Math needs more stories. All kinds of stories: about where ideas come from and what they mean; about the people who do math–how, why, and where they came from; about the beautiful and messed up parts of the community, and how these are and are not changing. Stories are the connective tissue of a body of ideas, essential to making these many theorems into a community. The kinds of stories we hear and the people who tell them influence how we imagine and understand this community, and ourselves in relation to it. That’s why math needs more stories–because so many of the stories we hear come from voices and are about people similar to those that have been dominant in math for hundreds of years. If we want a broader, fairer, more inclusive mathematics, we need to make a point to hear everyone’s stories.
In some ways, stories are the whole point of this blog–we share our stories as early career mathematicians to connect with others who are, will be, or were early career mathematicians themselves. However, I confess that I’m more interested in other people’s stories than my own. In one part of my dream life I would be a sort of mathy Studs Terkel, interviewing people about their lives and their reflections on mathematics. I probably need to get tenure before I can start spending too much time on that. Luckily, there are other people out there doing a great job of gathering stories. You may have gotten the same email I did from the AMS yesterday about two new books of stories about mathematicians: Limitless Minds: Interviews with Mathematicians, by Anthony Bonato, and Mathematicians: An Outer View of the Inner World, by Mariana Cook. These look great, and I just impulse bought them (when I’m going to have time to read them, who knows). Probably the right choice would have been to ask my library to buy them so that everyone at my institution could read them… okay, now that I think about it, I will probably do that after I get done writing this blog.
There’s actually a different upcoming event that prompted me to write this blog, though: the AMS and Story Collider are collaborating on a storytelling event about the experiences of early career mathematicians at the this year’s Joint Mathematics Meetings! To quote from a call for submissions:
On January 17, 2019 at 8pm The Story Collider, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sharing stories about how science shapes our lives, will host a special edition of their live show at the Joint Mathematics Meetings, in partnership with the American Mathematical Society. The theme of the show is influences on early career mathematicians.
The show will be recorded and stories may be considered for airing on The Story Collider podcast. If you are curious or would like some inspiration, read more at https://www.storycollider.org/submissions or browse The Story Collider podcast archive at http://soundcloud.com/the-story-collider.
Aaaaa! I’m so excited about this. I considered submitting a story idea, but, as usual, I couldn’t think of anything about my own story that would be super interesting. Looking back, though, I realize that’s what everybody thinks. Imagining those words from someone else, I would tell them that they were wrong–each of our stories is probably way more interesting than we think it is. In any case, I am looking forward to the event, and I hope that this happens again. If so, I will suck it up and try to contribute.
Perhaps even more exciting than this one event is a new AMS fund for early career mathematicians. As Nancy Hoffman of the AMS explains, “The impetus for this event comes from the building of a new endowed fund at the AMS – The Next Generation Fund. This fund is dedicated to supporting early career mathematicians now and for years to come. To help build awareness of this new resource and our fundraising efforts, we want to shine a light on stories about how each generation of mathematicians affects the next.”
I love this idea. I don’t know yet what projects this fund will support, but this got me thinking–what do early career mathematicians need the most? What did help, or would have helped, me more than anything in my first years out of the PhD? I think my number one answer is community. Leaving behind my graduate school friends and connections, and everyone else that I cared about in that place, I felt extremely alone. It was an adventure, and I met lots of great people and formed connections around the world, but it was (and continues to be, sometimes) pretty lonely. And looking for jobs (over and over again) can be a really devastating experience–it’s all the fun of repeated rejection, with the spice an intense sense that you are not good enough and never will be, and a dash of having no idea where you’ll live or how you’ll make a living in a few months. How can a fund help people with these feelings of rootlessness, disconnection, and anxiety? Maybe helping people find a network in their new communities, or using the funds to foster local or ongoing collaborations? Maybe a giant party where everyone on the job market can get together and nobody is allowed to talk about job applications or interviews? I don’t know. But I am looking forward to finding out, and it reminds me to send out encouraging thoughts to all of you who are applying for jobs at this time of year. You’re killing it! Keep it up! You have all of my hope and cheers.
What would you do with a fund to support early career mathematicians? Let me know in the comments. And happy Thanksgiving!