Thank you for doing all the invisible work that makes math possible

Invisible made visible: my to-do lists from the last two weeks. Also, my favorite coffee cup, filled with coffee that someone else made. Thank you for the coffee!

I finished teaching Algebra two weeks ago today. Since then, I have worked my way through list after to-do list. I  helped plan and manage a public lecture, wrote a bunch of letters of recommendation, wrote some internal research grant applications for students, helped out with the student math clubs, met with a lot of students about various logistical things, bought tickets and made travel arrangements for a trip, did some committee stuff, answered random important emails, started coordinating a blah, blah, blah … this list goes on. It was all worth doing, and some of it was even pretty satisfying. But ugh, I am boring myself writing it, and you could be wondering why I mention all this less-than-glamorous stuff. I’m not special. This is my job. You all do all of this stuff, too! Or your version of this stuff. However, this work warrants mentioning because at times like this it takes up 80% of my work life. It’s the kind of work that nobody notices when it gets done, but without which so many things stop happening or never happen in the first place.

This work is invisible to most of the world as long as it happens, but is often deeply necessary to creating the kind of career I want and profession I want to be a part of. So I’m excited (? maybe not excited, but willing) to do it. The thing is, the pay-off is mostly abstract or part of the long game. The tasks I am thinking of are not all the same—some of these are service tasks, some research, some teaching, and many are just the grunt work of part of some big picture thing I am passionate about. The uniting factor is that these tasks are invisible. They aren’t tracked, and it’s nobody’s job to thank me for doing these things, or even to notice them. Of course, it makes my day when someone does.

Today the obvious occurred to me: probably everybody else feels the same way. In academia we get so much freedom to choose how we do our jobs, there are probably very few people who actually know all the things that we each do as part of our jobs. Even outside of academia, where roles are sometimes more clearly defined, most people do a thousand unnoticed tasks that make the workplace or the larger world better. We do these things because we love them, or we at least we believe they should be done. But most of the time, the majority of the tasks we do, the efforts we make in our careers and lives, are unseen or unremarked by the rest of the world. This is the way of life.

So, today I’m talking to you when I say: thank you for doing all this invisible work. Thank you for inviting that speaker. Thank you for writing that letter of recommendation at the last minute. Thank you for thinking hard about how to run that meeting. Thank you for refereeing that paper. Thank you for organizing that inconvenient travel, submitting the abstract, and getting on that early flight, so I could see you at a conference. Thank you for helping that student to find my office, or helping them with that question when I wasn’t around. Thank you for telling me again who to call in AV. Thank you for answering all those damn emails. Thank you for going to those talks that someone else organized. Thank you for having dinner with job candidates, and for reading all those job applications. Thank you for teaching a hard class. Thank you for asking that question. Thank you for filling the stapler. Thank you for all of the things that you do because you know that they need to be done, or that the world will be a very slightly nicer place if they are done. Thanks for kicking ass all the time. Thanks for smiling at me in the hallway. Thanks for making coffee. Thanks for reading those papers. Thanks for serving on that committee. Thanks for just coming to work every damn day.

You know what? I don’t notice these things enough. I will probably get busy doing my own invisible work and forget to notice tomorrow.  Today, though, I am immensely grateful for all of the big and small, unglamorous, invisible acts that make my job and the larger math world wonderful. Thank you for everything.

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