Tag Archives: sad

The Apology and why it bugs me

3 Aug

I want to remark at the beginning of this post that I love math people.  We’re a little weird, very friendly, and generally quite open-minded and supportive (at least, this is true of the math people I know, a.k.a. geometric group theorists and friend fields).  There’s one thing that really, really bugs me that many (definitely not all) math people do when talking math with each other.

Also, I’m really into lists right now.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m doing an exciting research program this summer involving four faculty, five graduate students, and three undergraduates doing at least five research projects.  With so many different experiences and different personalities interacting, there are lots of times when apologies are required:

  • Interrupting someone in the middle of a productive thought (actually people don’t apologize for this enough.  Reminds me of this post from the What is it like to be a woman in philosophy? blog)
  • Stealing someone’s notes/pen/paper/seat
  • Talking over someone (similar to the first thing here)
  • Probably more things I can’t think of right now

And I’m totally down with all of those.  They make complete sense- apologies are a nice lubricant for social and professional interactions.  But there’s one apology that really bothers me, which comes up in these situations:

  • Not knowing something that you’ve never been exposed to/had a reason to explore
  • Not being able to read the mind of someone who isn’t communicating clearly (related: this old post on teaching)
  • Having a different background than someone else, mathematical or otherwise
  • Being better at processing things in a visual rather than audial way, or vice-versa

These all come down to one thing: you’re a different mathematician than whoever you’re talking to.  And this is the thing that you might say in this situation:

Sorry, I’m slow.

I dislike this so much!  I’ve heard very many mathematicians say this over the past few weeks, whom no one would call “slow.”  One reason for my distaste ties in with the whole “women apologize more” bit, explored in a Pantene ad, dissected by Time, and perhaps most effectively explained in this spoken word video.

To be clear, this is not a women-only problem (while I’ve noticed more women do so than men, men also do this).  I dislike the phrase “sorry, I’m slow” because

  1. I’m apologizing for an adjective that I’m applying to myself- ->I’m apologizing for who I am.  [I am not a person who likes doing this.  I certainly apologize when I make mistakes/do bad actions, but to judge myself on my character, and invite you to pass that same judgment?  Not fun.]
  2. I’m devaluing my contributions to this conversation.  If I don’t take myself seriously, how can I expect you to?
  3. By saying these words aloud, whether I believe them now or not, I convince myself and you that I am, in fact, slow.  Just like if I looked in a mirror everyday and said “I’m ugly” I would eventually believe it.
  4. I’m perpetuating a system of these apologies- now whenever you’re in a conversation and struggling to understand what’s going on, you’ll be tempted to say “sorry, I’m slow” and cause 1-3 to happen to you.

Maybe the worst part of “sorry, I’m slow” is that there are good reasons to say it: when faculty/those further along say it, it encourages undergrads/younger folks that they aren’t the only ones who feel this way.  Similarly, if you say it in a group of peers, it builds camaraderie (in the way that teenage girls insult themselves in order to get compliments from each other).  When younger people say it to older people, mentorship instincts kick in and older people often share personal stories of some other time they felt slow.

Really what I’m saying is that “sorry I’m slow” is bad because it makes you believe that you’re slow, and it’s good because it tells everyone else that you also think you’re slow.  I just wish people didn’t pass these value judgments on themselves.  =(  I suppose this post is why I’m a mathematician, not a psychologist or sociologist.

From here: http://cheezburger.com/5218979584

From here: http://cheezburger.com/5218979584.  Also, I’m the puppy and the cat.


I can speak English

13 Jan

Also, I should’ve said this in my last post: a big thank you to Evelyn Lamb for her sweet post featuring Baking and Math on the AMS Blog on Math Blogs!  I’m sure readers from there were surprised to see my mom’s thit kho recipe as the first thing.  Also readers from The neuro blogs daily– I do not understand that website but Evelyn’s post was reposted there too!

Another edition of Yen describes an issue not really related to baking or math and has no solutions for it!

At the end of every term, we get teaching evaluations.  I also ask for feedback from my students throughout the semester.  Over the past three years, I’ve heard this comment in these exact words many times: “It’s so nice that you can speak English.”  And plenty of variations on this theme.

I get it.  Students see my name, and are relieved when I come in on day one and start talking with my clearly American accent (this is universal; I’m curious what their reactions are to my gender).  I was an undergrad once too, and the language barrier is a real thing which is somehow more insurmountable-feeling than cultural barriers and gender barriers (these also exist but are not the topic of this post).  Since English is both of my parents’ (and lots of my extended family’s) second language, I have more practice than a lot of my students at

  1. Parsing grammatical/word choice errors for actual meaning
  2. Understanding accented English.

I also notice this when I speak in French and Vietnamese- people who are used to talking to foreigners are better at figuring out what the heck I’m trying to say, while my fellow undergraduates during my semester abroad struggled at hearing through my accented French to my meaning.


My favorite thing to come up when I googled “language barriers.” By Rebecca Critchley’s deviantart account. Click on image for the original. http://red-wolf7.deviantart.com

That same year that I studied abroad in France, I spent the summer in Vietnam doing an ethnographic research project on women mathematicians.  I have never taken an anthropology course nor a sociology course so I find it incredible (as in not-credible, rather than awe-inspiring) that I did this.  You can read my paper here.  (I never published this; this is the first time anyone but my incredibly supportive undergraduate research advisor has seen it.)  At the end of the summer, I taught a TOEFL class at Can Tho University.

TOEFL (pronounced toe-full) stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language, and as far as I can tell, is required for international students who wish to do graduate work in the US (and probably for other people too).  My classeshad an emphasis on writing and conversation practice- the students had already had years of reading comprehension practice.  By the end of the three weeks, the daily essays had definitely improved grammatically, and I think everyone was more confident with speaking (which is half the battle) but there were still so many things that could improve.  Plus, I was just one native English speaker with however many students- they were lucky to have me, but I still wasn’t enough.

I’m saying that language is hard.  I imagine if I ever went to France or Canada and taught, my teaching reviews would say something like ELLE NE CONNAIT PAS FRANCAIS, LE PIRE ASSISTANT D’ENSEIGNEMENT.  (Case in point: I used google translate to write that).

What do we do as graduate students?  The US has so many research institutions, and if you aren’t staying in your country/region, this seems like a great bet.  It’s not like graduate students actively want to be bad TAs or hate learning languages, but our primary objective is doing research.  Mastering a language takes hundreds of hours that we feel we don’t have if we want to get our Ph.D. in whatever we’re getting it in.  There’s little incentive to do more than the bare minimum (get some particular score on the TOEFL, talk to your advisor), because every minute we spend teaching or learning a language or doing something else with our brains is a minute that we aren’t spending doing research.

So everyone loses.  My students are relieved to hear my English because they’ve had other TAs who they couldn’t understand or learn from.  Graduate students are disheartened by their students’ dislike, which disincentivizes them to get “better” at the language- plus it’s unclear how to do that anyway.  This is the system.

Capybara pictures to feel happy!


From http://gianthamster.com.  These are my favorite animal.


As featured in HuffPo! Click on image for link to story

BONUS: incredible poem linking capybaras and math by Sandra Beasley.  Thanks much to Evelyn Lamb for tweeting this!

On not giving up

3 Dec

On my very first day of high school, my calculus teacher had me take a pre-test to make sure I belonged in the class.  I was the first freshman of that ridiculously excellent school’s history to be in calculus, which was entirely due to the INCREDIBLE program at the University of Minnesota, UMTYMP– if anyone you care about is a 10-12 year old in the greater Twin Cities area, I highly highly suggest checking out the program.  The next night my parents were extremely concerned about me, as I was in tears over my calculus homework.  I thought that I wasn’t good enough and that it was too hard for me, rather than that perhaps I was less prepared or mathematically mature than expected (see my post on whether we should do math at all for more thoughts in this direction).  I still ended up rocking both years of AP calculus, and doing okay at Cal State Fullerton, where I took a few more math courses during my remaining years of high school.

I made this picture all by myself

I made this picture all by myself

It’s been over a decade since my first math tears, and about three years since my last ones- I struggled so much over integrals over contours in my complex analysis course, and definitely had tears spring to my eyes when I finally lugged myself over to the math tutor (incidentally, I had some beer with him over the summer at a conference and he is awesome) to ask about one particular problem.  I was ridiculously heartened when he didn’t immediately spit out an answer, and told me that “the most important thing is to stay calm,” which kept me from nervous breakdowning at a total stranger.  When handing back exams to my calculus students, I’ve definitely noticed a few hastily wiped tears and debated on commenting and potentially embarrassing them, or letting it go and feeling like a callous ass for the rest of the day.  Now I tell them the story in the next paragraph.

A few months ago, after doing that mini-triathlon, I saw a groupon for Crossfit and thought I’d try out what I affectionately call the “cult.”  I’ve mentioned before that I’m incredibly weak, and I’ve definitely noticed this during my crossfit classes- I’m an okay runner, but in terms of strength I’m last, and definitely lag behind the pregnant woman (who is a beast).  Until yesterday I’ve been completely at peace with this, because I can tell I’m getting stronger and improving and feeling pretty good, even when the trainers have to set up separate stations for me because I can’t do a push up with good form.  At my last session we had a coach I hadn’t met before who started us all with the same strength, and gave us a few minutes to fiddle with it and add more weight as needed.  It is clear to me now that the burden was on me to speak up or simply do my thing and give myself less weight after trying out the initial condition, but I was too shy/ashamed to help myself do my best, and I ended up sabotaging myself and finishing my workout with many, many tears because I felt inadequate and incompetent.  I’m glad that I finished, but the coach had to lessen my weight partway through and I did one less round than the other women.

The moral is that we aren’t all born with the same strengths.  As my boyfriend said when comforting me that night, some of these women in this class have been playing sports since middle school, when I was doing Destination Imagination and Future Problem Solvers, or at least did athletics in high school, when I was playing clarinet in the marching band.  And that’s OK.  Those women will be lifting more than me, and I will be doing the best I can with what I have.  Not everyone in my calculus section is going to be an A student- they never learned algebra and are working two jobs to support themselves through college, so don’t have the time to master algebra and pass their other actual classes.  That’s OK.  What’s important is that they finish the workout and give it the best they have.  And tears are OK too, they happen to all of us.

Surprisingly emotional reaction to being a woman in math

28 Oct

I wrote this a few weeks ago, just after that quick link post.  I was pretty emotional at the time, and I’ll just leave it unedited to give a sense of how I felt:

I just had a meeting with two professors and four graduate students, all male, in which we discussed that nytimes article.  I’ve spoken about this article and my personal experiences plenty over the past week, but I got choked up and found it hard to talk without tearing up when I tried to say something about how women need that bit of encouragement (I wrote in my last post the thought on internalizing vs. externalizing) and how much more it means to women.  It wasn’t a hostile environment; I know all the guys there personally and they’re all pro-feminism/obviously care about teaching, but I still had this psychosomatic reaction to representing the experiences of all women to this group of men who never got this particular little monster plugged into their psyches.  

This particular little monster is the one that says boys save the day and overcome obstacles and girls get rescued, even when they try to save the day.  Or the one that sees the handwriting on the exam and braces itself for a bad proof.  The one that thinks you’re more like Amy and not like Penny at all (from Big Bang Theory, a show I actively hate for reasons I’ll go into later if ever), but that wants to be “normal.”  It’s the monster that says you don’t know what you’re talking about and you don’t know what’s going on so why even try.

OK so that’s what I wrote a few weeks ago and it’s just been sitting here since then.  Shortly thereafter I received a kind email from one of the professors:

Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts and feelings in the ESP meeting today. I recognize that the subject and the issues mean a lot to you. 🙂

And, with a bit of time, I recognized what had happened and I emailed him back:

Thanks for the note.  I’ve actually been talking about the issue a lot since the article came out in many different situations, so I was rather surprised when I got a bit choked up in the ESP meeting as I’m quite opinionated/vocal generally about it.  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.

So that’s the state of things.  When I’m a super-minority (as in the only person with a particular characteristic in an otherwise homogenous situation), I feel a burden of responsibility to represent whatever that minority is: woman, mathematician, non-white person.  One way to deal with this is to shut it down and not deal with it, but that’s impossible if, for instance, you find yourself in the situation I was in.  Another way is to embrace stereotypes: in undergraduate, I was the one of two math people in my residential college (~400 people) for my years there [one guy graduated and then a girl came in the next year], and I would often joke about being the math nerd and push up my glasses in an effort to make those around me more comfortable (my friends would often joke about being dumb at math or hopeless etc.  See previous post.)

Anyway that’s a thing that happened.  I did do something productive out of it, which was go through all of the graduate students in my department and figure out how many women were in pure/applied math out of the total number of students per incoming year.  And by I did this I mean I did my year and this year’s students, and asked my generous friends to spend 15 minutes doing it for their years-information is hard to find and parse!  There’s some ambiguity because when students leave they disappear from our website so we can’t tell if they’re in math or stats (our departments are together).

Here are our numbers:

Entering class   # women/ total # PM-AM  Percentage%
2013   2/17   12%
2012   3/19   16%
2011   3/23   13%
2010   3-6/25-28  12%-21%
2009   4/10-12  30%-40%
I sent these to the grad studies people (so our director of graduate studies, the assistant, the associate head of instruction, and the department head) and received many good responses on the line of good let’s think about this and focus on it!
I’ll leave you with more images that come up if you google “women in math”
This thing is ridiculous.  I don't know the original source

This thing is ridiculous. I don’t know the original source

Why is math inaccessible? Or, why should we do math?

29 Aug

The other night I saw some old friends from college. They had both taken Math 230, the super hard introductory class for math majors: it covered linear algebra and some real analysis, but apparently manifolds also made an appearance.   I mean they’d both tried to take it; one of them didn’t make it to the second semester.  It was taught by Yair Minsky, who incidentally did lots of incredibly ground breaking work on the curve complex I keep talking about.  At some point one of them said “[the difficulty] wasn’t Minsky’s fault; it just went over my head.”

This stuck with me because I’ve heard something similar before: a few months ago I gave an Ignite! style talk in a course full of scientists. My feedback afterwards was excellent, but at some point the professor said “your explanation was great; I just couldn’t keep up with it.”

The left is what we hope happens when explaining math, but the right is what actually happens

The left is what we hope happens when explaining math, but the right is what actually happens

Here’s the common thread, as far as I understand it: “if you don’t understand something a mathematician says, it’s not their fault for communicating poorly, but yours for being too stupid/slow/dense to get it”.

My friend and this professor are EXTREMELY far from being stupid/slow/dense. And I’m a pretty approachable person. In my mind, there was no reason for this professor to think that the math I was doing was above his head (as a test I explained the exact same topic to my friend)- if you don’t understand something, you can always ask a question. But to these two (and many others), math is an inaccessible topic maybe composed of magic. Like we probably sit in our offices with cauldrons a-simmer to come up with and understand these fantastic abstract ideas. And outsiders can’t do so because they haven’t taken the holy vows of mathematics.

I wonder if this phenomenon is specific to math: I very often hear mathematicians saying similar things, blaming themselves rather than the speaker/writer for not understanding something. I do the same thing.

If I explain something to you, blog reader, and it’s not clear/you don’t understand despite making your best or even reasonably good efforts, then I am doing a poor job. Math is hard, but if you can learn other academic-y things, and if you want to, you can do math too. I sincerely believe you don’t have to be a super genius to take some joy in say, Cantor’s diagonalization argument (will blog it sometime), or that Ramsey theory proof I wrote about earlier this summer.

I would/do love it when people tell me that something I wrote was unintelligible, and exactly where they got lost (my super excellent roommate does this all the time). And then I fix it/write more/use better wording. So if you read my math posts, please  comment or email me or tell me in person that this or that was hard to follow. There’s no need for self-effacement (“it was written well but I’m just too stupid at this to get —-“). I believe in you. You can understand this. I just need to explain it better.


I stole this from a website which I think also stole it from somewhere http://www.creatingadestiny.com/its-more-than-just-weight-loss/

I stole this from a website which I think also stole it from somewhere http://www.creatingadestiny.com/its-more-than-just-weight-loss/

OK that got sort of sentimental. Thinking more about the issue of accessibility in mathematics, and I think about girls and mentorship and STEM a lot, naturally leads to wondering if we should make this stuff more accessible. What’s the point of having more people understand math?  For that matter, what’s the point of us doing math?  I mean, what net good are we doing for the world by thinking about and solving these problems?

I strongly believe that basic research is important and essential. And it’s often (and I think should be) undertaken with no preconceived ideas of future applications. But I suspect that the vast majority of mathematical knowledge out there today will *never* have practical applications, or lead to mathematics that does so, or inspire mathematicians that do so.  Yes, definitely, someone (many people) should do math. But do we all/I need to be doing it? Would our problem-solving super-analytic brains be better spent attacking more immediate real-world problems?

You guys, I have zero answers here. The people I know do math for fun, for intellectual challenge, and to further human knowledge (ish). Sometimes it seems too hedonistic to me- I asked someone on a train what she thought, and she said “we live in a world where we have this luxury now.” It’s a luxury to be able to spend my days thinking about these hard, divorced-from-the-real-world problems.  It’s a luxury to play these games.  Sometimes I feel guilty for indulging in that luxury.

That’s it that’s where this post ends. I’m a little down now. Sorry if you are too.  I’ll include some puppy pictures from the internet to make us feel better.

awesome-cute-dog-fuckhard-puppy-Favim.com-135966_large awesome-dog-little-lovely-Favim.com-529853_large awesomepuppy

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