Is this really what (male) math professors are like?

The philosophers in the program were kind and excellent teachers, but the math professors I met in those days were somewhat less skilled at teaching or relating to people. One told us that we should think of him as a fountain of knowledge and then cupped his hands to inform us that we should try to drink the downpour. Another scribbled his lectures on the chalkboard without turning around. I had a sense of not fitting in. Many of the students I began the program with, including all of the women, soon dispersed to other programs on campus.

So writes linguist Adele Goldberg about her initial experience as a grad student in UC Berkeley’s Logic and Methodology of Science PhD program. What’s up with these (obviously male) math professors?

Although I can think of at least two male math professors who are not like this at all, is this what most of them are like, all across the country? Well, I can think of a lot who are like this.


Being at Berkeley at the time, Goldberg was lucky to be able to take courses from George Lakoff, Chuck Fillmore, and Paul Kay. (Read about it in this link.) Eventually she became a linguist, like a surprising number of ex-math people. “Transferring to the linguistics program felt like coming home. In my fellow graduate students,  I found kindred spirits.” A lot of this was inspired by Lakoff’s course:

As he pirouetted through topics that crossed linguistics, psychology, cognitive science, math, and philosophy, I was riveted. His enthusiasm for the ideas was palpable.

Today, Goldberg writes, “thanks to brilliant and committed students and postdocs, I’ve been able to branch out recently into projects on polysemy, second language learning, conceptual metaphor processing, computational linguistics, and language learning in individuals on the Autism spectrum.”

And now we pivot to a woman who remained in mathematics, despite facing even more obstacles: Dr. Pamela E. Harris, cohost of the podcast Mathematically Uncensored, which is described as “a podcast where our talk is real and complex but never discrete.” More specifically, it’s a podcast that focuses on “current events and issues for minorities in the mathematical sciences.” People of color have long felt unwelcome in college-level math. And women have long felt unwelcome in college-level math. So it’s not surprising that women of color experience particular difficulties. In the second episode of Mathematically Uncensored, Harris tells of an incident at Williams College, where she now is a tenured professor. (Brief aside: when I was looking at colleges in the early ’60s, Williams was completely male and almost completely white, although it was considered one of the top colleges in the country.) When Harris was a first-year professor, she was given a mentor to help her, just as K–12 teachers are helped (or not) in their first year. This mentor — well, Harris says that they must have left the first three letters off his title, “tor” — was clearly a white male, and of course Harris is too discrete — I mean “discreet” — to name names, but her story is real and not complex: he calls her at 3:00 in the morning and tells her that her citations are incorrectly formatted in a paper she wrote, and she has to correct the format before 6:00 the same morning. Is it just a coincidence that a white male would make such a demand of a black female?

We have here two different narratives about how female mathematicians are treated in academe — one white, one black, and surely that is not a coincidence. One switched out of mathematics, one stayed. And the moral is…well, you decide.

Categories: Linguistics, Math, Teaching & Learning