October 14 Day 220: Not Limitless

I am so excited to bring you my first guest blogger for Math in the Time of Corona, Dr. Brandy Wiegers. She is an award winning Associate Professor at Central Washington University interested in supporting students’ mathematical exploration, the growth of Math Circles, and a broader national research on the impact of Math Circles.

I read Brandy’s wise words on Facebook this morning and was inspired. So rather than giving you a poor imitation of Brandy’s insights, I asked her permission to share them with you directly.


By Dr. Brandy Wiegers

“Today’s internal monologue TED talk is brought to you by the processed echoes of an explosion of three-events.

  1. a mid-career strategic networking conference,
  2. the mid-fall quarter email from a student in my “intro to the math major” course explaining how “I can improve my teaching” so that students have more time for “real-math courses” and
  3. Brené Brown.

What finally pushed the processing was listening to Brené’s podcast about how you transition from FFT (not Fast Fourier Transforms but effing first time) to Day 2 and Day 3 and talking with a colleague about the difference between how first-year students and graduating students are faring in this pandemic. With all those qualifiers here is what I connected…

I created the student-skills component of the “Introduction to the Math Major” course five years ago because I saw too many students that had managed to be previously successful in mathematics with minimal effort. I don’t fault them for this but I do note that what I saw is that they didn’t have any form of organizational or problem-solving skills, what others might call grit of growth-mindset, to navigate through courses when they inevitably happened upon content they didn’t inherently just “get”. So I worked to create a course that practiced different problem-solving approaches and introduced different student skills so that those who choose to engage in the work would have created more of the muscles/the background to be able to self-navigate. I think it’s helped students who wish to engage in the lessons and some of those that were frustrated with the “non-math” content have reflected after graduation that the material was useful in post-career exploration. Yay!

That said, there was a gap in the content for those who already got it. And I don’t see it in that course, I see it in their senior coursework. Students that came to Central with organizational skills, an I-can attitude, and more keep hitting the same wall their Senior year when they can’t live on Macaroni and Cheese with 3 hours of sleep every 3-days. I have kicked one of these students out of my class to go home and sleep and told them that I was contacting all of their other instructors to let them know that was the plan. The connection I made today is that these students have never been in a situation where their organization and grit fails them simply due to the fact that we aren’t limitless beings. I have spent so much time trying to make sure that my set of students get skills that I haven’t thought about addressing this limiting component in any of my instructional support. The need for this is intensified in this year of trauma.

So what gives me this idea? At the mid-career conference, we were discussing methods for organizing ourselves to keep track when we’re just feeling pandemic exhaustion haze. At the moment I shared that I was struggling because I have a system for organizing my to-dos that worked for nearly a decade until it didn’t. It failed when I spent nearly three years doing care-taking for multiple family members, and as illness and death aren’t one of my Bookings options, these weren’t planned into my organizational system. I transitioned from organization to whack-a-mole, dealing with whatever yelled the loudest. In the time since then, as I work to build back that organization, I have heard (just like I did last week) from many well-intentioned colleagues and friends, sharing their organizational techniques. Suggestions have ranged from planning email responses, color-coding, time tracking, and more. The eureka connection that came from the echoing confluence is that all of those well-meaning suggestions wanted me to do more work. This is not the solution. Or taken from another life situation: on the first day I walked into my first therapist’s office, I stated all the things I was prepared to do, a conglomeration of the efforts I had heard my friends in therapy were doing. My dude quickly stopped me and said, each person needs a different approach to therapy, and listening to you what you need to do is less, not more. I needed therapy through trauma, which has a different focus and a different set of goals while thinking about mental health.

So I share this because I’m thinking about how we mentor our students through that transition. After years of building them up , telling them that they can do it all, it needs to be ok to do nothing at all. When I was executing my grandma’s estate, color coding my diary wasn’t going to help anything. What I needed was more support in telling people that I just needed to delay or stop my commitments. I needed more people to tell me to go home and sleep, eat a vegetable, and watch a stupid movie. What I am seeing right now is my Seniors at the edge of their organizational skills. I don’t believe this is because we’ve coddled them. I think it’s because for a long time they were on top of everything and then the pandemic showed up and piled on family commitments, financial frustrations, and mental health challenges. We then want them to creatively imagine applying for graduate school, trying to showcase their best selves while living in trauma. I had to finish my tenure packet the weekend my grandma died and I just need you all to know that at that moment, while I kicked the family out of the room and worked to finish it, I just didn’t care about the end consequence. So, what do we do with this late-night crafted internal TED talk? Think about more ways to mentor our students to self-care. Think about how we can use these moments to model best practices in taking care of ourselves and thinking about prioritizing. I stress that the previously highly organized students aren’t struggling because they lack motivation, they are struggling because they are at their limits in a traumatic situation and they need to hear more about how it’s ok to do less, to just get by. We are going to care for them the same, either way.

Ok, had to get that out.

Post Note: I’m hearing from friends and family that you’re worried about me. I thank you for the support and love, I am doing fine and my trauma came through those family health supports over the last five years. I have worked hard to get to the next step and my organization system is starting to work again. I just wanted to share how my lessons in navigating working during trauma can help us think about the many things our students are balancing right now.”

Published by Jenny Quinn

Mathematician. Mother. Wife. Leader. I am a professor of mathematics at the University of Washington Tacoma. Mother of Anson and Zachary. Wife to Mark. President of the Mathematical Association of America.

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