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“Strange” escapism- media thoughts

23 Nov

This post is like two posts put into one.  A way for me to process my feelings about the election by not talking about current events at all.  Part 1 is about news media, Part 2 is about Dr. Strange.

Over the past few months I’ve been getting more and more exhausted with the “OUTRAGEOUS! OUTRAGE!” tone in my usual liberal news-thinkpiece sites (I read a lot of Slate and Jezebel); I think those sites have also started getting sick of being constantly outraged by the latest something that some conservative bigot/racist/misogynist/generally bad person has done.  Or maybe they’ve become more leery of the language of outrage since the death of Gawker (covered in Slate with a line that’s stuck with me: “The Internet masses had found a new vice, outrage, to replace our voyeurism.”)  Links on this topic: a super long, fairly defensive reflection in NY Magazine by the former editor in chief of Gawker, a surprisingly newsy story on what happened in the Daily Beast, and a slow-to-load but funnily Gawker-like list of responses to Gawker’s death, including this quote: “I think Gawker did for some what Trump does for some. Both let their friends and supporters be comfortable in being terrible people.” (Erick Erickson, noted conservative blogger/radio host).

Anyway, to help combat my liberal outrage-fatigue, I thought I’d try to read some conservative news sites (which I’ve blogged about before, maybe notably in my Yale reflection).  So I started with Breitbart and Drudge Report, but the angry rhetoric there mirrored exactly the outraged rhetoric on the liberal sites- those whiny, thin skinned snowflake liberals who don’t believe people can make their own decisions.  Then someone turned me on to National Review, which is now my go-to conservative news site.  They also make fun of lefties, but they’re less obsessed with it and more focused on how to continue to progress on the conservative agenda.  I like it when people think about actions and what to do in the future, even if I disagree with their premises.  I just opened the site and a random article, and here’s a line that popped out at me: “Here’s some free advice for all the liberals insisting that Trump was elected by racists: The more you say that, the more you help Trump.”  Also, if like me you are a dirty liberal, you’ll be soothed by the way the National Review covers Republican infighting.  If you are not like me, you might just like the National Review!  They’re thoughtful and logical and much less angry-outrageous-clickbaity than other sites I’ve seen [I am also open to more suggestions!  I read the libertarian site Reason Magazine sometimes, but they think we’re all idiots so I get tired of that rhetoric as well].

So my main goal of writing this post was to tell you about the escapism that we did last weekend- we went and saw Dr. Strange at the movie theatre (this is a big deal to us!  We very rarely go out to the movies now because of babysitter requirements).  I got distracted thinking about the liberal media, which touched on the whitewashing that happens in this movie a few months ago.  It first came to my attention on the blog Angry Asian Man, and has been covered in a bunch of other various sites (for instance: cinema blend, variety, fusion-this is my favorite one).  Basically, the Ancient One is a main character/jedi master for padawan Dr. Strange, and was created by Lee and Ditko as an ultra-stereotypical mystical Tibetan old dude.  Most of the lines that Tilda Swinton says in the movie would be ridiculous if an Asian person said them (they’re already ridiculous, but Tilda Swinton can pull them off just as well as she can pull of her slightly agender character).  Lots of stuff that sounds like someone read the Tao Te Ching and imagined Mr. Miyagi.

So, to avoid making a racist and offensive caricature of the character, Marvel decided to change the Ancient One into a Celtic woman.  But inexplicably keep the whole Himalayas/white guy travels to the Far East for mystical wisdom and returns to the civilized West to save the world trope.  Here are two different reactions to this situation by critics/writers:

Pro-Derrickson/whitewashing (I love that this article starts with the “yellow elephant in the room”)

While this desire to keep from reinforcing negative Asian stereotypes is commendable, it also created a Catch-22 situation for the director. Does he create a “dragon lady” that causes Asians to protest the perpetuation of a negative Asian stereotype? Or does he remove the Asian aspect of this character, but in doing so, cause Asians to protest the removal of what was supposed to be an iconic Asian character. There is no easy answer either way.  So Derrickson decided to take the path that he thought was best.

So before we bring out the pitchforks, it is important to consider intent. If Derrickson was pressured into recasting The Ancient One as a white woman to make the film more commercial, then I’ll be the first one to pick up a torch. But if he made this decision based solely on his own creative vision of the film, then I think it’s fair to withhold judgment on this subject and critique the movie solely on its cinematic merits. Because ultimately, as long as Swinton’s performance improves the film (and in this case, it most definitely does), it’s hard to fault the director for his artistic choice.

I actually think the next pull quote addresses this situation pretty well, but I’ll also make a nod to myself and a past blog post, and say your intentions don’t matter as much as the effects of your work.  So if you say you didn’t intend to be racist, that doesn’t alleviate that you hurt someone with a racist action.  Plus most people outside the KKK (and maybe also inside) won’t ever say “Oh, I meant to be racist” so saying “I didn’t mean to be racist” is about as deep as saying “the sky is up.”  Later in this post I will tell you that I LOVED Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One and I have a solution.

Anti Derrickson/whitewashing: (but they loved the movie, as did I)

Why did Derrickson feel his only options to portray the Ancient One were to either make the character one racist stereotype or another? This wasn’t some Catch 22. You could still write the ancient mystic leader role with nuance.  And for the most part, Derrickson and his co-writers succeeded — but with a performer who isn’t Asian….

And they elevated the Wong character (played by Benedict Wong, the film’s only Asian in a speaking role). In the comics, Wong was merely Doctor Strange’s cabana boy (yet another stereotype, the Asian sidekick). But in the film, he is Strange’s philosophical superior. Wong has agency in the plot, answers to almost no one except his own work and also owns the funniest sequence in the film. The director and writers clearly have the talent and imagination to dodge or upend stereotypes.

Other things: I loved the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast on this topic, if you’re more of a listener than a reader.  I also like this tweet:

Okay, so you’re all caught up on your reading now (I really do like the Fusion article).  So here’s my take on what they should have thought about doing instead of what happened.  First, here’s a cover of a comic book showing Dr. Strange; image from Wikipedia:


Note that Dr. Strange here is totally red, and has lots of facial hair.  So… just looking at this picture, I don’t see it tied to a particular ethnicity.  Let’s take a look at the original Ancient One (also from wikipedia):


This dude is Tibetan, but they turned him into a Celtic lady.  So there’s no reason to not change the Dr. Strange of ambiguous ethnic background into …

johnchoTHIS GUY.

Hear me out (also, this headshot was taken from the inimitable  Instead of going to the Himalayas for absolutely no reason, our hero Dr. Strange hears about this Celtic Ancient One and heads to Ireland.  This also makes more sense if the Ancient One is Celtic.  I’ve read a Wrinkle in Time and the Chronicles of Narnia; I’m pretty sure there’s as much magic in the British Isles as there is in Tibet.  Now we haven’t whitewashed out a character because OUR MOVIE HAS AN ASIAN LEADING MAN, and we get to keep Tilda Swinton who really is great in the movie.  I have nothing against Benedict Cumberbatch except he’s going the way Jude Law did in 2004, when he appeared in six big movies.  Too much Benedict Cumberbatch, not enough John Cho (or other Asian actor).

This is the obvious solution to me, anyway.  The reviews of Dr. Strange praise the visual effects, the side characters (POC Mordo and Wong), Tilda Swinton, but I haven’t seen a lot of praise for Benedict Cumberbatch.  They just needed a white guy to lead the movie.  So why not grab an Asian guy instead?  This should be a rule: if you ever whitewash a character of X ethnic background, you should change a white character into that X background.

I think I could just keep writing and thinking about this topic, so I’ll stop here instead.  Happy Thanksgiving, reader!  Good luck with politics and family.

The non-academic job search (Part 0)-Deciding to leave

26 Oct

Hi!  Pregnancy this time around has been kicking my butt, but I’m hoping as second trimester goes on that I’ll start feeling better and posting more/being more of an upright person.  Here’s the post, which is a mishmash of thoughts from the past year.

If you missed Part 1 of this, that doesn’t matter because it comes after!  But here’s the link just in case you wanted to see it.  I spend that post talking about the steps I took after deciding to leave, but realized that lots of people are in the position that I’m in and might want to know how I decided to leave mathademia, which has been my happy home for years (sometimes larger than I’d like to admit).

A mentor of mine from my undergraduate days wrote a fantastic piece about going from his tenure-track job to working for Google; I recommend the whole thing.  He talks about money, time, intellectual challenge, and committee work as his factors. Here’s an excerpt:

At the time, my assessment of the private sector  vs. academia was pretty bleak: Your salary is higher, but the price you pay for that is longer hours at a mind-numbing job with a micro-managing boss. But it turns out, things aren’t actually that extreme. In fact, there are a lot of nice things about the private sector, that make the comparison much more subtle, even if you take money completely out of the picture.

When I started seriously thinking about my future, I gave him a call and asked for advice on leaving academia and making the decision.  He strongly suggested picking up this book, which I also highly recommend:

This book made me turn from despairing and feeling like a failure to hopeful and inspired- it’s full of stories of people with Ph.D.s who went on to do other non-academic things, and concrete advice for turning a CV into a resume, etc.  I read this book before the other ones (parachute, in transition).  I also talked to as many non-academic math Ph.D.s as I could (or really, just the ones I ran into, which is a surprising number of people!  We’re everywhere!) about their transitions and how they chose their lives.

A lot of applied math or stat people are fine.  They do, in general, big data/data science and program and make lots of money (also, pure math people who know how to and enjoy programming also make lots of money and are fine).  I’ve heard of one particular data science fellowship specifically for master’s/Ph.D. students, and I’m sure there are others out there.  Also my friend Jeremy definitely does something with data now and is very nice and helpful and I’m just volunteering him now to talk to my blog readers (and point you toward his blog if this is something you are interested in).

That hopefulness really buoyed me forward, as did reading Jesse’s second blog post on this topic.  Here’s an excerpt again contrasting mathademia with non-academia:

In the end, the process of getting a non-academic job can be long and complex. At the beginning, it feels completely hopeless, but the more you learn and the more non-academics you talk to, the better it gets. And here’s the kicker: There are a lot of jobs out there where the supply and demand dynamics are completely the opposite of academia – where employers are desperately seeking qualified applicants. Once you find your way there, and see what it’s like applying for a job where you’re NOT one of 500 applicants for a single position, it’s completely worth it.

I ended up writing a big board of pros and cons of staying in academia- the biggest con for me is the moving/not having a choice of where to live and raise my family.  But plenty of academics successfully have families, so this con might not be as big to you.  The biggest pro is research/choosing what problems to work on, but that definitely did not outweigh the lack of control in where to live.  Of course my situation is a little different because I have a relatively immobile spouse (lots of professors seem to be married to other professors, doctors, or lawyers rather than high-power financial software developers), and if he wasn’t in the picture maybe my pro/con weights would be different.

Anyways, I agonized over this for a few months, reading that book, thinking about what people said.  One former post-doc, now software developer, told me he hates that he works “for someone else’s dream” vs. when he did his own research.  I guess that’s why they pay him the big bucks (or, y’know, at least some bucks).

When I did an ethnographic research project in Vietnam in 2009, one mathematician told me “what do I need money for?  I travel, I do what I love, I eat well, what would I spend more money on?”  My advisor told me about an exchange he had with a family member, where they asked him if he would do his job even without the money.  He said yes (though probably less of it).  It’s a theme I’ve run into a lot with mathematicians: mathematicians really, REALLY love math and/or teaching.

Back in 2012, I watched a video of an old friend of mine teaching a lesson about logarithms.  She LOVED teaching (and math).  Here’s a great minute-long clip.  You can tell just by watching how much she LOVED teaching.

Thinking about her, and the Vietnamese woman I’d spoken to those years ago, I just couldn’t compare my passion for these things to theirs.  Not to say that you have to be super passionate about your job (sometimes a job really is just a job), but if you have the luxury of making a choice, why not be a little picky?

I had to wrestle with feeling like a failure for not going into academia (this is a real thing) even though my advisor and others explicitly told me that I am not at all a failure for not following their path.  Eventually I had to listen to myself/the advice I’d been given a long time ago: “Swim in your own lane.”  I even say this at the beginning of this video.

Anyway, it’s a long and personal journey, and as a Ph.D. friend in industry once told me, “the hardest thing about leaving academia is deciding to leave academia.”  I can’t say I agree wholeheartedly with that yet (I still don’t have a job for next year), but I can definitely say that it was hard, and I’m around for you if you want to reach out and talk to me about it (contact info is all over this blog).


What is a “trigger warning”? What is a “safe space”?

26 Aug

This week a professor friend of mine posted and lauded the letter that University of Chicago president sent out to all incoming freshmen which said a bunch of reasonable and universal/noncontroversial stuff, and also this paragraph:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

They, being a professor, then did some research into what exactly trigger warnings and safe spaces are, and then posted that this letter was “an embarrassment.”  So why did my friend have such a change of heart?  For that, let’s learn what these phrases mean.

trigger warning is a statement given before someone interacts with new material (e.g. a book, an article, a video, etc.) which alerts them of potentially disturbing content (e.g. graphic description of sexual violence, war scenes, etc.).  There’s a great op-ed piece in the NYT from last year that delves deeply into this:

Triggered reactions can be intense and unpleasant, and may even overtake our consciousness, as with a flashback experienced by a war veteran. But even more common conditions can have this effect. Think, for example, about the experience of intense nausea. It comes upon a person unbidden, without rational reflection. And you can no more reason your way out of it than you reasoned your way into it. It’s also hard, if not impossible, to engage productively with other matters while you are in the grip of it. You might say that such states temporarily eclipse our rational capacities.

The idea behind trigger warnings is that they give time for the reader/viewer/listener to prepare themselves or brace themselves for what’s coming, in hopes that they can rationally deal with the material.  In practice, they’re basically the same as the little box that says “this movie rated PG-13 for containing partial nudity” and most people can ignore them (idea from that op-ed).  There are many arguments out there against trigger warnings; one of the most cited is the “Coddling of the American Mind” article, where they analogize avoiding difficult subjects with phobias:

A person who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia. If you want this woman to retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.

There are great points in that article; namely, that turning disclaimers of difficult readings into optional readings does a disservice to students (they offer the example of professors not wanting to teach rape law).  I think the authors of this article and the professor of the first op-ed can agree that the point is for students to engage with difficult material.  However, the Atlantic piece authors believe that not including trigger warnings is the way to do so, while the NYT piece author believes the exact opposite.  So which is it?  Why the different views?

This is why mathematicians love definitions.  The Atlantic piece authors start with the same definition as I did, but then add another consequence:

Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.

And therein lies the problem!  Trigger warnings exist so that students can engage with a work, but the authors say they exist so students can choose to not do so.  This jumbled definition is why there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between some news sources which laud “not supporting trigger warnings” (The Federalist (conservative/libetartarian), Reason magazine (libertarian), Intellectual Takeout (conservative/liberal)) and those that do not (Slate (liberal), Vox (this is a great piece), New Republic (this is not as good as the Vox piece)).

Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum (besides math?).  This whole controversy is part of a larger trend as demographics change, political landscapes change, and universities change.  There are many examples in practice of students actively refusing to engage with material that might question their assumptions (first example that comes to my mind was the Duke freshmen not wanting to read the non-required recommendation “Fun Home”), and this is something that all these public intellectuals of various political backgrounds want to avoid.

There’s a lot to say about this, but I want to move on to the next definition, so I’ll leave you with this article by NYMagazine, which happily acknowledges that the U of C letter totally messes up on ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ but also says that it has some important things to say.  Here’s a quote:

First, in addition to the absence of evidence that trigger warnings have any impact on the average college campuses, there’s also solid evidence that many of the tropes that have taken hold about “coddled” or“microaggressed” or “oversensitive” or anti-free-speech college students are seriously overblown. In many cases, these ideas have been bandied about so gleefully and frequently and uncritically by conservatives that the terms themselves have lost all meaning….But: There have absolutely been recent instances in which campus outrage has snowballed out of hand, in which protesters have actually impinged on the ability for real debate to take place, and these episodes matter.

Funnily enough the article refers to the controversy at Yale as also being disproportional, which I also wrote about in a similar vein as this post.

Next, a safe space is a physical location for marginalized people (historically LGBT folks) to exist with allies without fear of marginalization/hate speech.  Examples are church basements for Christian youth groups, gay bars, and the U Chicago LGBTQ Safe Space program.  The U of C letter refers to “intellectual safe spaces” as what it’s against, and includes a semi-definition as spaces where “individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”  This is not a normal use of the term, and there again seems to be some confusion about what the phrase “safe space” means.  There’s a fantastic article on Vox that goes into what a safe space is and why it matters in depth:

You don’t have to explain to other black women why your hair is the way it is, she said, or what a certain word means, or countless other little cultural signifiers. “Everybody has a need to just be able to be themselves somewhere, without having to do that translation and without having to always be on guard to justify yourself.”

I liked this Vox Explainer article so much because it really delves into the reasons that people are against the idea of safe spaces.  To close this SUPER LONG blog post, here are the last three paragraphs from it:

Some people get upset because they don’t understand why they can’t be included in a certain group, or why their input on certain issues might not be welcome. A man might ask in good faith whether catcalls are really just “compliments” when women are trying to discuss their own experiences with street harassment, and he might be taken aback when those women get immediately upset or exasperated with him. To him, perhaps he was just asking an innocent question and trying to have an intellectual debate. But to the women, it’s pretty insulting to suggest that their life experiences are up for “debate” — plus they’ve heard remarks like these a hundred times, and nine times out of 10 it just derails the conversation, so they’re just sick of dealing with it.

The question of who belongs and who doesn’t, who is excluded and who isn’t, is a constant worry for most of us. But on top of the personal rejections that everyone faces in life, people in marginalized groups also have to face the feeling that society wasn’t really designed for them; that it considers them an afterthought at best. People in dominant cultural groups are used to rejection, but they’re probably not used to that kind of rejection. And they’re probably not used to being forced to pay attention to all the little social cues and codes that others pick up when trying to navigate a society that isn’t inherently made to fit them.

It’s not easy to deal with shame, hurt feelings, or fear during these kinds of cultural clashes. But particular spaces or identities are rarely the most productive things to blame for the strife. Inside or outside of safe spaces, the real problem is usually a failure of empathy, and the real solution is treating others with humility, respect, and compassion and being willing to learn from our own mistakes.


The non-academic job search (Part 1)

10 Aug

This may come as a surprise to you, but I’ve decided after much soul searching this year that I will not be applying for postdocs this fall and following the steps to success in mathademia.  Please do not take this as an indictment of academia (though I also feel that;  each of those words is a separate link about academia & motherhood), and I highly recommend postgraduate study in math if you’re interested in it (so does Evelyn Lamb on Slate!)

I have loved my time doing something I love on a flexible schedule which gave me lots of time to spend with my son, organize conferences, travel, blog, bake, exercise, and have the life I wanted.  It’s also been very difficult to have the highly unstructured environment, little oversight, and lack of regular collaboration.  Also very little money, but I married a person with an actual job so he can support the kid, and as a young 20-something I didn’t need much money (especially with math conferences covering travel and accommodation costs!)  So I love math, I love mathademia, but I don’t love teaching enough to do it full-time yet, and I don’t love research enough to want to move my family only to move them again 3 years later, and possibly 3 years after that again.  Hence I am starting my non-academic job search, and I thought y’all could join me on my journey.

When I first started toying with leaving academia, a friend of mine who also has a Ph.D. in math told me: the hardest thing about leaving academia is deciding to leave academia.  It’s been several months of pro/con lists, discussions with friends and family, and days of feeling sad and hopeless vs. days of feeling inspired.  You can’t help but feel like a failure when you make this decision, because all the exemplars of success that surround you are academics.  And that’s not even true for me; I try to know a range of people who do different things, but still in my day to day life and work it’s all professors etc.  Anyways, I got through this stage but it was rough.

Next I got some books!  Specifically, In Transition and What Color is Your Parachute? + Workbook.  I’d heard of Parachute, and I talked to a friend on the phone who used to be in consulting who said that everyone who left his company was given a copy of In Transition.  So I spent a few weeks working through these, which was mostly about soul-searching and there’s some practical advice in there about informational interviews.  In those weeks I also contacted career services at Yale (they have someone dedicated to alumni) and UT Austin and got some short and helpful advice.

I rejoined Amazon affiliates so I could put these pictures in this post.  Buy the books from links above, I get money!

After using the books and career people and narrowing down to a few fields that might interest me, I used LinkedIn and the internet to find companies in those fields in the locations I’m interested in (Austin, where we are now, and where our families are).  After a few days of searching, that got me a list of 50 or so companies in a file I called “first impressions”, which I then went through again and checked out all of their websites which took another several days.  I deleted all the ones I couldn’t imagine working for or which didn’t exist anymore, which brought me to a list of about 20 companies.

I figured once I started contacting people they’d google me, so I updated my website and made it pretty and fancy!  Then, using my CV as a starter and a template that one of the career counselors sent me, I wrote a resume targeting these fields.  Based on that, I updated my linkedin.  The website took me an afternoon several months ago, the resume took me two weeks.


How many pictures of myself did I put on my website?  A lot!

In the meantime several more companies got added to my list: I’m on several email lists and one alum sent out a note that his company is hiring, I looked on which ranks consulting companies on lots of metrics, including “work-life balance” and “least amount of travel” so that added a few companies, and I added a few dream companies (AAAS) which are not where I want to live but why not explore them and figure out what makes them dreams, and what things I want in the job I end up getting?

So about two weeks ago I added another sheet for contacts to this growing excel file which still has the name “first impressions”, and I used LinkedIn to find people who work at and people who used to work at each of those companies who are in my 2nd degree networks, and I wrote down their names and the name of my connection to them who can introduce us.  I also used LinkedIn to find people who were alums of any of the schools I’ve been affiliated with.  Now I’m starting to do informational interviews with those people- I asked for half hour phone conversations, but after the first one last week I think 15 minutes would suffice.  To get introduced, I write an email to our mutual connection and include at the bottom of the email an introductory note to the person I want to connect to, so our mutual friend can just forward it instead of having to write a whole long thing.

What’s great about informational interviewing people who used to work somewhere is they have no skin in the game if I end up at that company.  They can tell me why they left!

If you couldn’t tell this has been a summer-long project that I started at the end of May (at least, that’s when I redid my website).  I didn’t start out the summer knowing any of these things, neither what the tasks were nor how to do them, but I talked to that former consulting friend for an hour in May and he made all of these helpful recommendations, and I talked to the Yale alum counselor for a half hour in June, and I met with the UT counselor in July who gave me concrete advice as well.

I’ll keep you updated every few months with the progress of this!

Productivity tips for solo workers

12 Jul

I just got back from a Dissertation Writing Retreat, put on by my undergraduate fellowship, Mellon Mays .  Twelve of us planned our days, talked goals and schedules, and tried out techniques for staying productive and keeping up our morale.  The first two days we were essentially locked in a room for four hours (two sessions of two hours each) and worked on our computers, using social pressure and a shared timer.  Then we weaned off to one session and then no sessions, with the expectation that we’d figure out how to use the time schedule ourselves.  The end of each day we had check-ins and discussed what worked and what didn’t.  So I thought I’d share with you some of the stuff I learned.


#IlookLikeAProfessor #squadgoals (Faculty panel)

First, a few things I already knew:

  • Figure out where you can work.  When my partner worked from home we turned the guest bedroom into an office for him.  I’ve done parks, coffee shops, the office, and our home office and all were much more productive than the kitchen table, where I can see the dishes, the fridge (what’s for dinner tonight?!), the living room…
  • Write a task lisk for each day and focus only on those tasks.
  • Make sure to “have a life,” which in my case meant starting a baking and math blog.
  • Exercise!  Figure out some way to move your body.
  • Use SMART goals.  Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.  I don’t really know what “attainable” means vs. “realistic” but maybe it balances out people with too low self confidence (at least it can be attainable) vs. people with too high self-confidence (remain realistic!).

years of grad school and those are the things I knew.  I’ve been in a rough space for the past few months, math and life-wise, so this writing retreat was the perfect detox/jump start for me.  Here are some things I learned!

  1. Break up goals into specific, manageable tasks.  I used to look at my planner post-it each day and see things like “work on paper X” and “read paper Y.”  On our first evening we listed our main goals for the week, and then took the top goal and split it into at least three specific tasks.  So my “organize paper” became 1) copy topic sentences (lemma/theorem statements), 2) skim paper and name techniques, 3) figure out which theorems use which techniques, 4) form flowchart, and 5) rearrange paragraphs so flowchart makes sense.  Then when I sat down the next morning I didn’t have “organize paper” to look at, but a really easy softball of a task to start my day and feel productive.
  2. Set out your tasks and goals the day before.  This has helped me SO MUCH.  I used to spend half an hour each morning reviewing the previous day and setting up what to do that day.  Here’s a picture of the Emergent Task Planner pages we were using. etp
  3. Try the POMODORO TECHNIQUE.    The idea is that you break up goals into tasks, and then set a timer and FOCUS on each task for 25 minutes (=one pomodoro), then take a five minute break.  You fill a little box for each pomodoro (=”pom”) next to your task that you took, and then you cross off the task when it’s done.  If your tasks are taking 4 or more poms, you’re not breaking up the tasks enough in step 1.  After four poms, you take a longer break (15 minutes).  DO NOT SKIP BREAKS.  The breaks let you work longer and feel more refreshed and ready- in my experience, if I skipped breaks then I’d do a pom or two less that day.  The timer is great!  I use a free app on my phone as the timer.  I also go one step further and put my computer on airplane mode for the poms when I don’t need the internet.  Speaking of which…
  4. Consider turning off the internet.  I was always getting stuck on a thing, and then getting frustrated, and then checking slate or gawker or national review or reason or twitter or facebook and reading an article or five before going back to the task at hand.  I’m pretty distraction-prone, so turning my computer to airplane mode and putting my phone away helped a lot during the retreat.  In regular life I’ve been setting computer to airplane mode and putting my phone on a shelf after setting the timer (I still need to pick up if daycare or nanny calls).
  5. Keep a master task list for the project/week/month.  We made an “activity inventory” of the larger goals we wanted to accomplish over the week.  Then at the end of each day once I had finished my tasks for the day and was looking to the next day, I’d refer to the activity inventory and cross off the major goals and see what was coming up to break into tasks for the next day.


    Goals to finish this project, crossed off as I accomplished them.  Or, funnily, — if they stopped being necessary.

  6. Keep track of distractions.  The Pomodoro technique recommends putting an apostrophe in your list to show when distractions happen.  I did not do that, but I do make liberal use of the “notes” section at the bottom of the ETP sheet above, or a side notebook, just to sketch a few notes about ideas that cropped up.  Also, if I got hit by the math muse, I’d run with it and write it down as a new task with little time bubbles (I believe in staying flexible!)
  7. Various one-time techniques: pre-hindsight: think about a time you didn’t achieve a goal, and try to figure out what would have helped you achieve it.  Then try to implement those tools for success in future goals.  Put yourself first: spend the best part of the day (the time you’re most awake and aware) on the work that matters to you, and then deal with other peoples’ needs.  Take breaks: “You don’t realize you need a break until you’re fatigued, and by the time you’re fatigued it’s too late (to do more good work”-Shanna Benjamin, our amazing facilitator.

Good luck with all your work, blog readers!  I think this is also useful for non-solo workers, but it’s harder to keep track of because there will be other people and other schedules involved.  I did meet with a fellow grad student and we pom’d together, including a 25 minute conversation we had trying to figure something out.  Good luck to all of us!

I am a minority in academia

5 Jul

I started trying to write this post and ended up looking at SO MANY articles and thinkpieces related to academia, minorities, affirmative action, high school, independent/charter schools, microaggressions, and interventions.  This topic is way too complicated for my humble little corner of the internet to take on to any kind of depth, so I’ll just talk about my experiences instead and maybe put in a few links.

I’ve written a lot about being a woman in mathematics (see first post, second post, nth post), and a little bit about race and a bit about the intersection (but really that link is nationality and gender).  But I haven’t written too much about being a Vietnamese person in mathematics.  Part of it is that Vietnam is in Asia, so I’m Asian-American, and the stereotype is that we’re good at math and doing great in academia since you can see a bunch of Asian professors in math.  Most of those Asian professors are Asians-from-Asia which is different than Asian-Americans.  Asians-from-Asia face a whole different experience and set of difficulties than Asian-Americans.  A quote from Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, somewhat hits this:

The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.

So that’s point 1: Asians-from-Asia and Asian-Americans are different.  For instance, Asian-Americans are part of a system of structural racism, while Asians-from-Asia can encounter this system but not have the same understanding and possibilities for complicity/empowerment/action as Asian-Americans.  There’s even a term in Vietnamese for us, Viet Kieu: “Foreign but not foreign, Vietnamese but not Vietnamese.” College friend’s blog post on being Viet Kieu.

Point 2: “Asian-American” is also an unnecessarily general term and erases the difficulties that communities of people from very different nations and backgrounds have with their relationships with the US.  I saw a link recently that I can’t find saying that “Asian-American” as a term is going out with the next census and it’ll actually break us down into parts of Asia instead of, you know, people with ancestry from the world’s largest continent.  Anyway, because of a variety of historical factors (stuff like the Chinese Exclusion Act and racism and xenophobia), lots of [East and South] Asians who have immigrated to the US are highly skilled H1-B visa holders.

Heard of the “model minority” thing?  Maybe it’s because children of doctors, lawyers, and engineers are more likely to know about how to become doctors, lawyers, and engineers.  Versus, say, if you take a swath of the general population of a country and plop them in a new country, you’ll probably get the same percentage of highly skilled workers in that swath as you do in the new country.  Probably less because the certifications of the old country aren’t valid in the new country.  You guessed it, I’m talking about Vietnamese-Americans!  There are many successful Southeast Asian-Americans, but numbers wise, we’re worse off than lots of other ethnic groups.  For instance, we drop out of high school!  Even within Asian-Americans you can compare numbers: Vietnamese poverty rate around 15%, and Filipinos around 6% (national average about 14%).

Point 3: Data time!  Especially in light of the Yale thing last year and all the stuff about diversity in academia, let’s just look at some research about diversity in academia.  There’s a Consortium on Race, Gender, and Ethnicity collecting and organizing great work on how to diversify academia.  This table is from their FAQ page:

Table 1. Distribution of Full Time U.S. Faculty, by Race/Ethnicity (1988-2010)

I’m not a big data head, but we can compare the numbers above with the census numbers in 2010:  5% Asian, 13% black, 1% Native American/Alaskan Native, 16% Hispanic, 72% white.  It doesn’t add up right because the census counts Hispanic as ethnicity, not race, but the table above doesn’t or something (also I rounded).  It looks like Asians are doing okay!  And then you remember my point 1, and the data doesn’t differentiate between Asia-Asians and Asian-Americans.  So it’s unclear what’s happening, but it’s pretty clear that programs like SACNAS are necessary (and other programs that target, for instance, African Americans and not-science).  I’ll mention here that I’m a Mellon Fellow and so have benefited from a program that specifically targets these issues.  And that leads us to…

Point 4: what to do.  The American Psychological Association put together a HUGE pamphlet on “Surviving and Thriving in Academia.”  That’s great!  There was an article in Science in 2011 about a simple intervention that helped minority students succeed in college: basically it fought off stereotype threat by saying that everyone struggles with feeling like they belong in the first year of college, and then it fought off victim-ing (I don’t know the word for telling people that they are victims and need help) by having the students make videos for future students telling them that everyone struggles with feeling like they belong in the first year of college.  It’s pretty cool!  I loved this blog post about a psych Ph.D’s experiences with racism here in Austin.  Quote from it:

Being black isn’t hard; being black is awesome. It’s being the subject of discrimination that is hard, and that is a fight we can all fight together.

Okay I lied and only wrote commentary on a whole bunch of links instead of a memoir of my own experiences.  I feel much more engaged with the issue of being a woman in math than with the issue of being a racial minority in math, but I also think both of these things are very important to my identity.  So there’s that!  I’ll maybe say more about intersectionality in another blog post.

Barely related to the content of this post: here’s a video that I watched a few months ago and LOVED.  Get past the cheesy weird preview screen and production by MTV and there’s a surprising about of history, data, and analysis in this.


13 Jun

I started to write an email to a friend of mine but it reeked of “you are a member of a marginalized group therefore you represent that entire group and must feel a certain prescribed way that I, as a not-member of that group, believe that you should feel.”  The number one advice I read about acting as a good ally is to listen and make room for marginalized groups’ voices instead of centering yourself.  If you haven’t heard of the term “white tears” I suggest you look it up maybe using one of those three helpful links I’ve included in this sentence!  Essentially, if something bad is happening to someone else, the scene should not be about you and your feelings.  I sat down to write a blog post about Orlando, but I don’t want to talk about my feelings too much, so I’ll take this space to let others speak.

A major theme is that the location of the shooting matters, and that gay clubs provide a community space rather than “just” a place to go out at night:

Fifty people were killed, and as many more wounded, in their home. Maybe their only safe place in the world. By someone who didn’t think there should be any safe place in the world for them, because of who they were, because of who they loved.

Facebook note by Els Kushner about being a “middle-aged librarian” and still connecting to the community that this nightclub represents

Pulse wasn’t just about drinks and dancing—it was a place that invested in its community. Although the LGBTQ+ community in Orlando is large, the reality is that Orlando is still in the South, and the hate these individuals have to face every day requires a place like Pulse to exist.

Personal essay by Daniel Leon-Davis on Fusion, about being a member of that community

Gay bars are therapy for people who can’t afford therapy; temples for people who lost their religion, or whose religion lost them; vacations for people who can’t go on vacation; homes for folk without families; sanctuaries against aggression.

Ultimately hopeful article by Richard Kim on the Nation, about his own awakening as to what gay clubs mean.

Another theme is just grief, which I’ve heard described as “the purest pain.”

I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands.

In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign her newborn.

Baby, drink milk.

Baby, play ball.

And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.

-Excerpt from a separate short story, which is quoted over on Jezebel<–this is an article just made for comments, to create a safe space to share feelings and thoughts.  Another open thread is available at Autostraddle.

And finally, intersectionality and a call to arms.

We need our allies to step forward. Give your money and your microphones to queer and trans people, especially to the trans women of color who face the greatest risks and have been the leaders of our movements for decades. Demand accountability from your politicians, law enforcement officials and neighbors who believe no one is watching as they perpetuate discrimination and violence. Remember that LGBTQ people of color are nearly twice as likely to be victims of violence. After this attack on a space that prioritized the safety and community of black and Latinx queers, it is even more important to make sure our efforts center on people of color.

-A column by Audrey White over at the Dallas News

It should be noted that this attack to a black and Latinx-friendly gay club happened both during Ramadan and Pride Month.  So I also wanted to include a personal essay by a gay Muslim writer, but I’m having a tough time finding something (let me know if you find something!)  Instead here’s a bit of a video interview with a gay imam, which mostly focuses on media coverage:

One of the issues I think is very important, in many communities of color, there’s a stigma about mental health. And in my pastoral counseling that I provide to not only LGBT Muslims, but also young Muslims, interfaith couples, older Muslims who are now in a different culture, we find that the shaming that comes from acknowledging that one may have some issues that may relate to mental health, often people are not willing to go and seek additional help because of that shaming or that cultural stigma that’s associated with it.

I’m having troubles with my computer so I haven’t actually watched this video by a St. Louis imam, but it’s supposed to be nice.

Here are events happening in your town.  Here is where you can donate to the victims and the victims’ families, via Equality Florida.  You can also donate to the crisis counseling center, via the GLBT Community Center for central Florida.

I’m sorry that we live in this hateful society.  All of me boils with wanting to act, to change the system, to do something, and my heart breaks in the face of overwhelming loss.  The media started saying “act of terror” very quickly (which I don’t like b/c racism-Islamophobia), and it’s also got a kernel of truth to it: that terrorism is random violence meant to intimidate us from living unafraid and joyful lives.  I like the title of Richard Kim’s article cited above: Please don’t stop the music.  Living joyfully, building community, speaking up, calling people in- I really believe this is the best way for everyday people to fight against these dark forces.  Also donate blood if you can.  And, yknow, give people hugs. And call your family (biological or chosen) and tell them you love them.

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