Prof Life

Sabbatical Update 1

While I’m breaking for lunch today, I’ll give a quick sabbatical update. But first, today’s #loveyourmath challenge (thanks, Ashley Johnson, for the kick in the pants!).

Today’s #loveyourmath topic: What inspired you to get into mathematics?

Math was definitely not my plan when going (back*) to college. The plan, which worked out tremendously, was to major in French and Econ and then go work for the World Bank or something. In Paris. Because, you know, Paris. But when I went to Colorado College, the block plan (one class at a time) made it very easy to start in Calc 3, then go on to DEs, then Linear Algebra, then… a year of math. And so I became a math major. I don’t know if this would or would not surprise my K-12 math teachers. In preschool, I had an existential crisis over counting (what if I keep counting? Is there an end to numbers, or no end, and which is worse?!) In 3rd-grade, I was hung up on fractions, decimals, and percents (why bother with three different ways of writing down the same thing?). I flunked 7th-grade pre-algebra (ask me about my recurring back-to-school nightmare) but then started liking math again in high school (I skipped a year of history to catch up and end my HS with Calculus). At that point, I figured I was done with math because what else is left after calculus? Anyway, I owe a huge debt to Patty Parsons and Ken Oliver who made math at Amity High School exciting to this nerd. I’m delighted to have been so thoroughly nurtured (nerd-tured?) at Colorado College by then-visiting professor Travis Kowalski; professors Marlow Anderson, David Brown, and Jane MacDougall; and former professor Amelia Taylor who overlapped with me the year I worked as paraprofessional. And I never would have gotten a PhD without the University of Nebraska–Lincoln faculty, staff (thanks Marilyn and Liz!!), and fellow grad students (shout out to Ashley, Amanda, Lauren, Mike, Ben, Nora, Anisah, Sara, and so many more). Not to mention the huge amounts of coffee and beer in Lincoln; I have a spot in my heart reserved for all the baristas and bartenders that kept me hydrated.

*Yep, back. I dropped out of college the first time. I also dropped out of 1st- and 7th-grades. I like to think I was preparing for the sabbatical cycle.


Software wins and fails 2

As I get my very first sabbatical going, I’m working on some homework for the American Mathematical Society’s Math Research Community in Algebraic Statistics. So far, I’ve managed to calculate a few examples by hand. But now I’m down the software rabbit hole, and I find that it’s 4 hours later and I need to vent.


  • Got Singular installed *and* got my mac to shut up about “programs from the internet” every time I open it;
  • Ran an example in Singular with (almost) the expected output;
  • Ran the same example in Macaulay2 with the same output as Singular;
  • Installed Bertini and managed to get the Bertini.m2 package to work.
  • Installed 4ti2.


  • Can’t get my Aquamacs preferred theme (Solarized Dark) to stick despite hours of googling today and other days;
  • Can’t get Aquamacs to find and run Singular;
  • No clue what to do with 4ti2 now that it’s installed…

I’ve had a few other successes, though, unrelated to software:

  • Tracked down all the references for my homework (with the help of a librarian at Hamilton — thanks Glynis!)
  • Managed to remember some statistics.


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:

  1. Seeing my people!
  2. Karen Smith’s invited lectures & the associated special session (see below)
  3. 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



Last day at Willamette

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.11796288_810594664931_1043389845773208963_n

The art of feedback (a treatise on my own artlessness)

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!


Starting to end the REU

There are only two and a half weeks left of the REU. How did that happen?!

My REU students are still making progress. We established that the active writing will commence (and thus the research will end) on Monday.  My students assure me that they’ll work on tying up the loose research ends on over the weekend.*  They know that I’d like to see one more theorem from them by the end of the week, and I think they’re slightly afraid of me.  Ergo, I have high hopes.   Oh, yeah: They’ve also got some blogging to do. (← see what I did there?)

As usual, I have only good things to say about the REU students. All nine of them, plus the other Willamette students that have been haunting the math building, are friendly, well-adjusted people. It’s nice to see the “awkward mathematician” stereotype erode with each generation.  At the same time, it’s almost boring.  They could at least pretend to have some drama in the ranks.  You know what they say.  Every happy REU cohort is the same…**

While the REU’s end looms ever closer, I can’t help but remember that MathFest is right around the corner.  I need to extract my talk from my brain on slap it on some slides for the session “Concrete Computations in Algebra and Algebraic Geometry.”  Shout out to UNL alum and former office mate, Mike Janssen, who’s talking in the same session. While I’m advertising talks: Don’t miss Karen Smith’s Hedrick Lecture Series!

There’s plenty more to do, too!  Since I passed off my big project to my coauthors, I’ve made small headway on a couple minor projects (one expository, one research).  I’m struggling to write the broad strokes of a grant proposal before the summer is over (there’s no time during the semester to get something like that written).  It’s hard to believe my first sabbatical is close enough that I have to start planning now.  It’s exciting to pin down goals and questions, but it’s also frustrating to reflect on all that I want to accomplish.  The process has been painstaking and slow.  I have to remind myself that, although it feels like I’ve been a math professor forever, it’s only been a couple years.  There’s been a huge learning curve.  Now that it’s less steep, I look forward to being more productive.

Speaking of productivity, I see that my allotted blog-time has run out.


*”We’ll work through Sunday night if we have to!” one of them exclaimed.

**Sorry, Dostoyevsky.

Surrounded by inspiring people

The two other REU mentors, Erin McNicholas and Colin Starr, are incredible people.

Erin is one of the PIs for the grant that’s funding the REU for the next three years. Colin has had this role in the past, too. Aside from the obvious responsibilities that come with that job, there are hidden mountains of paperwork and bureaucracy to summit. Erin is a portrait of productivity. She’s doing the extra work on top of mentoring her algebraic voting theory group, learning new math alongside them, organizing the occasional picnic or outing, and keeping up with her research agenda! Colin spends most of each day working with his students, which is a big time commitment considering everything else a professor has to do over the summer. My only complaint? Erin and Colin haven’t gone to karaoke with me yet. It might be the only activity in which I have a chance of keeping up!

However, I’m not just writing about Erin and Colin because they work so hard for the success of the REU. What impresses me is that they also manage to be excellent parents and spouses.

When I think about my future family, I’ve always got a bjillion career objectives that push the event-horizon further into the future. When people ask about my work-life balance,* I shrug. What balance?

At this stage in my life, as a 30-something junior faculty member, it’s inspiring to be around people who have found that balance. I don’t get the sense from either Erin or Colin that they have compromised or that they have sacrificed being “real” mathematicians or being good parents. When I see them at work and with their families, it’s clear that their successes in each realm amplify their successes in every realm. I am slowly shedding my skepticism of the “You can have it all!” ethos that defines my generation’s values. Maybe it is possible, after all.

Still, tell me to “Lean in!” at your peril. Enlightenment doesn’t happen overnight. 😉

*I will tell you another time how much I resent that this question is put almost exclusively to women!