In brief, my interests changed.
That’s pretty much it.
If the details interest you, read on, but I promise: they’re boring.
In much wisdom there is much grief;
and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
— Ecclesiastes 1⋅18
A tenure-track professor at the University of Southern Mississippi
has three responsibilities: research, teaching, and service.
From 2012 on, I focused on a computational technique unconventional enough
that existing software packages were unhelpful,
so I developed from scratch
20,000 lines of fairly advanced C++ code.
Computer programs don’t write themselves;
programming requires time and energy,
and at times this project consumed all of both.
From 2016 through 2020 I published only 3 papers,
partly because I was exhausting myself on the software needed to support them.
I did recruit a PhD student, but a stiff time constraint on her funding
led me to direct her toward a different topic,
which resulted in a PhD but not a paper.
Several mathematicians praised my work and encouraged me to pursue funding.
Alas, I’m not good at grant-writing,
nor at forming lasting collaborations.
Working on one’s own can prove frustrating,
especially when funded mathematicians notice your results and
take up their own investigations,
which end up closing off your own investigations.
In 2020 my research came to a point where further progress would require
teaching myself a new mathematical subject.
I’ve done this before, but had little interest in doing it again
— not alone, anyway.
On the other hand, I get a charge from writing mathematical software.
I had contemplated a career in software,
so I began to think of making another go at it.
From 1999 through 2014, student reviews of my teaching glowed with compliments.
Once at USM I directed a lot of undergraduate research,
and many students participated in activities I organized,
such as the Integration Bee and the MAA competitions.
Things were different after I returned from a sabbatical in Fall 2014.
Students no longer volunteered to participate in activities I organized.
I had to work hard to recruit more than 1 or 2 students.
At the same time, my teaching effectiveness declined.
I wasn’t in any hot water over this;
the Department Chair thought highly enough of me to nominate me
for a teaching award, which I even won.
I still have the plaque!
But I couldn’t bring myself to believe I deserved it,
not when things were plainly broken.
And since 2015 things only worsened: the harder I worked at it,
the worse students seemed to do.
There’s a bit more I want to write here, and originally I did,
but sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone.
Service is necessary, and often enjoyable.
Sometimes one has to deal with unpleasant realities,
but not everything can be a bed of roses.
Paperwork won’t take care of itself, after all!
Either way, service ought to be about serving,
using one’s position so that students and colleagues flourish.
At one point I held the position of Program Lead,
a kind of “pseudo-administrative” position
that carries a lot of responsibility but little real power.
I tried to satisfy colleagues’ requests and expectations,
even when they seemed unreasonable and required sacrifice on my part.
We managed to make teaching more effective and cost-efficient;
we managed to save a couple of students who were falling through the cracks
and got them to graduation.
We did not manage to satisfy everyone, but I didn’t expect we would;
resources are finite, while appetites are not.
But I did re-encounter an unpleasant reality:
some people won’t be satisfied unless they have their way,
regardless of the ethical cost.
That wasn’t worth my time, so I stepped down
and resolved to pursue a different line of work.
Had my effectiveness suffered in just one facet of the job,
I might have remained.
Once all three facets seemed to be faltering, the calculus changed, so to speak.
I like intellectually stimulating work, and I like programming computers,
so I opened my heart to God’s will.
Had the hand of Providence willed that I remain at the University, I would have.
Instead God saw fit to open a new door, so I stepped through it.
That required leaving.
What about Tenure?
The point of tenure is that a professor can research what he wants,
regardless of administration’s or colleagues’ opinion of its quality.
At a public university, there is also — in principle, at least —
a certain ideological freedom outside one’s scholarly expertise.
Many non-academics envy tenure.
They see it as a sinecure: in theory, a professor can do minimal work
and coast to retirement, even while saying outrageous things in public.
I don’t think most mathematics faculty are like that.
After all, you don’t go into mathematics
unless you have a perverse passion for the subject.
That passion is not the sort of thing that goes away easily.
Of course there are exceptions to every rule,
and I’ve known some to this one, but in general,
that’s been my impression.
I had always wondered about a career in technology, but
the job security of tenure made me reluctant to risk leaving.
It even made me reluctant to
invest time and energy in a grant proposal or research project
that might not pan out,
forfeiting other goods on which I might have spent those resources.
Better to sit back, enjoy life, and coast to retirement, no?
What kind of attitude is that?
Tenure had become a trap.
Instead of freedom, it had turned into chains.
Life’s too long to sit in a cave, looking at shadows on a wall,
and wondering what might have been.
I wanted the freedom to try something completely new.
So I will.
Check out this demotivator and many others at