Tropical Mathematics: A Vacation Diary

My Winter vacation is almost over (our semester starts on Monday), and as is often the case, it didn’t feel much like a vacation. I DID get to come home to Venezuela, spent some time at the beach, and spent quality time with my family, but I also had a very long list of things to do for my job which have taken some of the “vacation” out of this trip. Still, I think I’ve managed to strike a good balance between the business and pleasure. I know many of the readers of this blog, mostly mathematicians (and my mom and dad, hi mom and dad), probably had similar Winter “breaks”, and so I thought I would share my experiences with you all.

Grading by the pool at my dad's house is better than grading in my office.

Grading by the pool at my dad’s house is better than grading in my office.

I decided to travel very soon after Finals were over and before I could have possibly finished all of my grading. This means many of my finals traveled to Venezuela with me. They were Real Analysis finals, which take a while to grade (at least for me), and so I ended up taking them on my trip to the beach. I figured, there is bound to be some downtime (i.e. non-family-planned-time), and I will use that to grade. It ended up working pretty well, and at least I got a few days of grading in the sun next to the pool, which is better than grading elsewhere. I posted the picture on the left on my facebook page with the caption “OK, I guess grading doesn’t suck right now”, to which a friend quickly responded “Grading always sucks”. And he’s right, BUT, since it will be tough work no matter what, why not do it in the best environment possible? In Maine, I like to go to a coffee shop and grade, for example. I have a friend in LA who often grades at bars (and which has somehow worked really well for meeting cool ladies).

After the grading was done and the grades were submitted, I went on to phase two: writing letters of recommendation. I have blogged about this topic before, exactly a year ago, in fact, mainly because this time of year is the time when most grad school applications are due (or start being due). This year I have four students planning to go to grad school and who have asked for letters. I am very happy to write letters for these students, and I sincerely hope they get into grad school since I think they would be great mathematicians, but boy is it not fun to write a letter of recommendation. It’s very difficult to come up with good examples and meaningful comments that a committee will see as evidence that a) they are good enough of their program and b) I am a trustworthy judge of that. It’s hard! Anyway, I wrote all of my letters, now all I have to do is answer the standard questions (“Is this the best student ever? the next Fields medalist? the best student this year? etc…”), which, again, is hard work.

Phase three of vacation tasks was even better, because the Bates math department is hiring this year, so I have to read job applications (not that many, thank Gauss). First was deciding whether people met the criteria we set earlier in the month, so it wasn’t that bad. Still, it’s difficult to read 70 teaching statements in a row and not think that they are all saying the same thing (they are mostly NOT, by the way, and if you go over them more slowly people have some very interesting things to say). This part is now done, and we are currently moving on to the next stage: pick your favorites to interview at the JMM or via Skype (because not everyone goes to the JMM and they shouldn’t be punished for it). At any rate, this is a highly confidential matter so I can’t really say any more than I have already, but mostly it is apparent to me that this is again a difficult task of judging other people (much like grading and even writing letters of recommendation). One surprising obstacle is that the files (which are confidential) are all stored in a server only accessible on campus (or via VPN). This makes the process much slower, for some reason (I know, computer geeks everywhere are gasping at this, unable to understand why I don’t get why accessing files via VPN slows thigns down). So every file I looked at took minutes (minutes!) to open. Multiply this by 70 and you get why it was so frustrating. The joys of doing things from abroad I guess.

I have been able to do all of these tasks without really having to affect family plans, which I’m very happy about. Many times I just woke up early and worked before other people wanted to do things. One thing I have been unable to do thus far is actual math and prep for next semester, but I’m saving that for the airplane ride back (although I always say this, and rarely follow through) and the weekend. I have felt very busy and not quite at the level of relaxed that I wish a vacation would give me, but I guess I will just have to wait for the next sabbatical to feel this way again. Or maybe not, since as I have reported, I also felt very busy during sabbatical. Retirement, then.

So, dear readers, how to do you spend your Winter vacation? Do you ever get a long enough break from work to feel relaxed and recharged? Or is this the way it is for everyone? Is your family as mystified by this busy-ness as mine?  Any strategies for making this easier to manage? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


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1 Response to Tropical Mathematics: A Vacation Diary

  1. Mike says:

    I think Mother Nature saw your picture of pool-grading and decided to welcome you back to Maine in style.

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