Tag Archives: anxiety

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 the get, or on role models/pressure

31 May

Awhile back I did a post on various podcast recommendations, and I pointed out a recent favorite of mine by an old classmate and her best friend, the get.  Their most recent episode really resonated with me and echoed some issues that I haven’t talked about in years (part 2), so I thought I’d revisit them and talk about why I love this podcast so much.

Two and a half years ago, I wrote this in an email to a professor, referencing an earlier meeting:

Upon reflection I believe that I felt like I was speaking on behalf of all women in a room full of men, a responsibility that I wasn’t prepared for.  It’s like having a discussion about race in a room with one person of color.  It’s a little weird.

Part of Rhiana talks about in ep14 is the pressure she feels as a high-achieving minority, to continuously highly achieve on behalf of that minority group.  Whenever you’re in a group, be it a classroom, a meeting, or a collection of role models (you may not even know you’re in this group!), if you’re a super-minority then you represent that minority to people looking at that group.  Relevant comic:


XKCD: link here

And that sort of pressure can be dangerous-I won’t tell you Rhiana’s story; you can listen for yourself and I’ll tell you my stories instead.  I’ve been incredibly lucky in my path to where I am now, with support since childhood with extra programs essentially designed to get me where I am today.  Rhiana and Ivy had it even “worse” with a Rhodes and a Ford (fancy graduate fellowships).  What do I mean by “worse”?  I mean when you have all this support and have used up all of these resources to lead you to success, you feel even more pressure to succeed.  Success begets success.  Which is often a good thing, but the pressure can be crippling.  Related digression: this movie (that I love and is directed by the Fast and the Furious director Justin Lin) is based on a real life murder that happened at my rival high school, which was also an extremely high achieving high pressure environment.

I’m planning on finishing my Ph.D. next year (spring 2017), so my thoughts have been leading to what’s coming next: do I try to succeed in mathademia, or turn my back on all of these supporters and do something else?  Here are some mission statements of programs that have helped me:

  • MMUF is the centerpiece of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s initiatives to increase diversity in the faculty ranks of institutions of higher learning.
  • The EDGE Program is administered by Morehouse andPomona Colleges with the goal of strengthening the ability of women students to successfully complete PhD programs in the mathematical sciences and place more women in visible leadership roles in the mathematics community.
  • Dedicated to furthering the success of underrepresented students, USTARS seeks to broaden the participation in the mathematical sciences

So those mission statements imply that they gave me funding/programming/mentorship/networks because they want me to become a math professor.  Also, having role models who look like you is extremely important for young people, especially underrepresented groups, to even begin to ideate what success could look like.  This belief, coupled with my experiences, makes me personally feel pressure to become a research mathematician and exist as an example and role model for others: look!  A woman mathematician!  They exist!  I recently saw this sweet video on upworthy and it’s from this program that sends professionals to grade schools:

So being a role model is great!  But defining success for yourself is a key part of being successful, and going with something without examining it is not, in my opinion, drinking life to the lees [which is a goal of my life].

I spoke with Evelyn Lamb, a friend and personal hero, about this tension between living up to expectations and figuring out your own path.  She pointed out, rightly, that she’s far, far more visible now as a math writer than she was as an assistant professor.  So if the goal is to show people that women can do math, she’s reaching the goal much more effectively by going her own way.  I’d be remiss not to mention Erica Klarreich here and promo my math field with her incredible article.

To sum up: despite massive amounts of pressure from your own underrepresented group/your supporters/your funders/your family/anyone, you have to make your own decisions for your own success and happiness.  Maybe you’re incredibly motivated by the idea of being a role model for others, and that’s enough to launch you into whatever career.  I don’t personally feel that way, and I want my kids to see their mother loving her job and actively choosing it.  The goal of being a role model and showing people that women can do math is to encourage young women who might not realize they can become mathematicians that it’s a path available for them.  It’s not to pressure capable young women into some path that I’ve pre-determined as correct or better than whatever choices they’ll make.  Empowerment is not restricting choices, it’s expanding choices.

Last bit: what do I mean when I say “I am the get”?  It’s from the first episode of Ivy and Rhiana’s podcast.  I can’t say it as well as Rhiana can, so here’s her words:

One thing that always stuck out is that she told me that when I walk in there, like, I have to remember that I am the get. I am the thing that they need to have, I’m the thing that they want, and that I am…not a prize, but something to be gotten. I am an asset. […]we want our listeners to always remember that they are the get, that you are an asset, a thing to be gotten! You’re the thing that people want—and it’s so easy to forget that, especially if you’re a woman, especially if you’re a woman of color, especially if you’re a member of the number of marginalized groups in the US. So, we just wanted that to always be a reminder of self-love and of just how fucking awesome you are, all the time.

I’m out!  Maybe baking next week; it’s been a while!

How to succeed in mathademia, by a grad student

26 Jan

This is, as far as I can tell, a great way to succeed in math academia.  But I’m only partway through the process and I’m not married to the idea of being in mathademia (I’m married to my spouse!).  Side story: some years back a professor was surprisingly denied tenure at a university where his wife’s family lived nearby.  He and his wife (and kids) then moved to a different country so he could be a tenured math professor there [it’s a good job].  I do not identify with this story.  I do identify with this: when I was a kid my mom would annually schlep us three kids to California from Minnesota for all two weeks of her allotted vacation time.

Outline of mathademia [I did not know all this til grad school]: you spend 4 years in undergrad somewhere that you want to go/live, then 5-6 years getting a Ph.D. somewhere you learn to enjoy going to/living (though no one cares how long you spend in grad school; I know one professor who took a six year break before going on), then 1-3 years doing a postdoc somewhere you often don’t want to live/go to, then possibly more of those postdocs until you get a tenure-track job somewhere that you better want to live.  After 6-7 years in your tenure track job, you either get tenure and will live there forever, or not and will have to go find somewhere else.  It’s all fairly civilized and organized.  Also, it gets more and more selective the further you go: I regularly hear about people applying to 80 jobs and getting 2-3 interviews and one offer.  Also, if you are romantically involved with someone else in academia, good luck with the two-body problem; almost every academic couple I know has had years of long-distance dating or marriage.


  1. Go to college.  While there (4 year liberal arts school or a university that offers PhDs both seem fine), major in math and take as many math courses as you can.  If possible, take graduate courses in math as an undergraduate.  If none are available, ask to take a reading course with a professor or a graduate student [for instance, several schools have grad-undergrad student reading programs like UT, UMD, UCHicago, Rutgers, UConnBerkeley, MIT, Yale,  and more all the time].  For studying abroad, consider Budapest.  I did it and it was great!  I’m still in touch with friends from BSM and there are several in my field.
  2. While in college, do research.  Ask a professor for advice on doing a senior thesis project.  During your junior and/or sophomore summer, DO AN REU and get a little money to go to math research camp for a few weeks and hopefully get a peek into the publishing world.
  4. Also, study for the Math GRE during that same summer if not earlier.  Even if you’re a math hotshot it’s a hard test and you should study for it.  It’s only offered three times a year.  Note: some grad programs don’t require this.  Take the regular GRE too but there’s probably no need to study for it.
  5. Take the Putnam.  Do any extracurricular math activities you can.
  6. If you followed steps 1 and 2 you should be able to get some strong letters of recommendation for applying to grad school.  So, apply to grad school.  There’s lots of advice out there about this.  Also, while you’re applying to grad school, APPLY TO THE NSF GRFP and possibly NDSEG as well.  Note: this step is a lot of work!

Pre-graduate school

  1. Maybe you took some time between undergrad and grad school.  In that case, you’d better brush up on your math!  Some people have success in looking at their old notes/books/homework.  You could also check out these books: All the Math You Missed, Mathematician’s Survival Guide.
  2. If you’re a woman, consider doing this incredible summer brush up program that I did.  It’s great.
  3. Take 15 minutes and do this exercise.  First, quickly write down a list of five things that you value (for me: food, family, learning, math, creativity/writing).  Then choose one of the things and take five full minutes (time yourself) to write about why you value that thing.  Do so for two other things too.  I did this my first semester of graduate school with my roommate based on an article I can’t find anymore, but roughly was this one.  The point is that affirming your values and sense of identity can help you cope with graduate school.
  4. Figure out a physical exercise that you enjoy doing enough to actually do it.  If you’re already a gym rat or sports person, great.  If not, may I suggest Couch 2 5K.  Other things I’ve seen grad students do: rock climbing, cross country skiing, ballroom dancing, triathlons, marathons, swimming, yoga.  Physical activity really helps with the mental strain of first year of grad school.

Graduate school

  1. Swim in your own lane.  First and second year it’s easy to compare to other students who are in your same classes/have better or worse preparation than you.  After that it gets a lot harder and a lot more tempting to compare with your cohort.  Try to avoid this.
  2. Finish prelims/qualifying exams as quickly as possible, so you can focus on research = primary goal of graduate school.  This is how I studied for prelims: took the courses if applicable, downloaded all the previous exams (generally available on the department website), did one or two exams a week and checked answers with a study group once a week.  Study group = invaluable for problems that you aren’t sure how to solve.  Made a binder of all exams and all solutions (neatly written up) to reread at my leisure before exam.
  3. Talk to other graduate students, especially older ones.  Many programs have a big sib/little sib program for first years.  Exploit this.  Grad students know so many things that aren’t on the internet (which professors are good to TA for, shortcuts between classroom buildings, who wants what for exams or reading courses, what seminars to attend, who to ask for help).
  4. Publish if possible.  Find collaborators and publish results.  This is far easier said than done.
  5. Read read read.  Trawl arxiv every day (takes a few minutes) just to prime some words into your head/see who’s who in your field.  Read.  Reading math is HARD.  You need to do a lot of it in mathademia so you should try to learn how you do it best.  I take extensive notes while reading, others don’t.
  6. Give talks.  Every program has somewhere you can give a talk (1st/2nd year seminar, grad student colloquium, junior topic seminars) and you should give at least one before you start doing job talks.  It’s terrifying and then gets better the more you do.
  7. Go to seminars!  Every professor who has given me advice has said this to me.  I am not great about it but I think I have sleep apnea/mild narcolepsy.  My advisor is always falling asleep in talks too, which makes me feel better, but then he wakes up and asks intelligent questions which makes me feel worse.
  8. Take care of yourself.  Mental health days are legit.  Get physical exercise.  Eat well.  DO YOUR LAUNDRY, for all of our sakes.
  9. Go to at least one conference so people know you.  Follow your advisor around and have her introduce you to people in your field.  Try to give some talks at conferences.
  10. Applying to jobs is pretty much a full-time extremely stressful job.  So that fall semester of your last year of grad school, don’t expect to get a lot of math done.
  11. Write for the future version of yourself who doesn’t understand past you’s cryptic notation.  Write write write.  This is the ultimate goal of graduate school, to write a thesis.

Post doc

  1. Write write write.  Publish publish publish.  Collaborate.
  2. Make sure people care about your work, somehow (attend conferences, give talks???)
  3. ????

Tenure track job

  1. Write write write.  Publish publish publish.
  2. From my perspective, be superhumanly amazing and incredible.


  1. Profit from your hard work!  Keep working hard because if you made it this far, you really love math and your work.  I’ve heard many professors say “why would I retire?” but I also know that teaching is draining.


  1. Become a really good TA, and try to instruct your own courses.  Become conversant in things like flipped classrooms, IBL, clickers, and various pedagogy.  Consider doing math circle, DRP mentorship, tutoring.
  2. Write an incredible teaching statement, and personalize your cover letter to each teaching school you’re applying to.  Convince them that you love teaching.  Teach the letter reader something they didn’t know/think about before.  See notes I took from a talk by the president of the MAA:
  3. 20150630_150545.jpg
  4. Be an awesome teacher, and continue to do research on the side (depending on your position).

Note that I had a lot more advice for undergraduates than I did for after where I am now (I didn’t follow all that undergraduate advice either).  I also have no metrics really of “success” besides getting tenure, which is not for everyone.  I feel very successful life-wise with my family and blog and triathlons, but as to professional success I am pretty emo.  This blog post is about professional success==tenure.  Or you could be a badass and become a freelance mathematician or a mathematical writer  or anything else you want to be!  You’re getting a Ph.D. in math; the world is your oyster!

Also!  Writing this blog has been very fun and rewarding and one of the best parts is when undergraduates or beginning grad students or other people write to me to ask for advice or just say hey.  I love hearing from you!  I’m on email (yenergy), twitter (yenergy), and instagram (yenergyyy) so hit me up!

Grad school angst

17 Dec

I had a draft of this post but then a woman posted a thing on her blog that blows this out of the water so please read her post.  She exploded on the math scene a few weeks ago with her incredible amazing readable Ph.D. thesis which is my new goal in life and I think this is an achievable goal.  Here’s a short post about that amazing incredible thesis.

To encourage you to read that thesis (please do read it, no matter what level of math you are especially if you are math-phobic), here is an excerpt:

I like to imagine abstraction (abstractly ha ha ha) as pulling the strings on a marionette. The marionette, being “real life,” is easily accessible. Everyone understands the marionette whether it’s walking or dancing or fighting. We can see it and it makes sense. But watch instead the hands of the puppeteers. Can you look at the hand movements of the puppeteers and know what the marionette is doing? A puppeteer walks up to you and says “I’m really excited about figuring out Fermat’s Last Thumb Bend!” You say, “huh?” The puppeteer responds, “Oh, well, it’s simply a matter of realizing that the main thumb joint has several properties that distinguish it from…” You’re already starting to fantasize about the Zombie Apocalypse.

Don’t you want to read it now?  And also be the author’s best friend?  That’s my reaction anyway.  If the thesis is too long, at least read the first post linked, here’s a quote.  This has been shared by so many of my Facebook friends and in my math communities and the post clearly struck a chord.

My experience discussing math with mathematicians is that I get dragged into a perspective that includes a hierarchy of knowledge that says some information is trivial, some ideas are “stupid”; that declares what is basic knowledge, and presents open incredulity in the face of dissent.

Anyways, here’s my original post that I drafted some time ago.  Though I might add that after I was mildly eviscerated by some professors during the question part after a talk I gave (so I’m still up at board and audience is still sitting and there were like 30 people at least there), one student came up to me and said “don’t let the haters get to you.”  It’s the best thing anyone has ever said to me after a talk, and now we’re friends, and maybe it’s a coincidence and maybe it’s not that he’s black (I can count on one hand the number of black male mathematicians I’ve interacted with, and I only know black female mathematicians from that awesome EDGE program).

I think all graduate students feel inadequate at some points, and also isolated in that feeling, which leads to imposter syndrome [this is a really good link].  A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a prominent mathematician (A) who said that all us women at UT looked happy, and in contrast she remembered grad school being extremely difficult.  Another professor remembered that when they were in grad school, A had seemed happy too.  We all look and seem fine, but we aren’t constantly happy, and that’s okay, especially if we recognize that we aren’t isolated in this sadness.

Anyways, me time!  We’ve got a paper from that awesome summer research program in the galleys, and I’ve written a zeroth, error-ridden draft of a project that I’ve been working on for just under a year.  My blog is 3 and I occasionally get compliments on it, my baby is 1 and I often get compliments on him, and I’m finally sleeping through almost every night.  My brain is back from its pregnancy/new baby/sleep-deprived state, my spouse is incredibly supportive and also supports us financially, so I have much less to worry about than many people.  I have my health.  I enjoy tremendous privilege.  And look at this bibimbap I made for dinner!


I included all that awesomeness to highlight how, even when life is going great and so Instagrammable, you can still feel crappy.  We just have one life so it’s hard to compare with others.  For instance, by the time she was my age, my mom had left her country on a boat and with it everything she’d ever had or known, and stayed in a Korean refugee camp for months, and moved to freezing Minnesota from tropical Vietnam, and worked every possible job, and had a two year old and a husband and had built a life despite having a stroke shortly after coming here.  My mom’s a tough cookie.  I hope someday my kid can say that about me, because right now I feel more like a soft but also inexplicably burnt piece of dough.

What are the anxieties plaguing me?  Oh, the usual, which I’m sure lots of grad students feel sometimes:

  • I’m not good enough at math.  I’ll never be smart enough/fast enough/good enough to solve real problems.
  • Nobody cares about my research; it’s trivial and stupid.  And when I do figure out things they are trivial and stupid, and I’d spent months following the stupid path and not seeing the trivial conclusion.
  • I’ll never finish.  Everything will always be wrong, and when I do write things down see bullet points 1 and 2.
  • I’m a bad person.  I should be contributing to society and doing good instead of sitting all day banging my head against the chalkboard.
  • I don’t deserve x,y,z (fill in with your favorites, my go-tos are my supportive husband, sympathy and slack because I have a baby, a day off because I don’t get anything done on my days on)

Anyways, I’m feeling better nowadays.  When I started grad school, a professor told me “Don’t let your highs get too high or your lows get too low,” which is good advice.  My favorite grad school advice: “Swim in your own lane.”  That sort of deals with almost all the anxieties in five words.  But I’m not trying to offer solutions to those anxieties, just that they exist and I feel them sometimes and maybe so do you, and that’s okay.  Even mathematicians are mere mortals.

Here’s a hilarious picture of my sweet baby to wrap up this post!


International Day of the Girl was October 11th- late is better than never?

27 Oct

This Day of the Girl thing started two years ago.  I remember that Google Chicago was having an event for it, but I did not attend.  I feel like I remember very clearly the things I choose not to do, but I have a remarkably bad memory for the things that I actually do.  For instance, I have a friend I visit every time I go to San Francisco, but I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen him.  At least once, but I probably didn’t nap and sleep and have coffee and have dinner and have breakfast all at the same time.  He remembers each interaction quite clearly though.  So I’m an asshole.

Anyways, this post isn’t supposed to be about me.  I’m a woman now, suckers!  I think I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been incredibly lucky in the educational opportunities I’ve been given: Project PRIME which no longer exists, but is similar to this program for 4th-7th grade girls interested in mathematics in the Twin Cities (I learned about spherical geometry when I was 10, at a Saturday workshop!), UMTYMP where I took the standard high school math curriculum during middle school and was subsidized by the state of Minnesota, great calculus courses at my high school where we got college credit, and the opportunity to take several more college courses across the street at CSUF while I was still in high school (for $3.50 each course, if I remember right).  And of course I won the lottery that is getting into Yale, and I studied abroad for math, and did some undergraduate research, and taught some math, and got into grad school, and was encouraged to go, and the point is that I’ve been very lucky throughout my life.  And very few people are this lucky.  And very, very few girls are this lucky.  That’s my take on Day of the Girl.

Here’s a company’s take on Day of the Girl:

Currently, 36 percent of high school students within the United States are not ready for college-level sciences. Misha Malyshev, CEO of Teza Technologies works with nonprofits to curb that number. International Day of the Girl is a great time to celebrate the women in this field, and every field, and recognize the opportunities allowed to girls.

Day of Girl

I’ll try to follow the suggestions of the infographic (this company randomly emailed me and asked if I wanted to see it, and I said yes, and that’s how it’s on the blog now).  In that whole educational bio paragraph up there I embedded all the math programs I was part of.  Here in Austin, girlstart is pretty amazing and in this department we have a Saturday Morning Math Group as well as an occasional Sunday Math Circle.

So yeah.  Girls are cool.

A few nights ago I went to dinner with a few postdocs and another graduate student.  This was remarkable because we were all women!  We traded war stories and discussed our experiences as women in math, and it was so so nice to interact with people who had similar experiences to mine.  Every school I’ve been to has a women in math-type group which usually is open to men joining in as well.  This sort of supportive community helps lots (not all) women grit our teeth and stick to it.  And we’re women!  When we were girls we were so much less confident and self-assured, and (some of us) needed a guiding hand or supportive push to keep us in math.  I really really appreciate all the help I’ve been given/earned throughout my life, and I think everyone deserves at least a chance to do what they love/figure out what they love.

Related old post.

Unorganized Common core thoughts, math anxiety, also help me?

27 Aug

Disclaimer: I hate high-stakes testing.  Hate it.  This post is not about high-stakes testing; it is about content that happens to be used in high-stakes testing.  Imagine I’m writing about Holden Caulfield, and try to banish all memories of Catcher in the Rye plot pop quizzes from your mind.

My cousin asked me about my thoughts on common core.  Here’s an actual paragraph from the common core website:

These standards define what students should understand and be able to do in their study of mathematics. But asking a student to understand something also means asking a teacher to assess whether the student has understood it. But what does mathematical understanding look like? One way for teachers to do that is to ask the student to justify, in a way that is appropriate to the student’s mathematical maturity, why a particular mathematical statement is true or where a mathematical rule comes from. Mathematical understanding and procedural skill are equally important, and both are assessable using mathematical tasks of sufficient richness.

This sounds awesome!  I often think I understand something well, and then try to write it down only to realize that there are more subtleties than I thought, or that I had a fundamental misunderstanding, and in general that I am wrong.

On March 16th of this year I thought I had an answer to something I’m working on.  Aaaand… today is August 27th and I’m still working on it.  But I didn’t realize my answer wasn’t complete until I started writing, and I wrote “, because” and had nothing to follow it.  This is frustrating and ridiculous, and I don’t expect every kid in America to become a mathematician and work on a problem for six months.  But I do believe that trying to do something, thinking you’re right, and then trying to explain it and realize you’re wrong after six minutes is a good experience and makes you a better critical thinker.  Question your beliefs, analyze your reasoning, explain yourself- all good things.

The above is all theoretical (I was a math and philosophy major in undergrad).  So I looked up some common core examples.

Here’s a comment from this article, as reported by a Washington Post blog:

Try doing multiplication in long drawn out word form like this one: 3, 6, 9 what is the 12th number in this sequence? My son can’t just read that and think the 12th number automatically. He has to write them out. He also cries over this type of math.

The problem itself is great (I’m also not opposed to crying).  Most parents can help their kids with 12 times 3 equals 36 “automatically,” but figuring out why 12 times 3 is 36 is hard.  This question offers justification first, and encourages the student to explore and discover multiplication for himself.  I was quite bad at my times tables as a kid (I still remember nonsense like “Six and eight went out on a date.  When they came back, they were 48!”) because it didn’t make any sense.  But writing out a sequence 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, 24, 27, 30, 33, 36 is just like practicing spelling or lay-ups, and it makes sense.

I started finding more examples of common core type problems, but I think talking about one of my own past experiences is more helpful.

During my first semester of graduate school, I sat down to my first analysis exam.  I’d never been a big analysis fan (though now that I’ve taken it umpteen times I actually enjoy it!), and I felt a bit shaky about the material before I walked in the room.  The professor handed out the exams and said “you have one hour.”  If this isn’t clear to you by now, I’m good at math.  But as I leafed through the problems I started silently FREAKING OUT.  I felt something like vertigo, and also felt very very cold as I thought about trying to finish this exam in the allotted time.  My hands were shaking and I was a little sweaty.  This was my first experience at math anxiety and it was TERRIFYING.  My skin is prickling as I type this, remembering the experience five years later.

I can only imagine what it must be like to feel that with math for years in elementary-high school.  Math anxiety is real, and unfortunately contagious.  There’s been some amount of backlash to common core/shaking up math education, and I’m certain that some of it is rooted in past traumatic memories of math anxiety.  All I can say is, I support students, I believe in them, and that “the most important thing is to stay calm.”

If you google “common core math” you’ll get lots and lots of mild vitriol, but you also get some good stuff.  Here’s a side-by-side comparison of some math problems and explanations of why they switched.  Here’s a cool explanation of the new subtraction.

Here’s an article called “The Ten Dumbest Common Core Problems” that I’ve run into a lot [I dislike it because it doesn’t give credit to where any of the pictures/examples came from], and my thoughts on 1-10.  Again, not an elementary-high school educator, just a math person:

  1. 7 + 7 = 10 + 4 = 14.  Maybe adding a word like “number bonds” is strange and new, but memorizing that 7+7 = 14 can be hard (I’m a terrible memorizer, but a good reasoner).  Breaking 7 into 3 and 4, and then pairing up to get a 10?  That’s how I add large numbers quickly, and I had to figure that out myself.  Helping kids learn the trick is great.
  2. Awesome, visualizing subtraction.  See above explanation on the new subtraction.
  3. This is a worksheet with a typo.  So… unclear why it’s included.  If it didn’t have typo, it’d be a good sheet.
  4. This worksheet’s picture doesn’t make sense.  But the math does.  (Figure out what’s unknown if you have parts of a whole)
  5. More visualization of addition and subtraction.  I literally did this with 12 year olds when I was 15, using quarters on a table.
  6. I like this one too.
  7. I always hated “carrying the one” so I’m all for the new addition.
  8. I don’t understand this.  This doesn’t mean I hate it, it means I want to know what it says.
  9. This isn’t new; I did this worksheet as a child.
  10. Another typo

Final anecdote in this jumble of a blog post: how I learned to divide fractions.  They tell you to just multiply by the reciprocal.  Like I said, I’m bad at memorization, so I’d often do random nonsense that seemed sensible (divide the tops, multiply the bottoms).  No matter what I tried on my own, I felt like I just couldn’t get this dividing fractions thing. One day, my dad drove me to Baker’s Square to buy a pie.  He asked how school was going and I told him that I would never get how to divide fractions and I’d always get it wrong and math is dumb and I was just a sad little 8 year old sitting in that passenger seat.  He said, okay, well, if we split this pie among our family, how much pie does each of us get?  And I said “one fifth.”  What about if just you and I take the pie?  “One half.”  What if I give you the pie?  “One.”  What if half a person gets a pie, how much pie does one person get? “Tw-OHHHHHHHHHH.”  Crystal clear, this concept that had been frustrating me for weeks.  Why do we use the reciprocal?  Because if half a person eats a pie, that whole person eats TWO PIES.


That’s my happy story of understanding the madness behind the method.  I’ve seen dozens of students who know to multiply by the reciprocal, but who don’t understand why, which makes word problems quite difficult.  Conclusion: so far, I’m all for common core math.  The important thing is to stay calm.  And ask questions.  And maybe not help your kids with homework?

Oh one more thing: I’m interested in giving back to the community/doing some volunteer work and putting my skills to use.  I told my advisor yesterday that I don’t have any skills, and he responded that I have math skills and I should go find something like the free clinic for math.  Do you have any recommendations for me to help people with my math skills?

On failure, also coconut chocolate chip cookies

2 May

Lately I’ve been thinking about failure a lot.  I have my prelims coming up in a few weeks, and I’ve been anxious and fretful about failing them.  Nothing bad really happens if I fail them.  I’ll just have to study for them again, though that’s annoying- weeks spent trying to remember/relearn all the math I’m expected to know for a three hour exam (or two).  The harder thing, harder than restudying and relearning (which is sort of fun), would be knowing that I failed.  That there was an expectation for me, a line to cross to prove that I’ll be an okay mathematician, and I fell short of it.  That I should have been able to do something, but I didn’t because I’m not quite good enough.

This is pretty terrifying and terrible and there’s all sorts of stuff written out there about math anxiety.  But here’s the thing: math is always like this.  There’s always a quiz, or a homework problem, or a few minutes in a lecture, or a paper that you feel like you just don’t and can’t understand.  Part of what’s so beautiful about math is that it’s really hard.  And part of throwing yourself into your work (baking or math or whatever you do) is letting go of the fear that you won’t be good enough, that it’s too hard, that you aren’t up to the challenge.

I bring this up because I made these coconut chocolate chip cookies just now and they’re almost inedible.  Food blogs and TV shows always have pictures of gorgeous food but most food doesn’t look like that.  In fact, if you bake cookies often, I bet you have had this happen:



The cookies are flat, there’s big holes where the unincorporated baking soda lifted out of the cookie, there’s not enough flour to hold them together, and the edges taste like scrambled eggs (it’s gross).  I bet one of these things has happened to you before, or you don’t bake, or you are lying, or you are my friend Edward.

But I did everything right!  Not really: I added coffee, and I didn’t incorporate my baking powder.  Up to the very end the cookies looked like they’d be okay:

Nut another pun... these drive me coconuts!

Nut another pun… these drive me coconuts!

Gotta put this dough in the oven before i eat it all

Gotta put this dough in the oven before i eat it all

And then they come out and they’re awful.


I failed at these cookies.  I fail at math sometimes.  I am not a failure of a person, and while I enjoy baking and math, being great at either of them does not define me as a person.  In fact, being infallible at both of them would define me as a not-person and you should check me for robot parts.  Speaking of segues, an old friend of mine has a wonderful post about failure, and here’s a quote from it:

“There’s a simple reason why tackling a hard problem can lead to depressive symptoms: you’re necessarily wrong 99% of the time.”

A few days ago a great blog post showed up on slate about being bad at math [disclaimer: this guy was at school with me.  Again this disclaimer makes no sense/is irrelevant because I didn’t know him].  A great quote from it:

“Mathematical failure – much like romantic failure – leaves us raw and vulnerable. It demands excuses.”

The humidity was off, my oven doesn’t work well, the baking soda is old: excuses in baking, perhaps, sound more rational when written than excuses in math (this is too hard, I hate math, I’m too stupid for this).  But they’re still excuses, which are what we make when we fail.

I’m human, I make mistakes, I fail sometimes.  I make excuses.  But I try to learn from my mistakes, and I’m going to make cookies again, and I’m going to keep doing math, and I’m going to fail again (hopefully not in a few weeks).  And this is all okay.  This is life!  This is why this blog is about baking and math!


Recipe (follow it but don’t do the step that I point out) [taken from taste of home]:


1 c flour

1/2 tsp baking soda


1 stick butter

3/4 c white sugar

Then beat in:

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla


Mix your dry and wet ingredients.  This delicious stuff is batter starter.  Add anything to it, but I added:

1 c chocolate chips

1/2 c shredded coconut

1/2 c walnuts

Drop by tablespoons onto your silpat or parchment paper or greased baking sheet, and bake at 375 (NOT 350) for 10 minutes.

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