Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Who You Are and TMC

Q: “You’re not prepared for what awaits you.”
Picard: “How can we be prepared for that which we do not know? But I do know that we are ready to encounter it.”
Q: “Really?”
Picard: “Yes, absolutely, that’s why we’re out here.”
--ST:TNG, “Q Who?”

Any Qs?

By this point, most of the people who attended “Twitter Math Camp 2014” (and a number who didn’t) are aware of the “I am a fraud” post by Mr. Kent. There’s been loads of blogs, and a bit of a rallying cry to the effect of everyone feeling inadequate, if not now than in the past, and really we’re all just muddling through this together. Don’t worry about it, chill out, no one’s there yet, no one’s really that special.

Screw that. Some people are special.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying they’re "there". Nor I am saying we shouldn’t be supportive, sharing our own experiences, and offering encouragement to anyone who needs it. But consider that your inadequacy is NOT NECESSARILY someone else’s. You do them a disservice if you believe that it is.


I’m going to pull a couple of quotes from Mr. Kent’s post:
-“I truly feel as I am nothing compared to those I met here. Going from feeling like top dog to nothing is crushing to everything that I held dear to me.”
-“Even as I write this blog it is really hard not to write things to manipulate others into liking me.”

The first resonates with me because I had a very similar experience. The second because I don’t feel it’s like me at all. So as I go through this post, it's very likely that everyone will find something to disagree with. GOOD. We’re all individuals.

I started a mathematical web serial in July of 2011. I wrote a song parody to go along with it in August 2011. The song parodies quickly took on a life of their own. I was the first to parody “Call Me Maybe”, in December 2011, before the United States even knew of a Canadian named Carly Rae Jepsen. As I continued, the more I did the research and accumulated links, the more I realized I had something I could finally give back to the mathematical community. (Because I’m still puzzling over how the darn serial can be of use to anyone.)

I pulled together an entire presentation which I delivered locally in Ottawa in February 2013. This was around the same time as the presentation call for TMC13, so I figured what the hell, people there might be interested too. I submitted a proposal, it was approved, preliminary numbers said I’d have 6 people. I had one person. Some may recall my tweet from that time, which was in last year’s post:

That wasn’t the crushing thing though. A couple people even asked me about the presentation afterwards. No, the real crushing thing was who didn’t talk to me. I discovered there was a group of people out there writing a Song Parody for TMC13. At this point, I had no less than 20 song parodies to my name, I had delivered a SESSION about parody AT the conference... and yet I was not even on the radar of a half dozen like-minded people. Some of whom I’d TALKED with on Twitter.

“Going from feeling like top dog to nothing is crushing to everything that I held dear to me.”

Was this a special group? Perhaps not by their account. But it felt special to me. Very special, actually. So I sent a message about hey, um, I’m here... and I was invited in for a lunch session, and I came up with the rhyme of ‘throne’ for the High Priestess line... and that was pretty much it. Later on there was some talk of me presenting song parody at Global Math but the schedule was full until November and no one got back to me on it. Because I’m no one special. Not that way, not in the TMC group.

[EDIT: I don't even remember exactly who the writers were. Apologies for the example, I'm not trying to paint anyone in a bad light, it was a context thing. For that matter, in the larger context, no one asked me to karaoke with them either. Though I do treasure one particular tweet of @Mythagon.]

"I'm no good"? Seriously? That's supposed
to motivate this department?
But you know what? Just because you’ve ended up joining a larger community, and gone from what feels like the top down to nothing... in smaller communities, you’re still up there. Even if, for you, the bar is now higher, YOU ARE SPECIAL TO SOMEONE. Maybe it's a colleague. Maybe a student. Maybe a member of school support staff. I ask that you DO NOT DENY THAT. For if you do, you risk making that person feel worse, because you have invalidated their (perhaps unspoken) belief in you. Perhaps, by extension, in themselves. Notice I’m not saying you have to accept it. Only that you should not deny it. Which applies to certain people in the larger community as well.

THAT ACCEPTANCE IS HARD. It’s easier to shrug things off and say “I’m no better than you”, or even “I’m actually so much worse than those other people”. But as individuals, some people CAN and DO stand out in a crowd - for other individuals.

I get it. You don’t want to acknowledge that you could be such a person. After all, it might be as much due to your seniority or your appearance as opposed to your interests or abilities. You may even feel that others have the completely wrong impression of you. But microinvalidation IS a thing. I implore you, look for what others might be seeing, and acknowledge it within yourself. As with anything important, it’s easier said than done.

For me, I can say I’m the best musical math teacher in my school. I will grant that this admission isn’t so hard, given how it’s such a niche market. I suppose I can add that I’m a pretty good GPS beyond that.


At this point, things cut both ways. Having just told you that you are right to see certain people as being special, and that your belief in them is valid (or that their belief in you is valid), I’m going to agree that we don’t need that validation nonsense. Be your own individual within the group.

“Even as I write this blog it is really hard not to write things to manipulate others into liking me.”

Screw them. If they go on about how they’re "nothing special" and "we’ve all been" there, and you don’t agree, fine. They don’t know you - any more than you know them. Only YOU can know you. Embrace that. (Upon rereading, it looks a bit like this paragraph is talking to the blog quote. In actuality, I’m speaking more generically to anyone who feels they don’t "fit in", and who doesn’t feel like all the happy "that’s just like us" feelings are helping them out. Though hey, if the happy feelings ARE helping, ignore me completely. You have that power.)

But look back at yourself. WHY do you want to be accepted by these "special" people in the larger group? Better question: Why do you feel you are NOT ALREADY accepted?

Sis, I'm not feeling the love here...
Is it because of their existing network? One could argue that by engaging in dialogue, you’ve already become a part of that network. If you’re worried about being kicked out, if that happens because of your beliefs, you probably didn’t want to be a member anyway. If the problem is that they can’t hear you, talk louder. Are you not feeling accepted because of their seniority? That does give a group more experience, but not necessarily better ideas. Alternatively, if it IS their ideas (or abilities) you like, most people are only too happy to share such expertise anyway. Ask for it. Is the problem that you think they’re so different? Flip it around - you must have something in common, or you wouldn’t be in a position to talk with them in the first place. Build from there.

THIS IS ALSO HARD. What I said earlier involves acknowledging that some people are higher than others... while THIS involves acknowledging that (paradoxically) you are not any lower than them. In the group, we are all on an even playing field. Picture being on a team with someone that people regard as the star quarterback... that person would be nothing without the rest of you. Do you need this star player’s permission to participate? Hopefully not. Does his being there mean you cannot also do awesome things? Surely not. (We’ll take it as given that the quarterback isn’t full of himself, because the one thing that DOES tend to create problems in a group is ego. That said, I propose it may be equally annoying if he constantly says he’s no good.)

I’d better address the issue of envy and jealousy too. I bring it up because, hell, I know I’m envious. There’s these "star" people out there who can get many comments on a blog post, or 10 responses to a tweet, or who can rally a crowd around a song parody, or who (most damning of all) get constant RTs. Seemingly without effort. (Actual truth: It takes effort.) I want in on that action! But if the only way for me to get that action is to change who I am or what I do to "fit in"... NO. The cost is too great. After all, I don’t need any comments on this blog post to tell me I’m awesome, when I already know that! (Which, I grant, probably means I violate the "ego" rule. Oh well.)

Consider this: Dan Meyer’s talk at TMC concluded with the thought “Be Selfish”. The context was to get as much as you can out of the community in terms of knowledge and assistance. To use that to change your teaching, and to change your perspective... but being selfish implies you already have an identity. Don’t change that. Don’t change who you are at your core. Or at the least, don’t feel you have to do it in order to move forwards and connect with others.


The answer to that big question is, of course, to be honest with yourself. But at the same time, you MUST consider that the opinions of others play some part in who you are as well. For better or worse. Acknowledge it - and acknowledge that accepting their opinions don’t make you a fraud any more than accepting money makes you fraudulently wealthy. It’s not like you have a printing press in your basement.

Having now potentially annoyed or confused of the majority of the TMC crowd, I’m going back into my corner. With my little pop culture references. I’m starting to think my problem is not so much that I’m an introvert, but that I simply don’t function well in groups.

Angelus: “Now that’s everything, huh? No weapons, no friends, no hope. Take all that away, and what’s left?”
Buffy: “Me.”
--BtVS, “Becoming”


  1. "There’s these "star" people out there who can get many comments on a blog post, or 10 responses to a tweet, or who can rally a crowd around a song parody, or who (most damning of all) get constant RTs. Seemingly without effort."

    I wrestle with this a bit. Who are you writing for? If it's for reflection, then it really doesn't matter what kind of response you get. If it's to engage in dialogue, then lack of response is disconcerting. If it's to share resources, then it's nice to hear from people that they like what you are sharing. I'm never quite certain what my own intention is. In the end, I get what you are saying. If I wanted no response at all, I'd write it in my journal and hide it under my bed.

    1. That's a good point. It often does depend on the content of a post, and I know sometimes I'm guilty of "psychically" assuming people will figure out which posts I write because I'm looking for pushback. (Other times, as you say, I'm not sure as to my intention, aside from maybe pushing back myself, which is where I put this post.) The problem with making the overgeneralization that I did.

      I was also talking with someone earlier about the distinction between "friend" and "fan", and it seems to me that this would apply as far as audience goes too. Who am I writing for? Well, honestly, I'm very hesitant to call people friends, because I worry about letting others down. But I don't just want fans, because that implies they'd support regardless, or only care about my work. Who does that leave? Casual acquaintances? I'm not sure what incentive they'd have to share my stuff out. Maybe it really is better to only get responses on certain posts after all.

  2. It's interesting that the Mr. Kent post got me thinking, but didn't stir me inside. Something about this post does -- maybe because it rings a lot closer to home. I'm a pretty practical person most of the time, and when I first started trying to break into the MTBoS, I had one goal: find other teachers who are trying to build the same kind of curriculum I am (resources and pedagogy) and team up. However, it never seemed like I could figure out how to do it. The stats community, where most of my focus has been, is a somewhat small subset, making it a little tougher, and after TMC14 I realized that a lot of the things I'm doing are kind of out in left field compared to the rest of the group (I organize my curriculum differently, I de-emphasize AP / probability, I don't use a textbook, I have an unusually heavy project use, and I flip lectures). I'm not sure if this means that any of this is wrong, but you start to question yourself when the core group (those who have been around for the longest time and regularly chat with each other) are in a different world. Without a doubt there are a ton of things I learned from our stats crew that I will adopt immediately, and having built relationships with this group has made so many amazing teachers reachable in hours online for feedback and resources as I plan this year. I just feel like something is missing in that connection to the group as you described above. Coming in I thought I wanted working acquaintances, but I guess I was looking for this AND something deeper in the stats community.

    I apologize for rambling about myself on your blog. I guess I just want to validate your feelings as more normal than you might think, even if the context is a little bit different. I'm not sure what to do about it, or why we are bothered by it, but that doesn't make it go away.

    1. Thank you. Your comment has clarified something that's been bothering me on a subconscious level for over a year. I wonder if it was obvious to others. On some level, I'd envisioned teaming up or networking deeper with like-minded musical teachers (or perhaps artists) at TMC13. It didn't happen. Or at least, not in a way I thought it would, which may be why I felt like I didn't get as much out of the experience as others. I don't know why that didn't strike me sooner. Huh.

      I'm glad to hear you can kind of relate. To be honest, this post was born of me getting tired of seeing people say "I'm also insecure!" because if you're "higher" than me in my personal hierarchy, and you feel you can't do it, that doesn't so much make me feel better as stress me the heck out. At which point it occurred to me that I may be "higher" in someone else's hierarchy, and I felt I had to blog. So, what I'm saying is, ramble any time.

      By the way, to all: The EDIT in the post was meant to clarify that I don't feel like I was intentionally excluded by singing math people, it was just a thing that happened. If you have a better memory than me about names, do NOT jump to any potentially damaging conclusions. I know where you live. (Ok, I don't, but maybe there's a database I can hack.)