Category Archives: Vocation

Teddy Roosevelt’s to-do list

I’ve just finished reading Edmund Morris’ splendid biography The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. I can’t remember how I got interested in this book, but I came away from it greatly appreciative of Roosevelt not only as a great President but as a man whose capacity for both thinking and doing were almost superhuman. Although some aspects of his life seem questionable to me (there’s a distinct subordination of his family life to his career, for instance), I do admire his voracity of mind, his passion for public service and for doing what’s right, and the sheer force of his personality in getting things done.

Here’s one snippet from the book that really stood out to me. Shortly after Roosevelt was nominated for the Vice-Presidency in 1900 (the previous Vice-President, Garret Hobart, having died suddenly the previous year), he went out on the campaign trail for William McKinley. His schedule was, shall we say, vigorous. Here’s a sample daily schedule from the diary of an aide:

7:00 A.M.   Breakfast

7:30 A.M.   A speech

8:00 A.M.   Reading a historical work

9:00 A.M.   A speech

10:00 A.M.  Dictating letters

11:00 A.M.  Discussing Montana mines

11:30 A.M.  A speech

12:00          Reading an ornithological work

12:30 P.M.  A speech

1:00 P.M.    Lunch

1:30 P.M.    A speech

2:30 P.M.    Reading Sir Walter Scott

3:00 P.M.    Answering telegrams

3:45 P.M.    A speech

4:00 P.M.    Meeting the press

4:30 P.M.    Reading

5:00 P.M.    A speech

6:00 P.M.    Reading

7:00 P.M.    Supper

8-10 P.M.   Speaking

11:00 P.M.  Reading alone in his car

12:00          To bed.

That’s a daily schedule that will turn a few heads. On the other hand, all you have to do is substitute “A speech” with “Teach class” and the word “telegram” with “email” and you have a pretty close fit to the modern educator’s school day.

What stands out to me is not so much the sheer frequency of speaking engagements TR had (is this close to what Obama and McCain do today?) but what surrounds those speeches and discussions. Do you see it? It’s reading. This schedule includes 4.5 hours a day of it. And it’s not just memos or strictly political works, but fiction, science, and so on. To me, there are at least three deep lessons to learn from this.

First, making time for personal growth during the day, especially the growth of the intellect, is extremely important. Educators make their living by expending intellectual energy. You cannot continue to expend energy indefinitely without fueling back up somehow, if you expect to last long. This is very easy to forget, as we see the sheer amount of stuff in our inboxes and begin to think that if I just had one more hour, I’d get that much more stuff done and be that much happier. But I think — and perhaps TR thought as well — that happiness can also come from having time to make sure you get fed yourself and not just spend all your time feeding other people.

Second, this time for personal/professional growth can be structured in bite-sized chunks. Look at TR’s schedule again. His reading times average just 45 minutes each, split evenly between three half-hour time slots and three one-hour time slots (the longer ones coming outside the usual work day). In the past, I’ve tried to schedule in these inviolable times for reading and research, but only in single, monolithic, 3-hour long slabs happening once a week. That approach has never worked out for me. So as I think about making time in my busy schedule for reading and writing, maybe the more realistic approach is to take frequent, small chunks of time in which to do it. Surely I can afford 30 minutes a day, right? I probably waste that much time each day checking emails I don’t need to see.

Third, this time for personal/professional growth benefits from a kind of happy diversity. TR was reading whatever interested him, regardless of whether it pertained directly to being the Vice-President or not — ornithology and Walter Scott along with everything else. Personal/professional growth time ought to include, for me, not just mathematics but also new things — say, computer programming, biology, history, and so on. You never know exactly what is going to pertain to your job, and the most pertinent thing for your job if you’re a teacher is a well-rounded, active, happy mind.

So I take some encouragement from this little bit of history, that the most effective thinkers and doers from our past had schedules that were even more insanely busy than mine, but never suffered from burnout or lost their passion and drive for what they do — because they took time to feed themselves and grow themselves just as they fed others and helped them, and their country, to grow as well.



Filed under GTD, Life in academia, Profhacks, Vocation

Spring break report

My busier-than-usual Spring Break is all but over with. Here’s a brief update.

The ICMC went off much better than it looked like it was going to. This was my first of a three-year stint as Student Activities Director for the Indiana section of the MAA, and while my predecessor was really great an answering my questions about how to organize the ICMC, he could only answer the questions I could think of, and the un-thought-of questions were starting to pile up at an exponential pace the week before the contest. But with the generous help of Mike Axtell, who — sadly — is leaving the Indiana section for a new position in Minnesota, all the logistics went off just fine and we had no major incidents. Kudos to the Purdue, Rose-Hulman, and Taylor teams who finished first, second, and third respectively.

That was last weekend. On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week I had a very nice time at Benedictine University near Chicago as the guest speaker to the Math Club and to Manu Kaur‘s topics course in cryptology. I gave a talk to the Math Club on cryptology in general — 50 minutes to cover the whole subject! — and despite some technical difficulties, the talk went reasonably well. There were close to 75-80 people in the audience! Then, the next day, I gave a talk on the Digital Signature Algorithm to the crypto class. In between, I got the rare opportunity to talk shop with Prof. Kaur on cryptography, and I also got a very nice tour of nearby Naperville, which is really quite lovely. (Not what I expected for Chicagoland suburbia.)

Benedictine has a fine department, and I was especially impressed by their students. To have close to 80 students show up in the middle of the day for a Math Club ta,lk at a school of under 3,000 students, is really amazing, and I got some very good questions after the talk. Following the digital signatures talk, one student asked me a really insightful question about Blowfish and SSL encryption; not only was this an undergrad asking the question, he was an undergrad chemistry major. And everywhere you looked, students were working on things — the science labs in particular seemed to be full every moment I was there.

St. Procopius AbbeySpecial treat for me: I got to spend the night in the extraordinary St. Procopius Abbey amongst the Benedictine monks. I’ve been reading Thomas Merton and the like for a long time, and the monastic life has been a guiding force in my Christian experience ever since I became a Christian, but until this week I had never actually gotten to experience monastic life firsthand. The abbey itself is breathtaking, with its Edward Dart-designed architecture combining soaring vertical spaces with hidden rooms for prayer and meditation, with a common thread of simplicity and silence throughout. I’m considering making a longer retreat there sometime soon. Something about the kindness, simplicity, and warmth of the abbey and the monks who live there follows one home from a place like this, and I could certainly use more of that.

So I’m wrapping up break doing the stay-at-home dad thing, having stayed with the girls for the last couple of days and spending the weekend doing the same before getting back to work on Monday. Ironically, this semester I made the conscious choice at the beginning not to emphasize scholarship so much but focus almost all my energies on teaching, but I ended up with one of the busiest semesters I’ve had scholarship-wise in a long time, mostly stuff that I have done or wrapped up this week! Now to finish off those pesky last five weeks of the semester.


Filed under Christianity, Crypto, Higher ed, Life in academia, Math, Personal, Student culture, Vocation

All in favor, say “aye”

Gene Veith has this interesting post about Gen. Henry Martyn Robert, author of Robert’s Rules of Order. Veith links to a WaPo article with some fascinating history, such as:

Learning something about parliamentary procedure involved reading a few books and making some notes, which [Gen. Robert] carried in his wallet for about four years.

When he moved to San Francisco, he encountered a city where prostitution was rife and Chinese laborers brought in to build the railroad were exploited, even chased by dogs for sport. Robert, a Baptist lay leader, was offended.

He joined the YMCA and several newly formed religious groups dedicated to relieving the plight of exploited souls, but he found that the city’s motley population had discordant notions about how to conduct meetings. San Francisco needed rules.

How do we help people, and make collective decisions in which the individual voice is respected while the consensus of the group is enacted? By having fair, orderly rules that everyone follows.

Next time I’m in a faculty meeting, I’ll remember that.

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Filed under Life in academia, Vocation

An Advent lesson about being a teacher

advent-wreath.jpgThe last twelve days for me have been particularly eye-opening for two reasons. First, I’ve been almost totally removed from my usually setting as a higher ed person/math prof/tech geek and instead have been a stay-at-home dad to my 2- and 4-year old daughters as they’ve been out of preschool. Second, my family’s recent foray into the Lutheran church kindled in me a desire to follow the church calendar, particularly during the Advent season which has just ended. It’s given me a great deal of perspective on my usual role as math prof — particularly in the area of my vocation as an educator. (The whole idea of vocation is central to the Lutheran approach, and it’s really brought home, literally, in being around my kids so much.)

One particular advent reading has left a big imprint on the way I think about my vocation. I was using a prayer book to do devotionals during Advent, and the invocation for the week leading up to the third Sunday of advent said this:

O Lord God, whose chosen dwelling is the heart of the lowly; We give Thee thanks that thou didst reveal thyself in the hold child Jesus, thereby sanctifying all childhood in Him.

What struck me from this prayer is the idea that childhood — and by extension, adolescence and the particular post-adolescent age group I teach — was something so important to God that it was part of the Incarnation. The story of Jesus didn’t have to unfold with His becoming a baby and living a full human lifespan. He could have simply appeared out of the desert having been created at age 30. But that’s not how it worked out; God really wanted the Son to have had contact will all the major phases of human development.

Which means that Jesus, in His time on earth, was an 18-22-year old. And he was a student, although obviously not in a university. God didn’t have Jesus simply skip over those years to get to the good parts of His life, the ones that make up the majority of the Gospels in the New Testament. That time of life was important to God, so much so that He wanted to make sure He experienced it Himself as a human being.

With that realization, it will be difficult for me — as a Christian professor who believes this stuff about Jesus — to look at 18-22-year olds the exact same way I have been. College students are in a unique phase of their lives. They are in a position in which it is their job to think, to question, to study, to learn, and to develop intellectually. That job is a struggle, one for which our culture and (to a great extent) our school systems have neither prepared them intellectually nor helped them even acquire a taste. They need help. Giving that help is my vocation.

I became a college professor because I love learning, and also because when I was a college student — smart in a lot of ways and miserably stupid in others — I needed somebody to come alongside me and help me chart my course. Somebody who was intelligent, who respected and pushed my intelligence, somebody who would listen to and understand my thoughts and interests no matter how lame or nerdy they were and no matter whether they thought or were interested in the same. I had glimpses of that kind of person in high school and college, but I didn’t really find that person until graduate school. I wish I had a person like that earlier. And I think the reason I am a teacher and not an actuary or NSA cryptanalyst or something more lucrative and less frustrating is that I really want to be that person to the students around me who need (want) one.

God thought enough of the age group I work with to do it Himself on our terms. Then He equipped me with the tools to go farther — and I can’t help but think the reason is that He wants me to be present to these students in one kind way He was present with us through Christ, that is, to give help and an ear to those in need.

I don’t go in for New Year’s resolutions, but making this happen to a greater extent that it has been happening is something I really want to accomplish in 2008.

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Filed under Christianity, Life in academia, Teaching, Vocation