This post is fairly personal. The only thing you'll learn about, from reading it, is me. And I'm not a particularly interesting subject, I promise. Go find something else to do, there's plenty out there.
For some reason this academic year has been a huge source of confusion and frustration for me. I'm now in my 6th year of graduate school (for math, in case you forgot that part). For the past 5 years, I knew why I was here: I wanted to be a math professor. Maybe I still do, but I'm not so sure any more. My thesis advisor says he thinks I'd make a good prof at some small school, which was always the goal. And yet, I have a hard time convincing myself that this is still what I want. It's sort of an odd feeling to have your main plan in life for... a decade?... not really matter to you any more. Or, to maybe not matter.
I only have some vague idea(s) why I don't care as much about being a professor as I used to. I'll see what I can put into words, as much (more) for my benefit as yours (hopefully you stopped reading around the end of the second paragraph).
- Research sucks. Or I suck at research. Or... something like that. I've been reading math books for fun since high school (after I read all the books on sharks at the local library, and then decided I wasn't one for the water). I still do. And I love reading about math. But perhaps "doing math" is not something I care much for. I know, I know... math isn't a spectator sport, and... if you aren't reading with a pencil and paper and trying to guess what comes next, you're doing it wrong. But F that. I love reading math, the way I read math. If the way I read math means I'm not a "real mathematician", then maybe I shouldn't be here anyway, or shouldn't be teaching the next batch of math students.
- How am I supposed to be a professor, and tell my students how to learn math, if I don't do it myself? How can I tell my students to go home and work more problems (a habit I never had), and bang their heads against problems for a while (when, every time I sit down to do research I find something else to do as quickly as possible)?
- Sure, I can tell my students about math. I can tell them definitions and theorems and how to work problems, and maybe even tie it all together in some meaningful way. But lots of people have already done that, and their work exists in textbooks and, increasingly, online.
- Speaking of online, I feel like (and I know I'm not the only one) higher ed. (and probably other ed., and plenty more) is going to be going through a bit of an upheaval in the near future. I'm not sure I see how small, private, liberal arts colleges (like the one I went to, and always envisioned myself teaching at) are in a sustainable position currently. They are too expensive, and for what? I believe that many people are going to start recognizing that the diploma you get from such an institution isn't as valuable as, say, an impressive online resume, which is now something anybody can create with little effort (besides the "doing things that go on the resume" part). People can show everything they are capable of online, for everybody to see. What good is another diploma in relation to that? (I know that a diploma is still good... I'm not going to argue any of the things I say here)
- And also, while I'm on the subject of "online"... the experts are out there posting work online. Awesome teachers are posting full lesson plans, and all sorts of incredible resources. And my students could get to it as easily as I can. What extra value do I bring to the table? A convenient face to bounce ideas off of, to ask questions to (before thinking about the problem long enough alone)? Scheduled hours when I'll be around? I think there is a place for web collaboration tools in education, and I'm not sure how I complete with the sorts of individuals that my students have access to online.
- And a final thought: even going in to grad school, I was making a choice between grad school for math, or grad school for computer science. By the time senior year rolled around I was decided on math. I know at least one of my closest friends at the time was surprised. I sort of wish I had talked to my advisor and my CS professors a bit more about my decision, before making it. These days, I feel like I was probably wrong. I can spend all day online reading about computer/tech/programming stuff. I'll work on Project Euler problems, happily, until I solve them - in contrast to research, which I have a very hard time convincing myself to spend even an hour a day "doing". I don't know, maybe this is just a case of "the grass is always greener". Also, Project Euler problems, from what I've seen, aren't meant to be long, whereas math Ph.D. problems are sort of meant to take a little while. But what gets me excited are the projects I want to work on as a programmer, not as a mathematician.
So, anyway. I don't really know where I am. I don't really know where I am going. I'm apparently in not too much of a hurry to find out. I've killed another hour that I should have spent on research.
And, yes, the title of this post is a nod to Tool.