Milestone: Turning in my reappointment file after 5 semesters at Hamilton.

One of my friends called the process “self-irritation inducing.”

And now we wait…

In 2004, I adopted a cat who was about one year old and weaning her second litter of kittens. Moo, named for the sound she made, was first rescued by friends Chad and Tiffany from a kill shelter. When I met Moo, she dropped her kittens in my lap and took a nap while I looked after them. Then, she came and gave me a headbutt. It was love at first bonk. Once her kittens were old enough to be adopted out, she came home with me and my partner at the time.

Moo is arguably the greatest cat in the world. She’s fluffy, she purrs, she talks, she knows tricks. I adore this cat. In grad school, I had a dream that I physically gave birth to her (probably a product of the stress of grad school and the comfort she provided when I got home feeling bad every day). Moo keeps me humble — every once in awhile, she places a hairball right where I’ll step in it. Moo keeps me stylish — I find tasteful accents of cat fluff on every outfit.

For those doing the math, Moo’s about 13 years old. She’s in excellent health; last year, she had a dental surgery to preempt future problems. Other than that, she has never had a major medical procedure (aside from spaying).

Sometimes, things as a pre-tenure professor get a little overwhelming. On the toughest of days, I know I can rely on Moo to sit on me and purr until I get out of my funk.

So, here’s to Moo!

For some reason, there is a growing segment of the campus population that is interested in my cats. Far be it for me to deny the public what it wants. Here’s a quick guide for those new to the craze.

Cats: Moo, Sophie, and Tipper

Ages: 13, 8, 1.5

Sexes: Female (spayed) × 3

Rescued: 2004 (Colorado), 2008 (Nebraska), 2015 (New York)

Follow the #cats tag for more information. Coming up: Moo’s biography.

The MAA knows how to throw a birthday party, that’s for sure. This year’s centenial MathFest was, ahem, badass.

I’m sure everyone has her favorites, but here are my top three:

- Seeing my people!
- Karen Smith’s invited lectures & the associated special session (see below)
- Minicourse 6: Flipping the Classroom

Anyway, I also had a wonderful time with the other speakers in the Concrete Computations in Algebra and Geometry session (organized by Karen and Sarah Mayes-Tang). In case they’re useful, my slides are on the web: View Slides

Today, we wrapped up the REU (on-site, anyway). Each group gave their final presentations, and then we had a final round of root beer floats and games.

It’s been a lot of work to be an REU mentor, but it’s been equally fun.

In the next week, I’ll wrap up a few thoughts about the REU and post a link to our final product. But for now, it’s time to get to the airport and start my trip back to Hamilton.

Let’s be blunt: I’m not good at giving feedback. I tend to lay things out with little (read: zero) padding. My former linear algebra* students will understand what I mean immediately. Did you include a meaningless sentence? Did you try to prove linear independence and instead show me that 0 = 0? Here’s what I think of that:

I’m lucky to have an REU group that takes my criticism in stride. They realize, I think, that it’s the math that matters. My comments, though critical, are not judgments of the students. Anything that obscures the math (or worse, misrepresents it!) is a problem. Too much detail is as bad as too little detail, but these are subjective norms decided by the mathematical community. Yep, proof is a social construct. What makes a proof *good* is much different than whether it’s a proof.

There are many ways in which I think I’ve been a solid REU mentor, but the place where I give myself the harsh feedback is in my transmission of this sense of style. Partly, this is because every mathematician has a personal aesthetic. One’s criteria for “goodness” comes from reading papers (and liking the style of the papers that he or she finds easiest to understand), from writing papers, from having papers refereed (and then refereeing papers). And there’s a difference between a paper that’s pleasant to referee and a paper that contains useful (again subjective!) mathematics.

So, I’m left with this unresolved question: How do you begin to help students develop their math paper writing skills? It’s much harder than just writing up proofs that happen to be true. I don’t really feel like I’ve been helping the students learn anything except how to use the “todonotes” package in LaTeX. Your comments are welcome. Feel free, too, to rip on my writing.** If I can dish it out…

*At Hamilton, linear algebra is also the “intro to proofs” class. As such, it’s writing intensive. This designation means that I grade proofs assignments once or twice a week. At my lowest point, I’ve written “duh” on a paper (and I won’t do that again in linear algebra; senior theses, however…). I have not yet written “aardvark barf” on a paper, but I do remember that particular biting comment making several appearances on drafts of my dissertation.

** I specifically avoided using my Grammarly plugin and my spell check so you’d have plenty to criticize!

Writing up results is the worst part of math (in my opinion). It’s where you run into snags like, oh, hey, that case doesn’t work, or worse. No different for us. I’m less worried than my REU students because I think there’s a good chance the “problem” is not a math problem but instead an issue with how we formalized something.

I left two weeks for writing, anticipating these hiccups, but it still seems too short.

Irena Swanson, of Reed College, is visiting us today. She’ll give a lecture on free resolutions. I’m excited! Irena is much more than a kickass mathematician. She’s also an ideal role model for anyone who hopes to be good at all parts of the profession. She has a robust research career while also being an excellent teacher at an elite liberal arts school. She’s done a ton for the mathematical community, especially commutative algebra. She’s advised more undergraduates that I can count on my hands and feet (along with a handful of Masters and Ph.D. students).

Having the chance to talk to Irena about their research will be an excellent opportunity for my group. And learning about free resolutions and Groebner bases will be super for the other REU participants.