Day: May 5, 2016


I am not a particularly neat person. I start my semester with a very clean desk, and then just let stuff accumulate. There are piles with HW assignments, scribbles that I made during office hours, random pages from drafts of manuscripts with marked-up edits on them, all interspersed with books that I pulled out to look something up and that are now stacked but misoriented, giving the entire structure a precarious look.  Near the end of a busy semester like this one, I have several piles on my giant ∏-shaped desk, and each is about a foot tall. After the semester ends, which to me equals having turned in my final grades, I go through a cleansing half-day ritual. I thoroughly tidy up my office, reshelve all my books, file all loose homework assignments and solution write-ups, and recycle uncollected student exams and various printouts.

During the semester, I will occasionally have a student during office hours who comments disparagingly on my clutter. The student who scolds me thrives on order. It’s always a he, and he is immaculately shaven and very neat. He has so far always either been an athlete or someone on a military scholarship. I bet my piles of paper are really jarring to someone who really needs control over the physical objects in his life. I had one student offer to clean the dry-erase-marker finger smudges on the wall near the white board in my office (I have many people in office hours and many peruse the board).

I don’t mind the clutter, it does not bother me when I work. The height of my piles measures the passage of time and my overall level of exhaustion. My office looks as disheveled as I feel. My desk is my own picture of Dorian Grey.

Yet, I am an anally retentive monster when it comes to my work and particularly to the neatness of my math. It drives me bananas when students (yes, those who comment on my piles are also guilty of this sin) forget to write the limits of definite integrals or what the integration variable is; when they lose minuses, twos, and π’s; when the expressions are written in these ugly, far-from-compact forms. As any of my grad students will also tell you, I am nitpicky about how our figures look, how our research papers are structured and written, and how group conference presentations flow. (As my publisher Melanie of Annorlunda Books can vouch, I am not at all laid back when it comes to choosing font combinations, either).

There’s physical clutter and there’s mental clutter. I guess people are better able to tolerate one or the other.


Which brings me to an interesting conversation that I had with one of my order-appreciating, hierarchically minded students.

There is some nonuniformity between different offerings of certain courses in the department, especially the low-level ones that a sizable roster of faculty teach. I don’t think this is anything unusual or specific to my department or school. The student was lamenting over it and basically said that he though we should all somehow be made to teach the course the exact same way by the higher-ups.

The thing is that faculty at most research institutions (and likely at other types of institutions, as well) would not take kindly to being micromanaged this way. In STEM fields, at least, all of us would earn much more in industry, and we are here because we want the freedom to be our own bosses, in control of our own research and teaching. There is no way some attempt to centrally micromanage teaching would fare well among my colleagues (and we have no resources to enforce anything anyway). If you want great teaching quality, uniformity, or whatever else, you need to have faculty buy in willingly; if you squeeze too much, the good people will simply go to other institutions.

I didn’t convey this to the student when we chatted, but perhaps I should have. Not everything can be fixed top-down. Some things get broken when you try.