August 18th, 2010

krazy koati

What's the latest thing the neighbors say

One more lingering bit from the Troy visit. On our way to the parking garage my advisor and I ran into one of the other professors from the department. He surprised me, as always, by specifically remembering me. (I was one of his TAs for one term of Freshman Calculus, but he had a half-dozen TAs for that class just that year, as well as the worst undergraduate grader I ever encountered, and that's against some stiff competition; my experience with undergraduate graders ranged from ``catastrophic'' to ``sufficient to cause Job to lose faith'', but this one was really bad.) But more, he mentioned that my advisor had talked about me, and my skills, and about how generally good I was.

Putting aside my modesty: I expected my advsior to talk up my abilities to the Army Guy we were hoping to impress. (During the meeting, he mentioned how he took very few graduate students because he wanted them all to be excellent ones.) Or to editors when we were putting forth book proposals. That's just strategically useful praise. But here ... this ... why on Earth would my advisor have mentioned me to anyone? And why mention me so positively unless ...

People who avoided grad school may not understand why it's so strange to think of hearing such praise, at least to my ears. There's probably a natural adversity to the advisor/grad student relationship, with the grad student having to do something much harder and not quite like anything he's ever done before and having to meet the advisor's standards. And, really, the harder the standards the better the ultimate thesis, even if it means the grad student goes through years of ego-crushing meetings where the flaws in the research and analysis and thought and writing are laid out in painful detail.

I'd got to feeling that I'm a worse mathematician than him, not just because he's more experienced, but also because of a fundamental difference in talent. And yes, we've worked together since my thesis, but I couldn't escape the feeling it was because I was conveniently available (and, for the textbooks, a better writer) rather than because I was particularly desireable. I even saw my becoming his grad student as a matter of luck rather than conscious choice on either of our parts.

The comment from this other professor, that my advisor was apparently impresed enough with me to say so to other people and recently enough that this was remembered ... well, it forces me to reevaluate a decade-plus-long relationship. I didn't realize my advisor saw anything in me. Or the other professor figures it's always safe on meeting reformed grad students to say their advisor was impressed with them, which has a certain compelling logic to it too.

It's always hard to know what to think.

Trivia: Orville Wright was known to his family as ``Bubbo''. Source: Taking Flight: Inventing The Aerial Age From Antiquity Through The First World War, Richard P Hallion. ``Bubbo''? Man, those Ohioans known how to have fun, I guess.

Currently Reading: Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: the History of the Explosive that Changed The World, Jack Kelly.