Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Confessions of a sometimes-mathematician

Sometimes you have to let go, and let people lead their own lives.

As regular readers may know, this term's the first time I've taught a first-year colloquium at UNCA. (How I've avoided teaching one for this long is beyond me.) Therefore, before the last few weeks, I've never had to advise non-math majors. Many of the students in my MATH 179 course are "undeclared," and though many of them have some idea as to what they want to do with their lives, a few of them have almost no direction whatsoever. At the end of the day, I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, as long as you're open to a little exploration and self-discovery. As much as it might annoy a highly-driven type-A person like me, some people just aren't sure where they're headed, and don't feel an immediate need to figure it out.

In the past two days I've met with two such students from my MATH 179 class. Both of them worked with me to hammer out tentative class schedules for next semester, but only after a good deal of discussion about possibilities ranging across the curriculum. (Oddly enough, they both might find themselves in Ancient Philosophy as they explore that route.) Neither wants much more from college right now than the experience of being in college, and right now I don't think there's much more they need to get out of it. They'll have to worry about that down the road a piece, but for the time being they'll be safe taking some core classes and getting baseline requirements out of the way. Until they reach a fork in the road, I'll help them along in whatever way I can.

Others can't afford such leisure and latitude. One of my advisees is about to graduate with a pure mathematics major, and I can't help but think she's found no more than the merest passing interest or passion in any of the math courses she's taken here. More than once in the past four years I've encouraged her to take another path if something truly striking struck her ("really, I won't take it personally"), but she's stuck with the math program, passionless as she may appear about it. I hope we've served her well.

Someday, perhaps, she'll find her path. But I've got to let go and let her do that for herself. After all, I can't help her find her way if I'm not even sure from day to day just what it is I want to do with my life. As I've confessed to some of my closest friends (and as I admit here now), I've given serious thought in the past year or so to setting math aside and diving more deeply into rhetoric and composition, areas in which I've been more keenly interested for the past couple of years. Put simply, for the past year or so rhetorical theory has gotten me far hotter than any theorem I've been able to prove.

But I love math, and I love math research, and I can't see myself setting aside the last two decades of work I've done to get me where I am. Moreover, I can do more good where I am now (as a solid math researcher with strong background in rhet/comp) than I could elsewhere (as, for instance, an ex-pat mathematician who took up rhetoric on a full-time basis). Finally, there's nothing stopping me from being a mathematician who geeks out about markers of metacognition at conferences on writing theory.

Who am I now? Who will I be tomorrow? We'll see. Sometimes you have to let go, and let your own life follow whatever course it seems bound to follow.

1 comment:

Bret Benesh said...

You are smart to keep your rhetoric skills in mathematics. They are rare here, but not elsewhere.

You next post should be "markers of metacognition for mathematicians." Seriously---I want to learn more about that.