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Professionalization and Intellectuals

It was an extremely liberating point in my life when it really sunk in that there is a difference between intellectuals and academics. I began to see true intellectuals in my friends and in many people, from many walks of life, who I have known and talked books with over the years. They have many sorts of jobs–the lucky ones as professional teachers and writers, the majority as tradesmen and other people who read and think when they go home and on lunch hours. 

There were many things driving this realization, but I think, two primary ones. One was my introduction, through conversations and an REU and the math blogosphere, to the professional world of academic and even industry mathematics. At first, it was expanding because I met NOAA scientists with GR books on their shelves that they discussed with officemates, and I knew there was science outside the academy. Now, it’s even more expanding, because I recognize the trappings of a full-blown profession in the culture and training of scientists, and I can see how distinct that is from a love of science. I’ve been to conferences (loved JMM!) and seen how most math academics live in a scholarly world of at most five to ten people who understand what they do; how there are sub-sub-sub-divisions within the major professional societies of science and they often don’t go across the hall to another faction’s conference room. I don’t mean this negatively, or as a judgment: my introduction to the professional practice of mathematics was thrilling, as I saw the teaching debates strewn in the notices and columns of certain journals and felt myself with a big stake in them, or as I saw real problems applied mathematicians are working on. The point in my career when I joined SIAM and organized reading groups and seminars and mentored other students and scanned conference aspects and moderated a math question forum showed me how varied the world of mathematics is, and removed some of the blinders that any single institution’s flavor of scholarship puts on a student. It showed me that I love mentoring and teaching math, and even that I can be decent at it with a lot of work, and those were amazing discoveries with ramifications far beyond my professional life.

On the flip side, it also taught me to approach my love of mathematics with caution and really consider if I wanted a professional career in mathematics. As I began to understand that graduate school means having a particular problem you’re very interested in and apprenticing yourself to someone whose interests overlap, I dropped the childish idea that “grad school is something you do if you like the subject enough and are good enough in it and want to teach.” I understood that it’s not the training of scholars (except in the narrow sense), but the training of researchers in particular fields by what is functionally a guild system. I stopped asking myself if I was “good enough” or “dedicated enough” to do mathematics, stopped just taking the hardest classes I could find and comparing myself by hardcore-ness, and started the long process of figuring out whether there is an area or a problem I want to devote many years of my life to, years in which my teaching will be less and I won’t have the time for expanding my broad knowledge base and mentoring others as much as I do now. I haven’t found that particular problem yet; the jury’s still out on if I will. But it’s been so good for me to understand that graduate school is a professional choice and not a reflection of character, and to treat it as something you can only do properly with a solid research plan.

The second major turning point was more gradual, the steady accumulation of anecdotes, observations and advice over many deep conversations, as I discovered how people I admire for their science and their teaching came to do what they do. I learned how one mentor of mine turned to a focus on teaching because he was tired of being the world’s expert on one section of one Drosophila chromosome, because he went into evolutionary biology for a broad enthusiasm for evolution in all its variety. That’s not to say that he taught me I shouldn’t specialize–he taught me that it’s possible to be a scientist whose first love is teaching, and to write for the public and not shove aside the contact points between science and society. (The conversation started with a piece I was writing on the evolutionary theories behind homosexuality, and involved a discussion of how many science students are socialized not to think so much about questions of sexuality.)

Jury’s still out on if I’ll find that problem I’m glued to–though my preliminary thesis work on machine learning with a digital humanities spin is occupying a lot of time these days, and feels like it could go either way into math or English. But whatever’s next, I’m really glad I rescued myself from a lot of the emotional angst that comes with judging my scholarly ambitions with too narrow a framework. I’m confident that scholarship will be a crazy-making, tantalizing, frustrating, ultimately rewarding part of whatever life I build for myself: that confidence was a long time coming, and it still waxes and wanes. But that’s okay.

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