Aunt Pythia’s advice
Holy crap! Aunt Pythia is in love with a new knitting pattern and has just completed her first reversible “flaming hat”:
And that’s all I got today, folks.
Just kidding! I’m here for you guys, of course! Let’s dig in. But before I forget,
please think of something
titillating, reversible, and scrumptious
to ask Aunt Pythia
at the bottom of the page!
Dear Aunt Pythia,
This may be too broad a generalization, but I feel that current practices of teaching math were developed in an era when computers were not available. In an age where powerful, open-source tools are readily available and it’s even possible to do symbolic math using a computer, is it still useful to teach traditional pen-and-paper math to students who have no interest in becoming professional mathematicians? Does one really need to know that a trigonometric substitution would convert a tricky integral to a familiar one? As teachers, should we just focus on “big picture” concepts and use computers to explore problems on a larger scale than are feasible by hand (e.g. 1000 X 1000 matrices instead of 3 X 3)? Or, will lack of rigor in teaching have long term consequences (dubious application of math in real world)? Are there examples of the use of computers in mathematical education that you would recommend?
I kind of agree. I never saw the point of cosines and sines until Taylor Series, even though they theoretically help ships navigate in the ocean. I mean, maybe, but that connection was never made clear to us.
If I had my way, we’d spend a lot more time doing simple data analysis, trying to understand what “statistical evidence” means, so we train people to read the newspaper and scientific research papers and not be cowed by the math, which is usually pretty simple.
Also, there are new tools like this one (hat tip Josh Vekhter) which are taking care of the rote arithmetic already:
The good news is, there are efforts underway to modernize the mathematics curriculum. The bad news is they’ve gotten caught in a web of politics. But I do expect this stuff to get sorted out over time.
Dear Aunt Pythia,
I’m an undergrad freshman studying physics and math. I absolutely adore physics and it’s what I want to be doing for the rest of my life. I’d really, really love to become a physicist but I fear I’m just not smart enough. Reading your sample question has worried me. I had always thought if I work hard enough I could do it, but it’s always in the back of my mind that I’m not creative/intelligent enough. When (if ever) will I know if I have what it takes?
Unsure and Insecure
Short answer: never.
The long answer has four parts.
First, I have actually never met anyone who thinks they are smart enough to be a physicist or a mathematician at the level they want to be. Just get used to it and enjoy the love for the subject anyway. Also, knowing that nobody ever feels smart enough might be comforting.
Second, in general the more time you spend with something, the better you get at it, and the more you love something the more time you want to spend with it. Sometimes insecurity can be debilitating, but if you remember you love it aside from your ability, you can try to keep things cool.
Third, when your teachers and others encourage you, believe them. If you don’t get into a grad school for math or physics, take it as a sign – probably – that it might not be for you, but if you do get into a grad school, just trust that other people see something in you that you can’t see yourself, yet.
Finally, I am not sure what you mean by my “sample question”, did I ask something that made a bunch of people feel not smart enough for physics and math? If so, I apologize. I never mean to do that. I really don’t think any one question could possibly be sufficient to size someone up in this kind of deep way.
Dear Aunt Pythia,
Lately I’ve been a bit of a hermit. I do go out sometimes, but I often don’t really talk to anyone because of the well-documented awkwardness involved in starting conversations with strangers (which somehow seems to not bother some people).
I have a work friend in a similar predicament, and we came up with the idea for a “woman scavenger hunt” (we’re both single straight men) designed to help us get over our discomfort with talking to strangers (specifically, women). The scavenger hunt would be a race to meet women with particular characteristics such as:
- wearing a bandanna
- reading a book in a bar at night
- has a driver’s license from Hawaii or Alaska
- knows sign language
We would have to talk to the person in question and secure some sort of evidence, such as a photograph (consensually, of course!)
My questions are:
- Does this sound creepy? For some reason it feels like we’re plotting to invade other people’s privacy, and it’s hard to decide if this is real or if I’m just antisocial.
- If you endorse the idea, can you add to our list? It has to be something for which one can collect evidence; we ruled out “met Elizabeth Warren”, for example.
Tired Introvert Mulling Interpersonal Development
First of all, I think it’s a goodish idea. I would like to suggest that you enlarge the goal to “meeting a person with the following characteristic” rather than a woman specifically, because the truth is you’re probably awkward meeting men and women, and this will give you practice, and although you are theoretically more interested in the women, meeting men is a good idea too. Plus, men have friends who are girls. If you give a good impression to the men you meet, the women will be like, “who’s this guy?”.
By the way, one of my good friends had a habit when she was single of hanging out with her girlfriends (wingwomen actually) and coming up with slightly artificial arguments at their table, which they would turn into “polls” for the entire bar. In other words, they’d argue aimlessly until they came up with something jicy enough to bring to every other group of men, women, and mixed groups at the bar and poll them. They might do this all night, gradually getting to know people at the bar, and they might have actually been interested romantically or sexually in only a few of the people they interacted with, but their friendliness and interactivity was a hit with everyone, assuming their polls questions were funny and smart, which they were.
In other words, it’s a good idea, and it’s quirky, and if you can play with it and have fun with it, and get other people to be into it and have fun with it, then it’s all good. You might not get laid, but in the worst case scenario you make friends.
Just to be clear, you gotta make sure the “characteristics” you’re looking for don’t get creepy or sexual. Don’t, for example, go up to women and say you’re looking for a woman with such-and-such sexual experience or physical attributes. Gross.
And never, ever, ever do anything this guy suggests.
Dear Aunt Pythia,
I’m applying for (academic) math jobs at the moment. I’m also female (obvious from my name) and a lesbian (unsurprising once you meet me).
Occasionally, as part of the job application, I’m asked to comment on how I might contribute to diversity in mathematics. This is obviously a broad question, but part of my answer inevitably involves a discussion of women in mathematics. The way I talk about this issue is naturally colored by the fact that I’m a woman.
One of the prompts explicitly mentions the GLBT axis of diversity. It is not as clear to me how or whether to address this in my statement. My personal experience is that anti-gay biases in mathematics aren’t as pernicious as racial or gender biases, so I tend not to raise this issue on my own.
If I come out while saying that I’m supportive of GLBT students, then it sounds like I’m looking for extra credit for being a minority. I don’t need brownie points for being queer. But on the other hand, I’m out in my personal life and so it seems weird to be closeted in a discussion touching on GLBT diversity. But then again it seems weird to be discussing sexuality at all in the context of a job application.
In summary: would you come out in a “statement of diversity”?
Closeted Around Diversity
Things have changed since I applied for jobs! We didn’t have diversity statements back then. And it’s weird to think they’d be prompting you to disclose stuff like your sexuality – in fact it sounds downright illegal.
After some thought and a minimal amount of googling, I think maybe you should interpret this as prompting your experience in promoting diversity in mathematics. This idea is backed up by the advice on this webpage, although I don’t know if that makes it a universal truth.
In other words, have you mentored women? Have minorities of one type or another felt comfortable enough around you to come ask you questions? Did you organize or give a talk at a Sonia Kovalesky Day somewhere? Were you the faculty advisor for some other group that was diverse? That kind of thing.
I guess I think there’s no reason to talk directly about your sexuality when you talk about your experience promoting diversity, even though it might be inferred, rightly or wrongly.
To sum up, I would not come out in a “statement of diversity.”
Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!
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