Research (and Writer’s) Block

“Chord” by Anthony Gormley, in MIT Building 2.

In my imagined math life, my research and writing would never stall. I would do other things, but take some time to keep working on my favorite problems every day. I would think about math as I walked home sometimes, and get little ideas, and then work these out after dinner. I would take vacations, but somehow not forget anything while I was gone. In this world I also do yoga every day and never waste time on the internet.  I assume that some people actually live in this world, and I assume that they are super productive mathematicians and wonderful people. This is not my real world. In this world, I completely ignore my research for stretches of time and then need to start again. There are great parts to this world, too; I get totally immersed in other stuff that I enjoy, for example. The downside is that I constantly face the problem of restarting my research. And no matter why I stopped—whether because I got busy with something else or because I was totally stuck—starting again is really hard.

When I haven’t been working on a research problem for a while, it becomes a fearsome monster in my mind. I remember it as giant, surly, and toothy, and I become convinced that wrestling with it will only result in frustration and humiliating defeat. Often this is not true—I know that when I worked on it last, I made progress and maybe had lots of ideas for what to do next if only I’d had more time. When I was working on it last, I was immersed, excited, sure I would win. Now, though, I have forgotten everything. I don’t remember the definitions or the most basic results. Anything would be more pleasant than actually facing that vagueness and confusion. Writing a blog especially!

When I have finished doing some math but need to write it up, I have a different but similar problem. It seems that everything important is done, I understand it all, why do all the drudgery right now? It is nothing, it will take no time at all, so why don’t I just do this much more entertaining and interactive work? In fact, the writing is an enormous undertaking and usually the time when I find lots of mistakes and realize that I misunderstood something important. There are actually many small monsters lurking, perfectly capable of eating me alive, and in the back of my mind I know that my heart will drop in my chest over and over again as I discover these monsters in my “finished” work. Putting words on a page and, through this process realizing that I don’t really understand what I thought I did, is probably even less pleasant than picking up that pen to work on something that I know I don’t understand. Again, to be avoided–maybe I should work on that blog!

Well, I am now writing that blog, specifically so that I don’t have thinking about it as an excuse to avoid research and writing for the next few weeks. I just arrived in Cambridge MA for a four week research visit at MIT. As I’ve mentioned before, at Colorado College, where I teach, classes are organized into 3.5 week blocks (instead of semesters or quarters). This year, I will teach four out of eight blocks. During this time, I don’t think about research at all except for an hour a week during my SWARG(and to be honest I don’t even make it to that every week). In my mind, the non-teaching blocks are spent mostly doing research. In reality, it is easy for several weeks to slip away just taking care of other important things that I didn’t do while I was teaching. These need to be done, but it is also much easier to complete these tasks than it is to finally pick up the math pen and just start working on my research. It’s also easier to have fun conversations with students who stop by my office, and so many other things. Hence the need for a research-cation away from the office.

So I am here, completely amazed by my good fortune, to get some research and writing done. My first impression of the MIT Math Department is of a sort of mathematical Disneyland, in the sense that mathematicians as famous in the math world as Mickey Mouse is in the larger world are everywhere, there is constant stimulation in the form of a huge array of seminars, and there is limitless free coffee instead of funnel cake. However, that analogy is frivolous, and all wrong in that it misses the essential fact that this wonderful place is also very serious, set up to make working on and talking about math as natural and effortless as possible. If I can’t get work done here, I’m done for. So I’d better do some math. Right after I write this blog, which is much easier than facing the unknown. But it’s time to get to the math now. Wish me luck.

PS Since this post has no special insight to offer about how to get past research and writer’s block, as a consolation, let me offer some pieces about writer’s block and starting something hard, which I read instead of starting to work on my research:

* Scholarly Writing and Research Group–something like Sara’s Writing Across the Curriculum group.


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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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Ph.D. Plus Epsilon/2, and the American Math Competition

Renewal Letter from the College

“…that which is in locomotion must arrive at the half-way stage before it arrives at the goal”

Halfway there! I’ve heard back from the committee and the administration, and passed my third-year review with flying colors. The only constructive criticism was a suggestion to get my in-preparation manuscripts submitted, which, well, duh. It’ll happen. I’ve heard I may have an in-person meeting with them at some point, but for now the written feedback was very helpful and validating.

I’ll say again that really enjoyed the way I set up my electronic dossier. Mathematicians like websites built in a text editor the way God intended, but other professors were going to read this thing. Professors from disciplines without our carefully cultivated sense of web asceticism. I can’t say for sure that it actually helped me, but WordPress made me look good. I dumped all my documents in Google Drive and linked them where they belonged, and that was about it. Once I make sure I have permission to publish the link, I’ll do so for anyone who’s curious.

The process really wasn’t that painful. The worrying about it was much worse than actually doing it, but I was pretty sure that was the case going in. Next time won’t be so bad.

American Mathematics Competitions

Earlier this month, Hood hosted the AMC 10/12 for the first time (or at least the first time in recent memory). These exams are for high school students – one for 9th and 10th graders, the other for juniors and seniors – and high-scoring students qualify for competitions like the AIME and the Math Olympiad.

A local homeschooling family asked if we’d host the exam this year. It seemed like an easy thing to do to help out these kids and the department, so I volunteered to organize it. I registered on the MAA’s website and ordered a packet of each of the tests, made a flier, and sent it to local schools and homeschooling families.

We wound up with six students taking the exams. The dates got a little screwed up by a snowstorm, but otherwise it was easy to organize. The students found their exam challenging, but I think they enjoyed the opportunity to visit a college campus and work on some interesting problems.

I mention these exams for two reasons:

  1. This is a really easy way to market your school to prospective students. If you’re at a school like ours, low enrollment can be a major concern. And no matter what your numbers are, everybody wants to attract high-quality, motivated students. This exam will at least get them in your door.
  2. The questions on these tests are great! If you have a group of students who like to solve problems but aren’t ready for Putnam-level content yet, you might want to give these a shot. Sure they’re just from high school curriculum, but they’re sophisticated and interesting enough for undergraduates. A collection of a few of them might even make for a fun Math Tea.

Registration for next year’s exams won’t start until next year, so put this on your calendar if you think you might be interested. I hope we’ll have an even bigger group of students then.

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