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The New Job Diary

By Edward Aboufadel

Southern Connecticut State University


 

(This diary originally appeared during 1993 and 1994 in FOCUS, which is published by the MAA.)

 

 

Those of you who followed his regular "Job Search Diary" last year, written as Ed struggled to find his first academic position after completing his PhD at Rutgers, will know that he finally managed to secure a tenure-track position at Southern Connecticut State University. Soon after he took up his new appointment, FOCUS asked Ed if he would keep another diary, recording his experiences and impressions during his first year as an assistant professor of mathematics. The result makes fascinating reading, as you will discover for yourself over the coming months, as FOCUS publishes his diary in serial form.

 

Keith Devlin, FOCUS editor

 

 

October 6, 1992: The first installment of my "Job Search Diary" was published last week in FOCUS. A number of people thought that it would be a good idea if I begin a second diary, my "New Faculty Diary", to relate to the world my experiences in my new position. I only wish that I or someone else had thought of this sooner.

I have been working at Southern Connecticut State University since August 24. These first six weeks have been rather trying, as I have gotten accustomed to my new apartment, to New Haven, and to my job. Here are some of the issues that I have had to deal with in my job so far:

1. What should I wear every day? It may seem strange to start with this, but the first three weeks here it really bothered me. I noticed that some of the male professors in my department wear a suit and tie everyday, some wear a tie but no jacket, and everyone seems to wear a dress shirt, although perhaps not impeccably pressed. I started off wearing a dress shirt, nice pants (ones that need to be dry-cleaned), and a tie. However, when you teach twelve hours a week, you get a lot of chalk on you. I soon abandoned the nice pants for less expensive ones (but not jeans), purchased some sportier ties (on credit, of course, since it took a while before I was paid), and tried to go for the flashy young professor look. So far, so good.

2. Worrying about tenure. Tenure is on a lot of people's minds. The first week here, I told a member of the Computer Science Department that I was just going to try to be myself and do the best job possible, and if they don't like me here, then I'll get another position somewhere else. (If you read my Job Search Diary, you realize what a cocky statement that is.) However, I have been self-conscious about how I relate to other faculty in my department. "Am I getting on her bad side?" "How many of these committees should I volunteer for?"

As far as committees go, I have volunteered for the Department Curriculum Committee, for the Department Student Affairs Committee, and for a subcommittee of the DCC which is designing a new, interdisciplinary major. I also almost ended up on the Department Sabbatical Committee after I tied for fourth in the election for that committee.

3. When am I going to do research? I have found it hard so far to do anything even related to research. I spent one morning at the libraries at Yale, but I have been busy between teaching and buying (i.e., charging) things for my apartment. I have yet to find a good role model at Southern in this regard. Many faculty here are not active researchers. Some are, however. Do they do their research during the summer?

4. Am I teaching my courses at the right level? Last year at Rutgers, I taught Honors Calculus in the fall and Numerical Analysis in the spring. This fall I am teaching two sections of Calculus II and a section of Pre-calculus. So far, the results on examinations have been mediocre. I wonder if the exams are too hard, the students aren't that good, or if I just haven't been teaching well. My colleagues have described my exams as "a bit on the hard side". Maybe I should look at this Fall Semester as an opportunity to establish a reputation as a Difficult Professor, and then mellow out.

5. Computers have been a big issue for me. During my last two years at Rutgers, I got closely attached to my computer account, using it to write my dissertation, to write the Job Search Diary, to send and receive e-mail, and for other amusements such as the Usenet Bulletin Board. It was a UNIX system. I arrived here and got a VAX account. There are also a number of PCs in the department and it appears that word-processing is done on them. I wanted my UNIX back. And I got it. The Computer Science Department had a UNIX lab that I was able to get an account on. It then took a couple days to customize that account to get it to feel like my familiar Rutgers account. I still haven't got a good idea, though, about printing files around here. The VAX and the UNIX have separate printers, and neither of them is in the building that my office is in.

I also continue to learn that a lot of teaching involves counseling and psychology. Some of my students suffer from a real lack of confidence about their mathematical ability. In my first six weeks here, I think half of the time that I've spent in office hours with students involved handholding and cheerleading rather than going over an obscure point in the text. Is Mathematics some sort of Rorschach test, bringing students' emotions into sharp relief?

 

October 16, 1992: An academic position is supposed to be a quiet one, so why do I have to keep dealing with salesmen? In the past two weeks, I have had four or five textbook salespeople knock on my door wanting to talk for a while. Each one is interested in which courses I am teaching in the spring and whether or not I have decided on which books I want to use. (Here at Southern, we don't have a textbook committee.)

Amazingly, they send me free of charge any book that I want.

I wonder what background you need to be a textbook salesperson. It is clear that knowledge of mathematics is not necessary. Many of these people have somewhat of a script to read from, and they straggle with many of the terms of our profession.

Given the concern about the cost of textbooks, I've started asking how much their products cost students. The salespeople seemed surprised by my question. One person, somewhat defensively, I thought, said at first that it didn't matter since all the books on this subject (Finite Mathematics) cost about the same. She then admitted that the text would cost a student $40. I was shocked to learn that the student's version of Derive costs $50. Perhaps I was shocked that the price didn't seem to bother the salesperson at all.

So, what do I do with all these sample texts I receive? Well, there have been textbook buyers soliciting me too, and they are more aggressive than the textbook sellers are. The first week I was here, the first of these buyers started studying my bookshelf and offered me $15 for Munkres' Topology. I said, "No, thank you." Last week three textbook buyers knocked on my door. These buyers buy books to sell to bookstores wholesale as used books.

I've had a few discussions with faculty here about the ethics of this situation. For instance, I could conceivably ask each of the textbook sellers to send me three or four books, and then turn around and sell these books to a textbook buyer. I could make a lot of money this way! But it doesn't seem right. At Southern, many of the professors, if they sell some of these desk copies, they put the money in a department fund that helps pay for a student picnic. I can feel good about that.

I'm still waiting for the salesperson from Texas Instruments to come back. She lent me a nice graphing calculator and said she would return in three weeks to get it back. That was in August.

 

October 26, 1992: An interesting responsibility of mine at Southern is to give midterm grades to my students. These grades are not official, but they do give students a clear sense of how they are doing in their courses. I had to come up with grades for my students before October 23.

As a result, I believe that every professor at Southern gave either an examination or quiz last week just as I did, which meant that other than examining my students, I did not get too much accomplished in my class this week.

Since my position is primarily a teaching position, and since I was hired in part because of my experience at Rutgers, I have spent a lot of time involved with my courses and have invested a lot of emotions in teaching. This week was a bit depressing for me. In my two sections of Calculus, the students did not do very well on a quiz I gave which covered integration techniques. My Precalculus section did a good job on the exam that I gave, but I have been having a problem dealing with the complaints of one of my students, which has also been troubling me.

I had a similar experience when I taught a section of Intermediate Algebra at Rutgers. The students did not do impressive work, and I felt responsible. While at Rutgers, I learned to adjust my expectations of myself. I think I am starting over here at Southern.

I guess one thing that also weighs on me is when the evaluation committee evaluates me next semester. I want the committee to approve of the work I am doing in the classroom. I am feeling a little insecure about that work right now.

On the other hand, a member of my department last week asked me how my classes were going. He asked me if anyone had dropped out of any of my courses yet. I told him that some people had, and that some others that remained were going to get a midterm grade of "F". He told me that that was good ? if no one was dropping any of my courses, then they'd start wondering about the job I was doing.

 

November 1, 1992: The ever-present tension between research and teaching has been on my mind lately.

First, a confession: I haven't done any research since I finished my dissertation five months ago. I did spend a little time this summer working on a paper in mathematics education with Gerald Goldin of Rutgers University, but that's it. I spent the rest of the summer working for a Young Scholar's Program, travelling, and moving to Connecticut.

Nor have I found any time to do research during my first two months at Southern. I have spent a little time looking at a few journals, studying their criteria for submitted papers, but currently my research program is in limbo.

I think there are a lot of reasons for this. For one, it has taken me a little time to adjust to my new surroundings. Not only is this a new job for me, it is a new life.

Being a faculty member requires a different focus than being a graduate student. A major part of that focus, at least at Southern, is teaching and curriculum. I am beginning to recognize now the questions asked of me during my interview here in April have led me to devote most of my time and energy to the classroom and to committee work. It is my understanding that this sort of work is primarily what is wanted from Southern faculty, and, from all appearances, this is what my colleagues in the mathematics department do with their time. They are on university-wide committees, they are experimenting with computers and graphing calculators in their classrooms, and they like to talk about these things. If someone in the department is applying for an NSF grant this fall, I don't know about it. If someone is about to have a paper published in, say, the Bulletin of the AMS, then I don't know about that either.

This connects to another reason my research is stagnant: motivation. As a graduate student, I had a clear goal: earn that Ph.D., and certain people (particularly my thesis advisor) were there to assist me and to push me towards that goal. Now things are not so clear. If I want to stay at Southern and get tenure, it is not necessary for me to have an impressive research record as long as I demonstrate creative research activity in some other way (e.g. redesign a course).

Nor is my environment particularly suited for doing research. The Southern library is not a research library, while the Yale library is not as convenient as I would like. I am not satisfied with the computer support here, either.

Nor have I even come close to deciding whether I want to stay at Southern.

Ideally, three years or so from now, I'll make that decision. Developing my research credentials is VERY important if I want to have any choices in a few years (while hoping for a better job market). It would be wise if I follow Dr. Goldin's advice to "set up a certain time to do research and make that time inviolate. Don't even come into the office."

Underlying all of this, though, is the question: "Do I want to do research?" Certainly I stated that I did on all my application letters last winter. The perfectionist in me says that if I cannot answer that question with an unconditional "Yes!" then the answer must be "No." (Much like "Do I love you?")

Despite the anxiety, I enjoyed working on my dissertation, and I really believe that I would enjoy doing more research.

I remember once in a psychology course a lecture about extrinsic motivation versus intrinsic motivation. As a person matures, he or she is influenced less by others and more by what is within him or herself. Perhaps, when it comes to doing research, that is what I am struggling with right now.

 

November 17, 1992: So, after analyzing myself at the beginning of the month, I got to work. I am beginning to prepare a manuscript based on the first chapter of my dissertation. I also had a meeting with Gerald Goldin in New Jersey concerning our paper on math education. I hope that I have something substantial by the end of the semester, which is coming up quick.

Also coming up soon is the review of first-year faculty. I have to put together a folder based on my work here so far, and a department committee will visit my classes. Note to new faculty: your first day on the job, start a folder and/or computer file called "Accomplishments." Keep track of committee work, professional meetings you attend, and letters of appreciation that you receive.

Also, I spent this past weekend at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton. They are experimenting with putting open-ended questions on the SAT, and they hired me and a few dozen other people to help grade a sample of exams given to students this year. It was very interesting, and ETS would be happy if I didn't say anything else.

 

November 22, 1992: My first semester as a new professor is almost over, so, of course, it is time for a review of new faculty to determine which ones will be rehired next year.

Now, as I am in a tenure-track position, I believe that my contract will be renewed. After all, I am not a troublemaker. However, this exercise in bureaucracy needs to be taken seriously.

The Department Evaluation Committee (DEC) will be observing my classes in December, and again in February. (Interestingly, although I've been teaching for three months, I have not been monitored.) Also, I need to organize a portfolio of student evaluations, old tests, supporting letters and documents, and an essay. There will also be an interview. The whole process, climaxing in a letter of renewal (or not) from the President of the university, is to be completed by the beginning of March.

I have two concerns that I want to address in this process. One is what seems to me to be the large number of students who have withdrawn from my courses this fall. At this point, I have maybe two students who are failing. The other stragglers have disappeared.

My second concern is my research work so far. I have already written extensively about this in this diary, but a recent conversation that I had with a colleague is insightful: A memo was sent out from the Dean soliciting applications for "reassigned time for research." Basically, if approved, a faculty member can teach 9 credits next fall instead of 12, and the extra time is for research. I asked this colleague, "Is this appropriate for a new faculty member?" My thinking was that with the emphasis on teaching at Southern, to apply for reassigned time might be sending the wrong message. He didn't see a problem with it. However, he didn't strongly encourage me to apply, either.

 

December 9, 1992: Members of the DEC (Department Evaluation Committee) observed my classes twice last week. They came to my evening courses, which I requested, since the students in there are livelier than my afternoon course. I thought I would be more nervous than I was as they sat and took notes of my work. Afterwards, the DEC members said that they would talk about what they observed during the formal interview in February. We ended up, though, discussing the pros and cons of using a computer to help teach graphing of trigonometric functions. A few days later, one member of the DEC observed that I rarely refer to my students by name in class. This is probably because I'm not very good with names.

Yesterday I turned in my application for reassigned time for research. The application was a bit difficult for two reasons. First, I was limited to two pages to describe what I intended to do, and second, Fall 1993 seems along time away. I talked to the Dean about these difficulties. He was pleased with the two-page summary that I wrote, particularly with the reference to a New York Trines article that was published last April and was related to my work. He also said that the selection committee understood that it is not possible to describe exactly what you are going to work on ten months from now. I will know by February if I have been selected.

The new issue of FOCUS arrived yesterday with the second part of my Job Search Diary inside. I have received positive comments again from my colleagues here, although one person wondered if the following comment from the diary applied to Southern: "Two of my interviews left me uninterested in working for those schools. I wish I could just cross these schools off of my list, but these are desperate times for new Ph.D.s, and I may not be able to be choosy." I explained to him that I didn't interview with Southern in Baltimore.

Another item that I have been pursuing lately is developing a proposal to establish a Computer Coordinator in the department. I wrote something right before Thanksgiving, and have been chatting with many of my colleagues about it since then. The idea has been kicking around for a while, but no one had actually written a proposal yet. A few people asked me if I wanted to be the Computer Coordinator, and I guess that I do, as long as I don't end up stepping on anyone's feet. See, I'm starting to think about department politics, too.

Just wait until the election for department chair next spring!

 

Ed Aboufadel with his office mate Henry Gates.

 

December 19, 1992: Well, Finals Week has come and gone. I have administered three examinations this week. Then came a marathon grading session, and now I have figured out my final grades.

In a way, the students here are just like anywhere else ? their talents vary widely. In a class of 22, I gave three A+?s and six Fs, with the other thirteen in between. And, just like anywhere else, Finals Week was full of chaos. I lost count of the number of times someone knocked on my open door to ask, (1) "Are you the math department?" and, (2) "Do you know where my math final is at?"

We had a full-fledged department meeting two days ago. The first hour we listened to a police officer at Southern talk about security and theft and what is being done on campus. There has been a rash of thefts on campus. Two weeks ago, my office mate came in one morning to discover his radio and telephone stolen, but nothing else, and thankfully I was spared. It has made all of us a bit paranoid, though.

Also at the meeting, my proposal to establish a Computer Coordinator (CC) was approved by the department, as was my offer to become the first CC. Next stop is the Dean. Older members of the department commented that I was learning quickly, since I said, "Since no one is jumping at the chance to become Computer Coordinator, I guess I'll do it."

As CC, I'm looking forward to enlivening our computer room. I am not looking forward to dealing with the bureaucracy here. I got a sense of what trouble lies ahead when I suggested that we purchase a new desk for one of our computers. There was a nice one on sale at Caldor's this week. Apparently things are not that simple. How did our Chair put it? "The Purchasing Department still thinks it's 1960."

At the department meeting, we also heard a report on space use at Southern. Apparently the average office size nationwide for a college faculty member is 100-125 square feet. Our offices are 80 square feet. There was a reason for this ? so that no one would be foolish enough to suggest putting two professors in one office.

If you notice, I mentioned my office mate a few paragraphs back.

So, looking ahead, I'm hoping to catch up on some research time over this five-week break that I have. I'm also heading to the Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Antonio. (One of the perks of this job is that there are some funds for travel.) I'm sure that for me it will be quite a contrast to last January' s "party" in Baltimore, as I am not hunting for a job this time.

 

January 23, 1993: After traveling all around the country, I am back in Connecticut with our Spring Semester only two days away.

I spent the first few weeks of my Christmas Break at my parents? house in Fort Wayne. I quickly learned that Ph.D. or no Ph.D., parents treat you as if you were twelve. Yes, Mom, I will get a haircut this week!

Last week I went to the Joint Winter Meetings in San Antonio. These meetings were rewarding to me for a number of reasons.

One reason is that I was a minor celebrity there. I was greeted by many people had read the first two parts of my "Job Search Diary" and were wondering whether or not I ever got a job. A few people who were involved in this year's job hunt were glad to discover that they were not alone. One gentleman told me that his department had been receiving e-mail from prospective applicants asking for a detailed description of the research interests of members of his department, and he attributed this wave of questions to my articles.

The article also earned me an invitation to be a guest at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Employment Opportunities. I was pleased to learn that the people in charge of the Employment Register are very committed to reforming the Register. Apparently there were significant changes made from last year. Since I didn't even get an on-campus interview last year by using the Register, any change is welcome.

Finally, the gentleman in charge of MAA Publications expressed an interest in my future work.

I also went to a number of presentations in either Mathematics or in Mathematics Education. I noticed that a number of the Mathematics talks were being given by people my age, and it made me wonder if these were graduate students presenting their thesis work.

Later, I learned that in order to give a presentation at the Joint Meetings, you merely need to apply and be accepted. In other words, you don't need to be invited in order to give a talk. I did not know this.

Some other highlights for me include: Robert Osserman's address on "The Shape of the Universe", the controversial Jenny Harrison outlining a way to integrate functions over fractal sets, and an analysis of the best strategy when spinning the Showdown Wheel on "The Price is Right".

It seems to me that in this profession, different people find different ways to advance their careers, and often these ways are accidental. In graduate school, the mantra is "Research! Research! Research!", yet once you are out, you see that people move ahead by becoming department chairs, experimenting with graphing calculators, or, so far in my case, writing for FOCUS. You like to feel that you are in control of your career in the same way you control your car while driving from New York to Chicago, but sometimes you are forced to take detours or scenic routes and you never get to Chicago at all. (Besides, Chicago isn't hiring.)

My scenic route has led me to Southern Connecticut State University, and it is time for me to get back to work. Coming up for me: my Annual Evaluation; applying for a Summer Research Grant and giving a talk at a conference; coordinating the department computing resources; and, of course, teaching four courses.

 

February 6, 1993: Spring semester is off to a busy start. I have completed my "Renewal Folder" that I must submit as part of my Annual Evaluation. In it, I have included all of the tests, syllabi, and handouts that I have used in classes so far, the math education paper that I am working on, a list of accomplishments so far, and my student evaluations.

Some highlights from my student evaluations: for the most part, the students reacted positively to me. I want to share two extreme comments. The first:

 

"Although this instructor is young and inexperienced, his intellect is of superior capacity; his knowledge of the subject goes far above and beyond what is necessary to teach this course. He does, however, teach as though he has been a teacher in college for 20 years or more. Don't let his age fool you, this guy is a real pro, my choice over most or all other instructors in math."

 

Talking to a few people about this comment made me conscious of my youth and how students might react to it. Do they think, at least initially, that I am too young to do a good job teaching? I have to admit that one reason why I wear a tie to work is so that both students and faculty here can tell that I am a professor.

This second comment comes from a student that I just didn't get along with last semester. It is the worst comment I have ever got from anyone about my teaching, either here or at Rutgers:

 

"I feel that this professor is quite young and doesn't know how to relate to the students. I understand that he hasn't been teaching for a long period of time, but needs to understand that every class is different. He seems to teach all of his classes the exact same. I don't think that his method is very productive because of the previously mentioned reason. I think he crammed too much information down our throats. I also don't appreciate the way he screws around with the problems on his tests. He seems to try and make the test too hard. He is not flexible as a teacher. It will be many years before he is even close to being seasoned."

 

I was observed again this week by members of the department. Something curious happened at the beginning of the second class they observed. Two police officers came into the classroom and approached me, asking "Can we talk to you for a minute?" They wanted to see a student who was on my roster, but who, it turned out, hadn't attended my class yet (this was the sixth meeting). After the policemen left, I kept my composure. The department observers told me later in jest that it didn't look good that police are coming to question me while I am attempting to teach.

Authority figures of a different sort have expressed concern about the episode of my Job Search Diary that is appearing right now in FOCUS. I guess this is similar to getting a research paper back from referees.

I've been awarded a reassigned-time-for-research grant for Fall 1993. As a result, I will be teaching only nine credit hours in the fall. This award has given me a lot of confidence about writing grant proposals. This week I applied for a Connecticut State University Research Grant, which is a grant of money, not time. I based that grant proposal on the reassigned-time proposal.

As a side note to that University grant, I almost missed the deadline to apply. Information flows around Southern in various ways. We get a lot of notices in our mailbox. Other information is posted here or there. Then there is the information that somehow doesn't get around much due to some lack of coordination in the administration. The announcement of the University grant fit that third description. The people in charge assure me that things will be different next time around.

My classes are a decent size again this semester. The largest class has 27 students. The smallest has 15. My Calculus III class has more women than men in it, and the women are less shy during classroom discussions. I was talking to a student I had last semester about this. She had been the only woman in a class of twelve.

 

February 16, 1993: Well, I survived the first round of the evaluation and renewal process. After attending a few of my classes, studying my "Renewal Folder", and interviewing me, the Department Evaluation Committee has strongly recommended that my contract be renewed for next year. A survey, by secret ballot, of the department, revealed the same recommendation. Hooray! Now, all the paperwork gets sent up, first to the department chair, then to the Dean, and then to the Academic Vice-President. Finally, if all goes well (and I expect it will), the President is to inform my by March 1 of my contract renewal. Then, next Fall, rather than next Spring, the whole process starts over again, and I will know by December 15, 1993, if I am rehired for the 1994-1995 academic year.

Slowly, I am learning how the department budget process works around here. We do not have a budget committee to decide whether or not to buy a computer, some software, or some manipulatives. Rather, people who want something talk informally with others, including the Chair, in the hopes of reaching some sort of consensus, then the chair makes the final decision. Since we need to spend the rest of our money by the end of this month, final decisions are being made. I have been lobbying for a new computer desk for the Department Computer Room, and, keeping my fingers crossed, it looks like we will be getting one.

 

March 2, 1993: Well, we got the computer desk and yesterday a colleague and I set it up. It is a good thing we did, too, since something weird happened to the budget, suddenly there is less money than there was last week, and all other purchases by departments are being re-evaluated.

We have begun the process of selecting a new chair for our department. Last week we had a department meeting which served two purposes. First, to get straight just how the voting works, and second, to begin a discussion of the future of the department. Fresh off the recent presidential campaign, I have been expecting people to step forward to say, "I want the job," bold statements about the future ("A computer in every office, a chicken in every pot!"), and heavy politicking ("If you vote for me, I'll write you a nice letter when it comes to renewing your contract.") OK, actually I wasn't expecting anything overtly political, but I have been surprised by how low-key this has all been. One of my colleagues had a lot to say at that department meeting -- does that mean that he wants to be chair?

Another colleague recommended that I consider voting for a certain person. (By the way, all full-time faculty are on the ballot.) Does that person want to be chair?

Like the Presidential election, this election for chair eventually comes down to choosing among a small number of candidates, none of who are perfect. Now if only I can figure out who in this department is Clinton, who is Bush, and who is Perot. ("Now, as you can see on this chart, the number of math majors we have has been declining...")

Note to other recent Ph.D.'s: a friend of mine who just finished her Ph.D. has been sending it out to stars in her field. One of these stars sent email back to her saying that he enjoyed her work and, as a member of editorial boards of a few journals, would like to see her submit the work to those journals.

Another friend of mine, working on her Ph.D., but not in Mathematics, received the advice recently from a faculty member at her school. She writes, "He gave me some good feedback on my quals. We also talked about my career in general and how he thinks I am on the right track to becoming faculty at a big name University. Then he warned me that I was on the right track AT THE MOMENT but I had to continue in this manner (Publish, publish, publish) and stay away from activities that would sidetrack me (teaching). He said, 'You have to prove that you can do good research (publish, publish, publish) but you only have to look like you can teach (give good job talk).'"

Ah, speaking of publishing, I still haven't sent any research to a journal. I am giving a talk in two weeks at a conference and am still waiting to hear about my proposal for the annual SIAM meeting. Well, somehow I will find time.

 

March 11, 1993: My proposal to give a lecture at the annual SIAM meeting has been accepted! As Wayne and Garth would say, "Excellent!"

Finally, I will let the world know about the work I did from 1990 to 1992. This will also give me an extra push to get a journal article prepared.

I am giving a talk this weekend at the Connecticut State University Computer Conference, and I have found that preparing this talk has been rather rewarding. The title of my talk is, "Using the Computer as a Mathematician," where I review the different points during my doctoral work where using the computer was vital. Putting the overhead slides together has reminded me of a year ago when I was feverishly finishing my dissertation. (Except that I'm not applying for jobs this year!)

The Preferential Poll for Department Chairperson was distributed today. I have a week to mark my choices. As I said before, people don't actively campaign to be department chair.

 

Department Chair Helen Bass at the Math Department Information Table with Ed Aboufadel.

 

March 16, 1993: Last weekend's "Storm of the Century" postponed the Computer Conference to a later date. I hope I will be available that day. It was just as well. I have been getting a bit worn out and am looking forward to spring break next week.

Although the Preferential Poll isn't due until Friday, I hear that more than half of the ballots are already in. The committee doesn't count the votes before they are all in.

 

March 30, 1993: The results of the Preferential Poll were released last week. The results were interesting. No one candidate received a large amount of votes. Three people each received approximately 25% of the vote, with the other 25% split among everyone else. Now, the Department Personnel Committee has to decide what to do next. Ultimately, the Dean recommends an appointment, which is in turn approved by both the department and the President.

The stress of academic life got to a professor in the Philosophy department last week. He resigned from his position of assistant professor after facing charges of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a student. Right now he is receiving psychiatric care at a local hospital. Also sad was the fact that he had just been granted tenure.

Speaking of tenure, a member of my department applied for tenure this year and was denied. The denial was not based on her accomplishments. Rather, the Promotion and Tenure Committee granted tenure to all people for which it was their last year of eligibility and told her, "Oh, you can wait another year." The teaching of this person was rated "below average" among all of those who applied for tenure this year, prompting another member of my department to comment that the teaching abilities of the Southern faculty must be incredible. (This person is considered one of the best teachers in the department.) Such is life in academia.

One of my students was expelled this week. It is a very curious story that I have been getting through the grapevine. In an English class last semester, this student was given a grade of C+. He protested the grade to the instructor, who told him first, that the C+ was a gift, and second, that she would be willing to consider changing his grade if he would submit an essay to grade. The essay was terrible and she changed the student's grade to F.

This is where the story gets interesting. Rumor has it that the student, who was a wrestler, then put the instructor in a headlock, and then contacted the police accusing her of assaulting him. I'm not sure what to believe.

The third part of my Job Search Diary is out this week, and reading it now really brings home how much pressure I was under a year ago. I was trying really hard not to panic, but it wasn't easy.

The Job Search Diary has led to an exchange of email with a new faculty member at a school in Massachusetts. He has some interesting stories to tell. For one, even though he has a tenure-track position, he has been given the strong impression that it will be impossible for him to get tenure because of quotas set up to limit the number people who get tenure. He is also struggling with trying to establish a research career. I told him about the Young Scientists' Network, which I joined last year. The Network is actually a daily newsletter, which is populated more by physicists than any other group. Maybe we need a Young Mathematicians Network.

 

April 8, 1993: The Computer Conference was last weekend and I gave my talk entitled, "Using a Computer as a Mathematician to Develop Intuition." When you are trying to outline your dissertation and how you used computers, twenty minutes goes by very quickly. When the moderator signaled me to wrap it up, I thought I had been talking for only five minutes.

I made some professional contacts at this conference. I met a Mathematician from Central Connecticut, one of our sister schools. I asked him a lot of questions about his department and discovered that things are similar at both institutions. I also met a Physicist from Central. Talking with her made me realize that it would be healthy if I talk with the chemists, biologists, and physicists here. Unfortunately, there never seems to be enough time.

On Monday I got some bad news. My proposal for a Connecticut State University research grant, which I applied for in February, was rejected, as was the proposal of a colleague's in my department. What was particularly depressing was that 50 out of the 64 proposals were funded. I am trying to determine what was inadequate about my proposal. It was very similar to the proposal I submitted a while back for Reassigned Time, and that one was accepted.

Teaching has had its ups and downs lately. I have been feeling a bit unsure in the classroom lately, and I think in part it is because I haven't had a clear vision of what I want to teach and at which level I want to teach it. For instance, Differential Equations can be taught as a cookbook course, as a rigorous analysis course, and many places in between. How tough do I get? How precise should I be with definitions (which, in my opinion, often disguise the underlying ideas)? These are the types of questions that I don't want to be trying to answer while I am standing in front of the chalkboard.

Also, some of my inexperience with teaching certain material has been showing. For instance, in the Qualitative Analysis course, this is the first time I have ever taught probability, and sometimes I don't have a clear enough idea in my mind of what I want to stress. As a result, a couple times this semester I think, "Oh, I should have spent more time on that idea and that type of problem." On the other hand, when I teach this course again in the fall, it will be just perfect!

One of my colleagues has students this semester that I had last semester. He told me that he went and looked at the grades I gave to see if they match his perceptions of these students. It turns out that they match pretty well.

Our chair selection process continues. We are going to have a second Preferential Poll next week, along with a department meeting. One of the people who got a lot of votes in the first Poll sent out this week his "Some Issues for Departmental Consideration, 1993-96". So I guess that makes him the Bill Clinton of this election. Now who is going to play the role of Ross Perot?

About once a month, we have a department lunch, which gives us time to sit around and chat. We had one of these meals today. At one point the discussion topic was textbooks and co-authors. I think that multiple authors and multiple editions of textbooks are our profession's version of partners in a law firm. As time passes, authors are added and prestige grows.

 

April 15, 1993: I grow more and more fascinated by our chair selection process. Of the three people who received 25% of the vote last month, one has said that he doesn't want to be chair, while the other two are campaigning. Today we had another meeting to discuss the future of the department. People who have said practically nothing so far opened up and expressed their opinions. It was hard for me to get a word in today. It was hard for our two "candidates" to get a word in today.

I have had hour long conversations with three people in the last two days about our department and our next chair. As I listen and ask questions, I am getting a richer view of the recent history of this place and the quality of the interactions among the faculty here. Some people have long memories.

Somewhat in humor, somewhat not, I suggested that we need to buy a coffee pot and set it up somewhere. Unfortunately, we don't have a lounge to sit in and chat. Perhaps I'll go buy a coffee pot next week.

On Tuesday, I had a soda with Bill Berlinghoff. He used to be on the faculty here, and now he is a senior writer for an NSF project that is designing new high school mathematics curricula. After reading some of my writings, he was wondering if I was interested in working as a writer for the project. Although I have no experience with writing textbooks, I expressed some interest. It wasn't a formal offer, though, and we'll have to see what happens.

 

April 21, 1993: Recently, I spent a little bit of my valuable time as an organizer for a meeting of mathematics majors at Southern. The meeting was last Friday, and we had a good turn out. Thirty-five students attended, and more than half of the department faculty. By our estimates, we have about 80 majors, but it is surprisingly difficult to pin that number down.

Also recently, I made an error in judgment concerning a test. After I returned a test last week, one of my students, who is falling, asked if he could retake the test. I was kind of tired at the time and perhaps not thinking straight, and since the student was failing, I agreed to his proposal. Well, he then went and told his two friends in the class, who were also not doing as well as they liked, and they also asked if they could retake the test. One of the students suggested that I compute the average of the two grades.

Since I had allowed the first student to retake the test, I was hard-pressed to find a rationale for denying the requests of the other students. So I let the students take another test. After they took the new test, though, I gave them a lecture about being responsible students and being prepared the first time, because I wasn't going to allow them to take make-up tests again. I'll see after the next test if my lecture made any difference.

The funny thing about make-up tests, though, the students usually don't do any better.

 

April 23, 1993: Today I had a conversation with Harry Haakonsen, a professor in the Chemistry Department at Southern and a member of the committee that decided on the CSU research grants. That was the grant that I didn't receive. Harry gave me some information and some advice.

First of all, there were eight people on the committee to decide these grants. Each one ranked the proposals from 1 to 64 (or roughly so), and the eight opinions were averaged together. My average ranking was 55 out of 64 and only 50 grants were funded.

Harry actually liked my proposal and considered it "fundable." He said that he ranked me in the middle of the pack. Now, I'm a mathematician and can do the arithmetic. If he ranked me at, say, 35, the other seven must have not liked my grant proposal at all.

Harry had some ideas as to why I wasn't very popular. First, I made many connections between my dissertation and what I planned to do in the future. Harry suggested replacing "my dissertation" to "prior work." In this way, grant committee members won't ask, "Why didn't he do this in his dissertation?" You know, though, thinking of my dissertation as "prior work" represents a significant change in my viewpoint. Up until now, my thesis has been my point of reference. To demote it to "prior work" is a bit troubling, although I also see it as inevitable.

A second point Harry made was not to be so certain in my abstract. One line of my grant abstract reads, "The purpose of this project is to answer the question in the affirmative.... " Perhaps I shouldn't try to sound so confident, I guess.

A third point was that a timeline would help. In the grant proposal, I listed five goals of my project, without giving an idea as to how much time I would spend trying to accomplish each goal. Rather, I had a global statement about how I would accomplish these five goals in the next twelve months. Harry felt that a timeline would give people more confidence in me.

The fourth point had to do with the fact that many of the eight committee members were non-scientists and that they had a lot of grant applications to read through. While Harry, a chemist, could appreciate the "profoundness of the questions" (his words) I was planning to explore, a historian, for example, would be harder-pressed to appreciate the scientific merit. It might impress this historian if I clearly point out how my proposal would enhance the visibility of Southern Connecticut State University, or clearly point out how my project had potential for future external funding. (These are both stated in the grant guidelines as priorities for these grants.)

For the most part, Harry's criticisms were about style and not substance. There were other proposals that he objected to because of substance. A couple of these, unfortunately, got funded ahead of mine. (For example, one proposal that was funded was for a professor to write a commercial trade book for which he would also receive royalties. Is this research? Does it deserve to be funded by CSU?) Harry told me that the committee was going to meet again next week to discuss the process that they used to award these grants.

In other news, I voted today in the second Chair Preferential Poll. Results are expected next week.

 

April 26, 1993: Sometimes it is not easy being a young professor, because even though you are different than your students, you are not terribly different. On Saturday my girlfriend and I went to Toad's Place, which is a nightclub in New Haven, for their Saturday Night Dance Party. After some dancing and a beer, I ran into one of my students. I'm not really sure who was more embarrassed by this encounter. When I saw her, I felt that I needed to act "professorial," to maintain the professional space between us. Basically I felt inhibited the rest of the evening. After all, we professors can't be seen as enjoying ourselves, can we?

News travels fast, and today in class my students were staring at me in amazement. Dr. Aboufadel ... at Toad's Place?!! This will probably be a running joke for the rest of the semester.

I hope no one sees me at the mall.

 

April 27, 1993: I just finished talking with Allyn Jackson, who is an editor for the AMS Notices. She is writing an article about the attitudes of young mathematicians, and wanted to hear what I had to say about subjects such as the job market, this squabble about flat-rate funding at the NSF, the Young Scientists' Network, and whether or not senior members of the mathematical community care enough about us. Some things that I told her: that I thought the job market wasn't any better this year than last year; that this fracas about flat-rate funding seems rather distant to my concerns at this time; that some of the frustration that young scientists feel in 1993 is in part due to rosy scenarios about the demand for scientists that were tossed around in the middle' 80s; and that the senior members of the mathematics community are beginning to understand that something is wrong.

I guess an interview like this is a result of my minor fame. It's nice.

 

May 7, 1993: There were further strange twists and turns recently in our unending chair selection process. The second Preferential Poll was invalidated last week because of some irregularities in the ballots. We're not sure who is responsible, but as a result, one of the front-runners decided that he didn't want to be chair after all, and this week we had poll number 2.1. After this vote, there were two people who got a lot of votes: Bob Washburn and Kerry Grant. Kerry declined being Chair, too. So, we are going to tell the dean that a lot of people don't want to be chair, while Bob can tolerate the idea. Congratulations, Bob.

Actually, I don't mean to belittle the process or the position of chair. It is an important position. It is also quite time-consuming, and I can understand why some people are not interested.

I received exciting e-mail this week from Bulgaria. Zhivko S. Athanassov from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences expressed interest in my dissertation. He said that he and his colleagues have been trying to get a copy, but that they have been unable to, so could I send one? I wonder how they found out about me. Was it through Dissertation Abstracts? FOCUS?

I asked Dr. Athanassov to tell me more about his colleagues. I am awaiting a response.

I am once again faced with students asking to retake a test that they did poorly on. Three students made this request this week after I returned a test on Wednesday. None of these students were the students that I dealt with last month. I told each student that I would think about it.

My first thought was to wonder why so many students were getting this idea in their heads that I would allow them to retake tests. You should do a good job on a test the first time, right? Out of curiosity, I pulled up each student's transcript on the computer. Two of the three were on academic probation, facing academic dismissal if their grades didn't significantly improve. The third was taking the course for a second time because he needed a C in the course for his program, and last time earned a D+. I then pulled up the files on the students from last month and discovered that they, too, were facing academic dismissal. Their requests started to make more sense.

My feelings remained mixed, though. On the one hand, allowing these students to retake the test wouldn't be fair to the rest of the class, although I had already bent the rules once this semester. And maybe, just maybe, granting their requests would help them avoid academic dismissal. My gut feeling, though, is that even if I allow them to take the test over, it isn't going to make much difference. And what about the bigger question of why they are doing so poorly in the first place?

I decided to allow each of the students to retake the test, and that I would average the two grades. I also decided to give this a lot of thought over the summer and perhaps develop some sort of policy that I can be comfortable with.

 

May 8, 1993: Dr. Jo Ann Parikh stopped by my office yesterday afternoon. She is a professor in the Computer Science Department here, and is working on a problem that involves minimizing a complicated, many-variable function, subject to many constraints, and some of the functions are two-valued. Since the problem is related to differential equations somehow, she wondered if I had any advice on how to tackle it. I was a little embarrassed at first to say that I didn't even understand some the terminology she was using. (I've got to get a handle on what a "neural net" is.) But then I got over the embarrassment, realizing that I don't know everything, and directed her to the USENET newsgroup sci.math. She didn't know anything about the newsgroups, though, so I demonstrated them to her.

Later, I wondered if this was an opportunity for some sort of future research collaboration.

Although, perhaps I should consider a change of careers. Heidi Allen, one of my students in Calculus both last semester and this one, told me today about a request she considered asking me back in February. Heidi works at a bridal boutique, and the shop was organizing a fashion show. One of the male models fell ill the day before, however, and Heidi considered asking me to substitute for him, "because [I'm] tall and thin like he is." She didn't get up the nerve, though. Too bad. It would have looked good on my vita.

 

May 18, 1993: Last night I learned Professional Lesson number 344: Never put together a test when you are in a bad mood. The final that I gave last night in my Calculus III class was, I admit, tough. One of my best students said, "They were all cockroach problems," referring to a challenging problem that I put on an earlier problem set. It is a bit of an overstatement, though. (After all, the first question was easy.) But ambitious testing is one reason why we have "the curve" available.

It is finals week, and I am rather busy. Along with a take-home test, my differential equations students are being examined in twenty-minute oral exams. The range of knowledge of some of my students is stunning. Others are a lot less impressive. Although these examinations are time-consuming (taking up to seven hours of my time this week), I feel that they are worthwhile.

Also this week I am putting the finishing touches on a manuscript to be sent out to a research journal. I haven't mentioned much recently about doing research because I haven't had a lot of time to do anything. But I have made some time recently.

And that has been a recurrent theme with me, hasn't it? Finding the time, the energy, the motivation, the resources, and the support to do research - it seems like I never can get all five going at the same time. Right now I am more motivated than I was last fall, but I have less energy, because I am teaching more this semester.

How does this look to the world? Am I becoming another one of those PhDs who never gets out of the gate after graduate school? Will I ultimately be judged a failure because my professional career isn't filled with NSF grants, twelve journal articles a year, doctoral students to advise, and invited lectures at AMS meetings? (And who will be doing this judging anyway?)

Is it unfortunate that for years I have been interested in good teaching, so that by the end of graduate school I had one dissertation, no published papers, and several courses taught under my belt? I don't know. Success has many guises. Do I have to choose between scientist and teacher?

 

May 26, 1993: Spring semester is over and the first summer semester has already started. I am teaching Calculus I this summer, a five-week course that meets two-and-a-half hours a day, five days a week. I tell my friends that I am teaching "Speed Calculus."

This week I have made the post office rich. I sent a copy of my dissertation to Bulgaria, and I sent many copies of my manuscript to the SIAM Journal on Applied Mathematics. As I said before, research has been a big issue with me all year, and I'm glad to end the academic year on a positive note.

I have some ideas about new mathematical questions to try to answer this summer and fall. And, despite my grumbling the other day, between going to the SIAM meeting in Philadelphia, my reassigned time in the fall, and the possibility of giving a talk at the Joint Meetings in Cincinnati, I am actually beginning to establish a research career.

Looking back over this diary, I see a few other major themes. One is a certain self-consciousness that I think went away after my contract renewal. Another is teaching, which has dominated my life. (I find myself failing asleep at night, thinking about what I am going to lecture on the next day. It must be time for a vacation.)

Another theme has been administration and bureaucracy. Grants, tenure, budgets, and elections are integral parts of the academic life, and I think the events of this year have left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. Like anything else in life, there are winners and losers, but the arbitrariness of it all has been a bit troubling for me. It's just like the job search - nothing seems rational. It's just like life.

But, all in all, I'm happy with how this first year went. I enjoy teaching, and I accomplished a lot.

Well, as Andy Warhol would say, my fifteen minutes are up.

 

Postscript: A few months later: Since the end of May, a few events have occurred in relation to some of the topics in my diary. The Young Mathematicians' Network was set up this summer, and although I didn't lead the creation of YMN, I am one of the founders. The on-again, off-again budget went on again, as money that was taken away from the department in March was returned to us in July.

On the research front, I got some work done this summer, as I began to see how chaos fit into my problem. The manuscript I sent out in May got passed around to three different journals before it was actually peer reviewed, and then it was rejected. Friends and colleagues implored me to submit it again "Now! Right now! Right this minute!" and I did. I gave my talk in Philadelphia, too, but no one heralded me as the next Poincaré.

I've always heard that mathematicians have low-stress careers. It doesn't look that way from here.

Lately I've been thinking about what I want out of this career as a mathematician. There are three desires that I have that are sometimes at odds with each other. One is the desire to feel secure ? to have a secure job. The second is the desire to experience the joy of learning mathematics and teaching mathematics. The third is to earn some glory. Will I be satisfied?

 

END

 

 


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