second year in grad school, it was time to take the qualifying exams for the PhD program. These exams were traditionally held at the end of the summer, which was great because I had three months to study for the exams. I worked hard and studied as much as I could, but when you’re emotionally drained, there is only so much you can learn. By the end of the summer, I knew a lot, but it wasn’t enough.

The emotional rollercoaster I experienced during the qualifying exams is something that can hardly be expressed. I went into the exams nervous but hopeful; I thought I might be able to scrape by. The second I saw the exams, my hope diminished, but all I could do was go for it. Walking out of the exams, I knew I had not passed, and the devastation was overwhelming.

Then came the waiting: the formal results were sent out a week after the exams. During this time, the hope returned. Maybe I did better than I thought, maybe I had scraped by after all. I hadn’t.

With the fall semester beginning, I had to push off the fear and doubt, and gear up for taking the exams again in the winter. During this time, the emotional load of taking care of myself, my studies, and my partner started to have more significant effects. I lost a considerable amount of weight; I found it difficult to complete my school work; I slipped into a depression. I remained in denial for months. I blamed school for my struggles, when in reality the most exhausting part of my day was when I got home.

A few weeks before my second (and final) attempt at the qualifying exams, I was staying with my parents for the holidays and I came out of my denial. I began the heartbreaking and arduous process of ending the toxic relationship with my partner. A friend helped me move into her spare room. Studying for the qualifying exams was practically impossible, but I still tried. My second attempt at the exams wasn’t any better than the first.

Despite the misery of my situation, the math department was incredibly supportive. I talked to the professors about my situation, and they allowed me one final attempt at qualifying exams the following summer. During the spring and summer, I was able to get back on track, focusing on my work and my own well-being. By the end of the summer, I was feeling confident and knowledgeable. The third time was definitely a charm for me, as I passed the exams with high scores.

I still carry the lessons from this experience with me. I have learned what to look for in healthy relationships and not to act as my partner’s mother or therapist. I have come to a place of balance between my personal life and my career, making sure I put my needs before the desires of others.

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Celebrating Women in Mathematics, by Denise Rangel Tracy and Oscar Vega

The Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) turns 50 next year, and in celebration a commemorative deck of cards has been created. Using one side of the cards, several different variations of a mathematical game called EvenQuads can be played. The other side of the deck features portraits and short biographies of 64 exceptional women mathematicians. This deck helps bring women mathematicians, both historical and modern, into the spotlight.

For many centuries, mathematics was a “boys club.” Women were not only not invited to participate in mathematical activities, but were actively discouraged from pursuing mathematics. Sofia Kovaleskaya had to fight against prejudice that closed the doors of universities to women in science. She ended up being the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics… less than 150 years ago. She went on to be the first woman to be appointed as a professor at a western university and had a successful career as a mathematician. Sophie Germain had to pretend she was a man to be taken seriously as a mathematician; she made great contributions to, for example, the advancement of the study of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Stories like these are not restricted to historical women.  In 2018, Lenore Blum resigned her Distinguished Professor position at Carnegie Mellon University after unsuccessfully fighting systemic sexism caused by changes in the management structure of the Carnegie Mellon Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, an organization she co-founded. Maryam Mirzakhani is probably one of the most famous modern-day women mathematicians. She grew up during a war, in a country that frequently infringes on women‘s basic rights, and yet earned one of the most prestigious awards in mathematics, the Fields medal.

Thousands of women have had to persevere through systemic prejudice, ill advice from mentors and teachers, and general bias against women’s abilities in mathematics and other sciences. While times have changed and some things have improved, there is still more to do. The EvenQuads deck highlights women who have led the way and made contributions to the mathematical community. Help make women mathematicians known to the world. Learn more about the project at


The Kickstarter campaign for the first EvenQuads deck (of four!) runs through November 18th.


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The Best and the Brightest, by Pamela Pierce

I almost ended my study of mathematics after my bachelor’s degree. I am now grateful for the series of circumstances and decisions that led me to graduate school in mathematics, and ultimately to a fulfilling career at a school that is a perfect fit for me. Knowing how happy I am now, it would have been a shame had I given up on this dream.

I fell in love with mathematics during my college years. I was fortunate to attend a top-rated liberal arts college and to take classes with professors who were truly gifted at their craft. I enjoyed my classes and worked hard, but I was not a straight ‘A’ student; perhaps I was a “late bloomer”. I finally took Linear Algebra as a junior, and discovered that I loved writing proofs. What’s more—my professor noticed my interest, he saw potential in me, and he encouraged me to continue asking questions. My confidence was at an all-time high.

I began to wonder if I would like to go to graduate school in mathematics. It sounded both terrifying and delightful at the same time. But would my B+ average in my major be enough to get me into graduate school? I wasn’t sure. I soon learned that the department offered the opportunity to write an honors thesis in mathematics. Surely, this was something that I should pursue, because it would help me to decide whether graduate school was for me. In order to write a thesis, I had to complete a qualifying exam in the spring of my junior year. The exam consisted of three parts. The first part tested one’s knowledge of the ‘core’ subjects: Calculus 1, 2, and 3, and Linear Algebra. Each student was then able to choose two additional subjects in which to be tested. I chose Real Analysis and Combinatorics, since I had recently completed those courses. This was the same exam that seniors faced in order to earn their degree in mathematics. Seniors were required to earn a ‘pass’ on all three parts of the exam. Juniors wanting to qualify to write a thesis would need to earn a ‘high pass’ on all parts of the exam. I would have two attempts at the exam.

Some of my friends pursuing other majors on campus did not have to ‘qualify’ in order to write a thesis. All they had to do was express an interest, and they could begin writing. To me, this was a further statement about the exclusivity of the field: mathematics is such a rigorous discipline that we must restrict access to the very top students. Students who undertook the challenge of a thesis would have a chance to graduate with Latin honors. I couldn’t care less about graduating with honors, but I very much wanted the experience of writing a thesis! So, I spent my winter break studying intensely in hopes of doing well on the exams.

Sadly, I was not able to earn the three scores of ‘high pass’ that were needed to qualify to write a thesis. I think I earned two grades of ‘high pass,’ and on one part of the exam I simply earned a ‘pass’. On my second attempt, it was the same thing, only a different part of the exam tripped me up. I was devastated. Couldn’t the faculty see my passion for mathematics? Didn’t that count for anything? At that point, I felt that I should abandon any hope of going to graduate school. I was not among the best and the brightest. I was not good enough. While the fall semester of my junior year had boosted my confidence, by the end of the year my confidence was gone.

I did my best to forget the exam experience and to just move forward and enjoy the rest of my mathematics major. My senior year, however, required that I spend some time thinking about what to do after college. I sought the advice of family, friends, and faculty. My family suggested that I pursue engineering because I could get a reliable and high-paying job, and a friend of mine suggested actuarial work because that was what he planned to do. All of these ideas sounded practical, but I knew deep inside that my passion was to continue studying theoretical mathematics. When I discussed the future with my Topology professor, he said that he thought that I would be a great teacher. Of course, he was suggesting that I teach high school. While this was intended as a compliment, it stung a little bit, because through his words I could hear that I was not good enough for teaching at the college level, which was my secret ambition. I didn’t share my secret ambition with anyone, for fear that someone would say the words directly to me: Graduate school in mathematics is for the best and the brightest. You haven’t proved yourself to be in this group.

I convinced myself that teaching high school would be fun, and I would still get to interact with mathematics. I entered a graduate program where I would be teaching at a public high school and earning an M.Ed. and teacher certification at the same time. While I enjoyed the teaching, I missed the challenging and fun math classes that had made me feel so invigorated in college. One day as I was lamenting this, I came to the realization that there was nothing stopping me from continuing my studies. Maybe I hadn’t been a straight ‘A’ student, and maybe I didn’t write an undergraduate thesis, but I was willing to work hard and I was passionate about mathematics. I mustered some confidence, sent in a few applications, and crossed my fingers. I was thrilled when I was admitted to graduate school with a teaching assistantship to help pay my way.

I was so happy to be back in the classroom—both as a student and as a teacher. Being able to teach all of the courses in the calculus sequence was awesome. It reinforced my knowledge of the subject and it gave me some useful experience which helped a lot when I was applying for jobs. In graduate school, I took my first and only course that was taught by a female professor, and it was wonderful. Who knows? I might have gone into abstract algebra if she had stayed around. Fortunately, there were other very supportive faculty around me, and I found a home working with a wonderful real analyst.

Of course, things got more challenging as I worked on a thesis and struggled to obtain results. I thought about quitting more than once, because it was so easy to get discouraged when the results weren’t coming quickly enough. It did not help to see three friends of mine—all women—leave the Ph.D. program before completing their degrees. By that point, however, I knew the exact career that I was after. I wanted to be a professor at a small college – I felt that I would be good at it, and that is what got me through the tough times in graduate school. I kept my eye on the prize.

The disappointment that I faced in my undergraduate years haunted me for way too long, but once I had a good job I was able to put it behind me and focus on my career. I can now say that not writing an undergraduate thesis was probably for the best. Perhaps I was not fully prepared for what it entailed. Perhaps I would have done a poor job and become even more discouraged. Or maybe I would have rocked it! I will never know. The experience definitely woke me up to the reality that there would be other challenges in the future—qualifying exams, a thesis defense, job interviews, a tenure decision. We are always being evaluated by others, and it is very difficult to get away from that. The key is to stay true to yourself and not worry too much about what others think of you. Unfortunately, most of us don’t come to this realization until we are more settled in our lives and careers.

I am proud of my resilience throughout all of the challenging times—especially when I viewed those exam results as a sign that I was not good enough for graduate school. I had to put aside my past failures and my concerns about how others viewed me, and just go after what I wanted. I knew that if I didn’t try for the Ph.D., I would always wonder about what might have been. Once I realized this, I knew that I couldn’t move forward along any other path if I was always dreaming of being a mathematics professor. There was nothing to do but to continue on my mathematical journey.

Historically, the doors to the field of mathematics have not been wide open to all, but I have hope that this attitude is changing. My experiences have taught me the following: as a teacher, my words mean so much to a young, impressionable student. My encouragement, or lack thereof, is visible to others. Moreover, noticing someone’s interest is as important as recognizing their talent and hard work. I hope to do my best to welcome my students into mathematics so that they can enjoy it as much as I do. While it is tempting to be “realistic” when they struggle in my classes, I hope to remember to not give up too easily in nurturing their passion for the field.

For the past 25 years, Pamela Pierce has been teaching at The College of Wooster, where every student writes a senior thesis. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Amherst College, her M.Ed. from the University of Massachusetts, and her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in mathematics from Syracuse University. She has been inspired by many of her mathematics professors, but especially by Dan Waterman, her thesis advisor at Syracuse. Pam works in the field of real analysis and is active in the Summer Symposium in Real Analysis, which she has hosted twice. In 2009, she won the Trevor Evans Award from the MAA, and she is currently serving on the editorial board of Math Horizons. In her spare time, Pam enjoys music, traveling, and swimming.

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Liverworts, Nuclear Waste, and Parenting: Unexpected Connections During Virtual Teaching, by Dominic Klyve

In March 2020, I received news that seemed at the time to be a once-in-a-lifetime jolt.  A jolt that, as I soon would recognize, struck almost every teacher on the planet.  My instruction, including my finely honed classroom management and my practiced camaraderie with my students, would be conducted only virtually for the foreseeable future.

Like many people reading this, I grieved, fumed, and then tried to begin adapting as quickly as possible.

Perhaps, I mused in my brighter moments, this new reality will come with new opportunities. For a brief second I let myself imagine the benefits technology could bring my classes. We could connect with experts across the country (or around the world!) about our topics. We could engage in lively asynchronous conversations in which no voice drowned out any other, and where all ideas could be heard.  The range of media from which we could draw in our studies might come to be worth more than the loss of in-person communication.

And then reality struck.

Teaching online was a lot of work, and I was prepared for none of it.  On top of that, my wife (also teaching online) and I joined the legion of parents trying to help our kids (ages 9 and 12) to complete their elementary and middle school curricula online. The visions of new opportunity faded, seemingly as quickly as they had appeared.

My university runs on a quarter system, and COVID-19 struck just before finals week of winter quarter, so by the time classes resumed, I had new groups of students (almost none of whom I had met in person) and new pressures seemingly daily. My classes weren’t as good, I knew, as they could have been, but they ran better than I feared in my darker moments. Nevertheless, the visions of new possibility stayed at bay, held back by the stresses of professional and parental reality.

But fate is an interesting thing, and connections are found in the most unexpected places.

One of my classes was a “History of Science” course for our Honors College. It’s a class I’ve taught many times, and I love it, in part for the large array of subjects we cover. The range means that however much I think I’ve prepared, at some points in the class I’ll come upon the limits of my knowledge.

So it was in week five of our quarter, during a class in which we were discussing the disposal of radioactive waste. The students, as always, had submitted questions and comments on reading online, and I answered the easier ones in our virtual class session before declaring that due to my own ignorance, I couldn’t answer the rest of their questions.

Then one of my students unmuted herself.

“Umm… that’s my mom’s job,” she said.  “I’m sure we could ask her if we had questions.”

I looked at her image, one small rectangle in a grid of student faces.  “Her job?”

“Yes.  She’s a project manager at <a local site dealing with nuclear waste>.”  (Details omitted for privacy reasons.)

I was fairly excited by this serendipitous turn of events, and asked my student to let her mom know that we’d be thrilled to hear about her experiences, should she ever want to share.

My student smiled in a helpful way.  “I’ll ask her.  I can’t ask her now, though.  She’s working from home, and she’s upstairs on a call.”

And then, less than 30 seconds later, she called out, “She just came into the kitchen….  Mom!!”

After a hurried consult, my student’s mother, very much in her kitchen, sat down at the screen, and led us on an impromptu and fascinating discussion about her work.  My other students chimed in with questions, and we all learned a lot.

After class, I was thrilled. Finally, after weeks of struggling with virtual teaching, we had had an experience better than that which would have been possible in a traditional class. A parent, no doubt struggling in many of the ways I was, had taken time to share her knowledge and wisdom, and she left us better for it.

I shared the interaction with anyone who would listen, and vowed to try to ensure this would not be our last such experience.

I’ll confess that no floodgates opened, and after this fortunate encounter many parts of our class stayed the same, but I did find myself more open to new possibilities.  I was still looking for my opening when a few weeks later we read about modern museums in Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, in a chapter in which the author highlighted scientists who studied bryophytes (mosses, liverworts, and other non-vascular plants to the rest of us).  The students were, on the whole, a bit surprised that a person could devote their professional life to the study of moss. In an attempt to demonstrate the range of ongoing research on the subject, I pulled up the websites of several journals devoted to bryology, and tried to summarize the work for my students.

When looking at the webpage of the Journal of Bryology, I noticed that two of the most recent articles were by the same person, a pleasant-seeming fellow (based on his webpage) named Des Callaghan, who works as a “consulting bryologist”.  I wondered idly aloud whether the students would like to meet this person with the most unlikely of professions, if it would be possible, and I received an immediate and enthusiastic affirmative.

Thus, buoyed by our impromptu discussion with the nuclear waste expert, I emailed Dr. Callaghan and explained that my students and I would love to meet him and to pick his brain. It turned out that he had been cut off from his fieldwork for the same reason that our class was meeting remotely and that he had time to spare – he may even have been pleased that strangers took an interest in his work – and he happily agreed to be our guest.

So it was that on June 1, 2020, the CWU History of Science class hosted Dr. Des Callaghan, consulting bryologist, as our guest. To my great pleasure (and relief), he was every bit as fascinating and interesting as his website led me to believe. He told us stories of discovering a new species in Madagascar and shared some of the pitfalls of his work. (To work in the field, it turns out, you have to accept that other people will think you’re crazy as you crawl around the ground with a magnifying glass. We also learned that dogs find this behavior exciting, thinking it an invitation to play, while horses are quite disquieted by humans moving in such a way!)

At least one student later described this day in class as the highlight of the term.  Certainly, I couldn’t have been more pleased. I’d like to think that whatever the future of teaching looks like, I’ve learned and started to embrace a new tool for my future classes.  And it wouldn’t have happened without a student’s mother being willing to step into a new role, and to start to bring the world a little closer together.

Dominic Klyve (KLEE-vee) is a Professor of Mathematics at Central Washington University. He is the author of more than 40 papers in number theory, the history of mathematics and science, and applied statistics. His interdisciplinary works have appeared in journals ranging from Gastrointestinal Endoscopy to Shakespeare Quarterly. Klyve has been nationally recognized for promoting the use of primary sources in the teaching of mathematics, and currently serves as a co-PI on a $1.5 Million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop classroom materials for this purpose.  He was a 2014 winner of the Mathematical Association of America’s Alder Award.

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The Takeaways, by Rachel Vale

One of my earliest memories of mathematics is the struggle I faced in second grade learning subtraction.  I understood the concept and what I was supposed to do but I continually struggled with speed tests and doing computations in front of my peers.  My parents had high expectations for me and would make me practice in the evenings, however, by no fault of their own, this practice quickly began to feel like punishment.  I even began having nightmares that kidnappers called “the Takeaways” were after me.

My struggles with math peaked again in fourth grade with long division.  I remember lying to my parents that I couldn’t see the board because I was not sure how to explain my inability to do well on division tests.  Around this time, my mother and several other adults in my life began to console me by sharing that they also were not good at math.  This was comforting to me because it validated my struggles and gave me an excuse to ignore this daunting subject.

For the next few years, I excelled in school, especially in science where I was deeply interested in biology.  I did fine in math classes, but my arithmetic skills were still quite weak, and I continued to rely on my self-identity as “not good at math.”

In my sophomore year of high school, I wanted to take honors science but, in order to do so, the schedule would require that I take honors math as well.  The honors math teacher, Mr. Burrill, was notoriously challenging and had high expectations for his students.  My first quarter in his course, I earned a C.  While I was ready to drop the course and go back to relying on my excuse of not having a “math brain”, Mr. Burrill would not let me quit.  In fact, he doubled down on helping me succeed.  He connected me with a tutor who worked with me on arithmetic and algebra facts.  He made explicit his requirements that every step be shown neatly and in detail and, as much as it felt like a chore to do, it helped me understand what I was doing.  In addition, he started giving me different homework problems from what he was giving the rest of the class.  Recognizing my strengths with logic, he would let me skip the traditional textbook problems if I could write a convincing proof of the quadratic formula, for example.  I began to enjoy math for the first time in my life and, better yet, I began to see myself as talented in math.  By the end of that course, I was earning high marks and I was excited by what I was learning.

For the rest of high school, I continued to enjoy studying mathematics and I even passed AP Calculus my senior year.  I remember reading Simon Singh’s book on Fermat’s Last Theorem that year and feeling awed that people do mathematics for a living.  Still, I harbored deep seated beliefs that my abilities in math were somehow weaker than that of my peers.  I decided that the only way I would know if I was good enough was to major in math in college.

I did well in my math courses in college and even engaged in summer enrichment programs in math as well as some math research.  Around this time, I became aware that I suffered from “imposter syndrome”, a psychological phenomenon where one believes, contrary to evidence, that they are not good enough to belong. I truly fell in love with mathematics in college, but I felt so sure that my classmates were all doing better than me, especially when I was often the only student coming to office hours or asking questions in class.  My senior year of college, I felt that I had barely scratched the surface of what mathematics was, and I envisioned graduate school as an opportunity to finally understand every aspect of mathematics thoroughly.  I also believed that earning a graduate degree in mathematics would give me the external validation to finally convince myself that I was good at math.

It turns out that my idea of graduate school was terribly naïve.  In place of deeply understanding all of mathematics, I began to deeply understand myself and my motivations.  Graduate school forced me to face my fears about not being smart enough.  The process of preparing for and taking qualifying exams is humbling for most students.  It was in this process that I was able to refine my ability to organize deep ideas in my mind and to recognize when and how to ask for help.  There were many times when imposter syndrome almost convinced me to give up, but I was blessed with a tight-knit community of faculty and classmates who supported me and encouraged me to keep going.  We would give each other practice qualifying exams and one of my classmates re-taught me Abstract Algebra from the ground up.  My program was extremely small and so there were no classes offered for certain topics such as Recursion Theory which would appear on my 4th area qualifying exam.  In these cases, I taught myself the material, making visual aids to remember proofs and find connections between topics.  I felt almost euphoric every time I was able to answer a question confidently and correctly in a qualifying exam.  I learned that I, just like my classmates, would sometimes struggle with a concept but that, in the end, it was just a matter of time, patience, and finding the right angle to look at the material.  I failed my Topology qualifying exam multiple times but, eventually, I was able to pass it. As I began working on my thesis research, certain topics and questions in math were intriguing enough that I didn’t mind admitting that I didn’t understand, and I was able to engage with the discomfort of uncertainty.  I continued to hone my ability to be brave in asking for help and, through conversations with my advisor and peers, I was able to solve an original problem in mathematics.  In the end, I completed my Ph.D. in mathematics and landed a tenure track job as a mathematics professor.

I still struggle at times with imposter syndrome, but I have learned to dampen my desire to compare myself to others or worry so much about making mistakes.  My fear of mathematics as a young child drives my love for teaching mathematics today.  I love working with students who identify as “not good at math” and helping all my students work through the discomfort of not immediately knowing how to solve a problem.  Mathematics is not about having the answer the fastest or always being right the first time; rather, it is the art of finding patterns and using logic and problem solving to discover why things work.  The biggest takeaway I try to impart to anyone who will listen is that there is no litmus test for determining who gets to be a mathematician.  A mathematician is anyone who does mathematics.

Rachel Vale obtained her bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from University of California San Diego and her master’s degree and Ph.D., also in Mathematics, from Dartmouth College. Currently, she is teaching mathematics at Portland State University.  She LOVES teaching math, especially to students who are uncertain about their own capabilities in math classes.  Rachel sees mathematics education and quantitative literacy as crucial aspects in improving racial, gender, and socio-economic equality in the U.S. As such, her recent focus is on empowering minority voices in student-centered classrooms.

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