Tall, Dark, and Mysterious



In spite of…well, most of what I post here, I am confident that I have done a respectable job of working with my raw material (fundamentally uninteresting and inapplicable mathematics, students who should be in grade seven instead of university) this semester and last. When I emerged from a week-long isolation grading exams, I was able to step back and realize that a healthy majority of the papers I was grading belonged to students who had known nothing about the subject three months earlier, but who now had a working knowledge of it. Because of me. And the comments I got from students, for the most part, reflected that as well, not that I am above distributing course evaluations the day after a test, when my laziest and most obnoxious pupils can be counted on not to attend class.

My negative comments, unsurprisingly, came mostly from my precalculus students. Apparently, I am “too hard” and “too abstract”; I don’t “make the material interesting enough”, nor do I “relate it to real life.” (Of course, my attempts to make the material interesting and relate it to real life (see “word problems”, September 2004-present) meet with just as much hostility (see “too hard”, above).) Guilty, alas, on all charges; but I don’t see what I could have done differently while still teaching the material I was hired to teach. In any event, imagine my glee upon discovering, last week, that my successor is apparently a newly-minted Ph.D. whose area of expertise is - wait for it - category theory. Yes, the students who barely squeaked out of Precalculus 1 because they thought that equations were boring, abstract gibberish, have spent this past term learning Precalculus 2 under the tutelege of an individual who saw fit to devote his entire life to actual boring, abstract gibberish. *

Our resident category theorist (who I’ve previously referred to in this space as “Poor Sap”, a moniker that is actually more applicable now than ever before, for reasons I’ll get into as soon as I close these parentheses) will taking leave of Island U this month, after one brief term of employment. Reason: as it turns out, his category-theoretic ways were incompatible with the pedagogical needs of mathematical illiterates. Who’da thunk it? Perhaps both he and Island U would be happier if he were to find employment elsewhere, and we wish him the best of luck in his job search. Not that we’ll be providing glowing references.

Meanwhile, I also handed in my textbooks and keys ** this week. My time at Island U has also come to an end; but unlike Poor Sap, who didn’t make it through the mandatory probationary period that precedes an offer of permanent employment, I’d actually originally been hired for a single term, and managed on the basis of good work to get my contract extended for a second one. But that won’t turn into a permanent offer, because, well, I don’t have a Ph.D. in, for instance, category theory. Really - you can’t make this stuff up. Department Head and I parted on good terms: as far as he’s concerned, he told me, I’ve done Island U a huge favour this past year and he’d love it if I could stay on, but his hands are tied. He wishes me the best of luck in my job search, and I should know that he’ll be happy to provide a good reference whenever I ask for one.

And I know he’s sincere, and I feel badly for him, because now he has to go through the hiring process again. But feeling bad doesn’t get me a paycheque next month. Still, I reckon there aren’t droves of people out there who a) have Ph.D.’s, b) have the skills and the temperament to teach mathematical illiterates, and c) are willing to move to Island Town; so I wish Department Head the best of luck.

But I think that the most ironic thing to come out of all of this is that there’s actually a real-life use for a degree in category theory.

* Yes, I have studied algebraic topology and algebraic geometry, both of which make copious use of category theory, so I realize that I owe a debt to this bizarre field. I maintain, however, that category theory talis qualis is just so much abstraction piled upon abstraction, and I have no interest in entertaining arguments to the contrary in this space. That said, some of my best friends are category theorists.

** Oh, crap, forgot about the keys.