Hello, World!

Hello, World!

I am Katherine (Kate) Thompson, and I’m a new co-editor for this blog. In a few weeks, I will be starting a tenure-track position at the United States Naval Academy.

My basic bio and CV-esque stats can be found on the “About the Editors” subpage, so instead let me talk about the two main reasons why I applied to write for this blog.

(1) A recent focus of our society has been highlighting differences. This can be beneficial. Through diversity initiatives if nothing else, we have seen pushes in student and faculty and employee recruitment for females, minorities, immigrants, first-generation collegiates and more. There is a growing, public, body of research that shows students connect with teachers with similar looks or backgrounds. I find reading about and hearing different perspectives interesting and educational. In our community it speaks to the changing body of mathematicians, makes a wider audience feel represented, understood, or accepted. It allows for the challenging of the status quo, which can lead to progress.

On the representation front: I must confess my own readership of the AMS blogs has been very dependent upon my connection to the writers. If I knew the author personally, or if they were at a type of institution I felt resonated with me, or if we were at the same (child-free, two-body-problem-ridden) stage of life, I’d read; otherwise, not so much. First-hand, I’ve seen how important it is to have overlap in life experiences with your audience. So, in the last five years I have worked at

    • an R1 state school,
    • a selective liberal arts college,
    • a large, private university where 33% of students qualify for Pell grants,
    • an internationally-recognized engineering school,
    • and now a service academy.

Most of this has been while trying to solve a two-body problem, with both bodies looking at opportunities outside academia as well as inside our Ivory Tower.

I’m sincerely hoping this breadth will help me connect to readers of this blog, and will encourage more people to comment, subscribe, and contribute to posts. Especially for a blog for early-career mathematicians, I find it crucial to be able to speak to as many types of institutional cultures as possible.

Still, earlier I did say “[Highlighting differences] can be beneficial.” The phrase “can be” is key. Pointing out differences is also interpreted, even unintentionally, as an attack. Both “old” and “new” movements specifically mention how they differ from each other to simultaneously endorse their platform and belittle the opposition. Having someone of one viewpoint express an opinion often has the effect of stifling or even angering others with different mindsets.

Photo credit: amazon.com

Recently, I finished Madeleine Albright’s latest book. I think she puts quite elegantly my greatest worry for our community:

…I fear that we are becoming disconnected from the ideals that have long inspired and united us. The list of topics that can’t be discussed without blowing up a family or college reunion is lengthening. We don’t just disagree; we are astonished at the views that others hold to be self-evident. We seem to be living in the same country but different galaxies–and most of us lack the patience to explore the space between. This weakens us.

Despite my desire to hear from and speak to a variety of mathematicians through this blogging opportunity, I would like in my posts to discuss common ground. I hope that this in turn will help create an environment that allows us to acknowledge differences and advocate for change without people taking personal insult.

(2) The times they are a changin’, both in terms of jobs as well as students. The current academic market is brutal, and is vastly different from the market those typically doling advice experienced. In telling a friend of mine that I had applied for this gig, he immediately said, “They must have redefined ‘epsilon’—you graduated five years ago!” But that actually was part of my point. More and more people are pre-tenure for longer and longer stretches of time (assuming they can stay in academia at all), and there are fewer and fewer of those coveted tenure track jobs. Many really strong mathematicians, including my own thesis advisor, have had to or have chosen to leave academia as a consequence.

Personal photo, JMM Employment Center of 2014

I have applied for jobs five out of the last six years. Keeping the tag-line of the blog in mind, I would like to give a modern take on maneuvering through the market, covering everything from job materials and working a room to packing boxes and managing multiple retirement accounts. And I think it’s important to talk about the realities of preparing yourself for the possibility of leaving, the ways of keeping networks and options open, and the challenges in working with those no longer in academia (but still wanting to publish).

The student body also is changing. I’m confident the majority of people reading this blog remember where they were on September 11, 2001; well, college freshmen were likely born that year…or even later. They are literally a new generation. We are preparing them for careers that do not yet exist, and for jobs we (assuming we stay in academia until retirement) never will perform. They are 100% right if they complain that we don’t know what they’ll need later on. We are collectively so removed from the real world, it’s not even funny.

And so then the questions we need to ask are “What can they learn that’s transferable?” and “What will their competition know?” And to that end, I really want to use this platform to encourage us at the college level to spend more time mentoring pre-college students. Part of the difficulty in teaching college freshmen is not realizing what they saw in high-school. Working with pre-college students helps to remedy that. We need to be open about which students are going on to graduate school and which are choosing to (or even being forced to) enter “the real world.” This could lead to discussions of what transferable skills are, and how we can incorporate them into our classes. It will help us see what our students are dealing with competitively.

Having connections with pre-college students and their families can help with earlier-mentioned movements too. Increasing diversity within a major is limited at a very basic level by the choices of the admissions committee—they set the demographics for the entire college. One way we can increase diversity in our major (maybe not at our specific college, but within our profession) is by recruiting diverse high-school students interested in our subject ourselves. We do that by being a part of our communities and working with pre-college students. Assuming our recruits don’t all attend our institution, we then will start to have a sense about what our alums’ competition will be like.

So thank you, readers, for getting this far. I’m looking forward to the next few months.

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