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Some ruminations on research

October 5, 2007, 8:29 pm

4909171_c626708935_m.jpgSo I spent the entire day today up the road at Butler at an NSF workshop for people interested in writing grant proposals. It was very informative, and it was especially helpful to have most of the actual program directors there in person — all of whom were friendly, very down-to-earth and open to talking with faculty grunts like me. (One request for the NSF folks, though: Please, for the love of God, consider the 10/20/30 rule for your presentations. Four straight hours of 40+ slide Power Point presentations done in 20-point font almost (but not quite) drove me crazy. Thanks.)

What I wanted to blog about right now, though, isn’t the NSF stuff per se, but more about the feeling I always seem to take away from conferences or workshops like this where there are a lot of people who actually do research. The feeling is one of being on the outside looking in, of being past my prime.

To understand this, you need some context. It’s been 10 years now since I finished my PhD in mathematics, with a specialty in some very esoteric homology theories that I myself never fully understood, and the use of exotic category theory stuff to make the symbols associated with those homology theories do what I wanted them to do. At the end of the day, I had proven that Quinn homology was isomorphic to G-equivariant homology when G is a discrete group acting cellularly on a simplicial complex. I worked for another year following my dissertation to edit it down into publishable form, and got it published.

But that was the last real mathematical research I have touched since then, with the lone exception of a paper I got published in Cryptologia a couple of years ago. And that paper was so error-riddled in the original draft that it only barely was accepted at all, and  even then it was more of a curiosity than an actual result. But it was research. However, it took me a year to write it, and over a year to edit it since part of the editing process was interrupted by traveling to China to adopt our oldest daughter and stumbling into being a parent.

Getting that paper published, especially since it was in an area (cryptology) in which all my training has been self-teaching and in which I have no formal coursework, makes me believe that I still have the intellectual chops to do mathematical research. But the amount of time it takes to get anything done, and the number of times I’ve sat down to try and learn new things and get out to the frontiers of a subject where the research happens, makes me think that I’m too old or too involved with other things in life or carrying too heavy of a teaching load to make it happen.

Don’t get me wrong — my family is more important to me than research, and teaching is what drove me into being a college professor to begin with. But I also want to be a well-rounded professional, which means that not only am I teaching excellently and leading a fulfilling personal life, I am also learning — consuming and producing new knowledge both for the purposes of the world and my discipline at large but also for my colleagues and students. The more I look back on the last several years, the more I realize that my scholarship and the attempts to satisfy my hunger for learning have not gone anywhere.

And this is no more frustrating than when I am around a bunch of talented researchers, especially scholars who work at liberal arts colleges whose job is primarily teaching but still have the time and space to learn and be experts in their areas. I have been trying to reinvent myself as a scholar over the last few months in a different area — computational linguistics and data analytics — in hopes that I could succeed in scholarship here where I had not succeeded elsewhere. Things went well over the summer. But when the semester started,  everything ground to a halt as every moment of the week was taken up by grading, prepping for the next class, grading some more, etc. Then, today, I was walking from one meeting room to the next when a guy behind me starting talking about his research in computational linguistics. I turned around to introduce myself, thinking perhaps it was somebody from IU’s excellent linguistics department. But it turned out to be… someone from a neighboring liberal arts college. Where they have the same emphasis on teaching as we do. So, how is this guy able to get his research done where I can’t even find the time to open my Jurafsky and Martin?

So I am left with a question, which I wrote in large print at the bottom of my workshop notes today: How does somebody like me — holding a PhD but 10 years removed from any significant research, not anywhere close to the cutting edge of any discipline, and tenured in a position at a small, teaching-oriented liberal arts college — how does somebody like me get to the point where he can do research in his field or a closely related field? Is it possible? If so, how do I get there? If not, how do I come to terms with knowing that my math research days are over, even though intellectually I feel like I am still in the game, and want to be in the game?

[Photo by slight clutter]

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