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Ask Aunt Pythia

November 3, 2012

Readers, I’m happy to announce an experiment for mathbabe, namely a Saturday morning advice and ethics column. Honestly I’ve always wanted to have an advice column, and I just realized yesterday that I can do it on my blog, especially on Saturday when fewer people read it anyway, so what the hell!

I’m calling my advice-giving alter ego Aunt Pythia, which my friend Becky suggested since “the Pythia” were a series of women oracles of Delphi who blazed the trail for the modern advice columnist.

The classic Pythia had a whole complicated, arduous four-step process for her “supplicants” to go through:

  1. Journey to Delphi,
  2. Preparation of the Supplicant,
  3. Visit to the Oracle, and
  4. Return Home.

I’ve decided to simplify that process a bit with a google form below, which should actually work, so please feel free to submit questions right away!

Just to give you an idea of what kind of questions you can submit, here’s a short list of conditions:

  • Ask pretty much anything, although it’s obviously better if it’s funny.
  • Nothing about investing advice or anything I can get sued for.

I also have prepared a sample question to get things rolling.

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m a physics professor, and an undergrad student has asked me for a letter of recommendation to get into grad school. Although he’s worked extremely hard, and he has some talent, I’m pretty sure he’d struggle to be a successful physicist. What do I do? — Professor X

Professor X,

I’ve been there, and it’s tricky, but I do have advice.

First of all, do keep in mind that people come with all kinds of talents, and it’s actually pretty hard to predict success. I have a friend who I went to school with who didn’t strike me as awesomely good at math but has somehow migrated towards the very kind of questions he is really good at and become a big success. So you never know, actually. Plus ultimately it’s up to them to decide what to try to do with their lives.

Second of all, feel free to ask them what their plans are. I don’t think you should up and say something like “you should go into robotics, not physics!” (no offense to those who are in robotics, this is an actual example from real life) because it would be too obviously negative and could totally depress the student, which is not a great idea.

But certainly ask, “what are your plans?” and if they say their plan is to go into grad school and become a researcher and professor, ask them if they have thought about other things in addition, that the world is a big place, and people with good quantitative skills are desperately needed, blah blah blah. Basically make it clear that their options are really pretty good if they could expand their definition of success. Who knows, they might not have even considered other stuff.

Finally, write the letter honestly. Talk about how hard the person worked and what their aspirations are. Don’t talk about how you don’t think they have talent, but don’t imply they’re awesome either, because it’s not doing them any favors and your letters end up being worthless.

I hope that helps!

Aunt Pythia


Here’s the form, feel free to submit! I won’t even save your email address or real name so feel free to ask away.

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. November 5, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    Wow! Aunt Pythia!
    As a Classics scholar and teacher, I’d say this is exactly the kind of humane and sensitive response this question, fraught with its undercurrent of censoriousness, required – and all this without your inhaling vapours from a fissure in the earth, most of which are probably still flooded in your neck of the neo-Delphic woods, or issuing double-speak, like the response given to Croesus who wanted to know about waging war on neighbouring Persia: “If you cross that river, a great nation will be destroyed.” (Take heed, America!)
    In my experience, it’s been almost impossible to predict the future path of any of my students and therefore wise to do no more – and no less – than offer support for their native wit and talents and provide suggestions for directions they may not have otherwise considered. It’s one of the skills we do not teach teachers, which makes it hard for some to see beyond the most recent test results as an indicator of future success.
    That said, there are always plenty of stories about students who’ve succeeded precisely because of the goad of negative criticism, but I would personally prefer not to toy with anyone’s future by adopting that tack.


  2. zeke1100
    January 5, 2013 at 9:48 am

    I was guessing it was a strange confluence between Pythagorus and possibly Roseanne Roseanna Danna’s ‘very religious aunt’ Hosanna Roseanna Danna – at least I was right about a loose Greek connection. :/


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