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  • Bridges Across the Years 4

     HappiWriter updated 1 month, 1 week ago 2 Members · 2 Posts
  • Jane Whittier

    October 15, 2020 at 7:18 pm

    <p align=”center”>Chapter 4</p>

    <p align=”center”>Collecting Debts</p>

    <p>Karen passed around folders containing resumes of candidates to the members of the Appointments Committee. She had called the meeting in an informal setting, around a low table in the Tea Room. She had already had the files ranked by several experts and she held copies of the rankings in her own folder, but she thought it would work better to let them give their own opinions first.</p>

    <p>“There is no point in even considering this Smith fellow. Even his Ph.D. advisor can’t say a good word about him.”</p>

    <p>Karen’s heart gave a slight lurch. Smith was her own personal favorite, and the rest of the letters were good, but she had to admit that the advisor had tried to scuttle the student’s career. She wondered briefly why such people took students at all.</p>

    <p>“Yeah, and the advisor himself is a student of Kuznetsov. Vadim would never agree to let it through.”</p>

    <p>“Okay,” said Karen, “forget about Smith. What about the rest of them?”</p>

    <p>“This Desmond fellow looks to me like a clear front runner. Four years of postdocs, publications in some very impressive journals…” That was from Jeff.</p>

    <p>“I agree. He’s much better than the rest of them.”</p>

    <p>“He is a physicist by training,” someone objected.</p>

    <p>“Theoretical physicist, applied mathematician,” said Jeff. “There isn’t that much difference.”</p>

    <p>There was a general consensus that Desmond was the best and Karen gathered up the folders without ever mentioning the rankings that she had compiled. She was happy to have so much agreement on an applied mathematics candidate. “All right, I will try to get it past the Dean.”</p>

    <p>“Do we have an opening this year?”</p>

    <p>“One,” said Karen, “exactly one.”</p>

    <p>As she approached her office, she saw Samantha, a young graduate student, waiting for her. “Professor Prescott, I know that you don’t have office hours right now, but I really need to talk to you.” She was twisting her hands together.</p>

    <p>“Sure, come in.” Karen dumped the resumes on a chair and gestured to Samantha to take a seat on the other side of the desk. She plumped herself into her own chair and swiveled it around to face the distraught girl.</p>

    <p>“I think… I think I might be on the way to having a nervous breakdown. I am wondering if I should just give up and drop out.”</p>

    <p>“Well, definitely don’t have a nervous breakdown. Maybe you don’t need to drop out either. What seems to be the problem?”</p>

    <p>“I finished my Ph.D. qualifying exams a year and a half ago. Prof. Rubinstein set me up with Prof. Kuznetsov as advisor. He gave me some articles to read. When I finished them, he gave me some more articles to read. This has been going on for a year and a half. I’ll never get my degree this way.” Samantha sat slumped in her chair, staring down at Karen’s desk.</p>

    <p>“Let me speak to Prof. Kuznetsov. I will try to suggest that you will remember the material better if you are actually using it.”</p>

    <p>“I … I think he will be angry if he thinks I came to complain.”</p>

    <p>Indeed he would. “No, I will just ask for a progress report, as if that were a standard action on the part of the Chair. As if I had no idea what the situation was.”</p>

    <p>After Samantha left, Karen swiveled herself back and forth in her seat a few times. Now she had in front of her two unpleasant interviews, one with the Dean and one with Kuznetsov. With a sigh, she picked up the phone and called the office. “Mabel, could you please make an appointment for me with the Dean? And make me a list of all the students who passed their qualifying exams within the last two years, together with the names of their advisors, with phone numbers. There should be about five. Can it be ready by tomorrow?”</p>

    <p>Two days later, Karen was feeling somewhat better. The Dean liked Desmond’s file and had authorized her to make the offer. Desmond was interested. There were still some formalities but they seemed to be under control. </p>

    <p>Karen had called all the advisors except Kuznetsov and gotten reports on their students’ progress, which she had scribbled next to the names. All the students had well-defined thesis topics, which she had written down. Now she would go speak to Kuznetsov in person.</p>

    <p>Prof. Kuznetsov’s door was closed, but there was light shining through the transom over his door. Of course, some professors never turned off a light. The Dean had actually made a two tours of the department one day, one at two and one at nine in the evening. Afterwards he complained to Karen about all the people who had not been in at two (What do they need offices for if they aren’t going to use them?) and all the people who had not turned off their lights when they went home.</p>

    <p>Karen rapped on the door. “Vadim? Are you there?”</p>


    <p>Karen turned the knob and opened the door a crack. “Is there some time this afternoon that we could speak?”</p>

    <p>“Oh, I guess now is no worse than any other time.”</p>

    <p>Karen wrinkled her nose at the implied insult but had smoothed out her face again by the time she pushed the door open. Prof. Kuznetsov had a huge collection of mathematics books displayed on his shelves, many in Russian, and yet more books and papers in various cardboard boxes in the two corners away from the door. His desk was smothered in piles of papers. Without waiting for an invitation, which might not have been forthcoming, Karen took a seat in the chair across the desk from the older mathematician.</p>

    <p>“Vadim? I’ve been checking on the progress of those graduate students who have finished their qualifying exams. You have a student, Samantha Green, who finished a year and a half ago.” She glanced down at the list in her hand, though she knew exactly what was written there.</p>

    <p>Prof. Kuznetsov sighed. “I think we need to upgrade the qualifying exams. She doesn’t know anything. I keep giving her material to read, and she doesn’t seem to assimilate it at all. When I ask her elementary questions, she stutters and stumbles, and sometimes I see from the mistakes she makes that she really doesn’t have any idea what is going on. Even things that I explained to her very clearly are completely forgotten by the next meeting.”</p>

    <p>“That must be very frustrating,” said Karen.</p>

    <p>“It is, believe me,” he responded.</p>

    <p>“Since her grades on the qualifying exam, for which she studied from text-books, were above average, perhaps the problem is the passage to articles? They are more densely written and take a lot for granted. Is there no text in the field? Maybe one of those Springer Graduate Texts?”</p>

    <p>“No, nothing,” said Kuznetsov. “Besides, she isn’t going to find a thesis topic in a text.”</p>

    <p>“You haven’t suggested any topics? Some advisers offer the student help in finding an open question.”</p>

    <p>“Did you get your thesis topic from your adviser?”</p>

    <p>“No, but …”</p>

    <p>“I didn’t either,” Kuznetsov broke in. “Students nowadays are being spoon-fed. I wonder if we will have any real mathematicians in the next generation.”</p>

    <p>Karen, who had just dealt with the files of six excellent young mathematicians from the next generation, held her peace on this time-worn topic, and said, “The other students who finished the qualifying exams at the same time already have well-defined topics and have started their research.”</p>

    <p>“See, I told you that she was no good,” said Kuznetsov.</p>

    <p>“‘Different strokes for different folks’. Some students may need more help getting oriented. It doesn’t mean that they can’t do good work once they are on track.”</p>

    <p>“They will never amount to anything as mathematicians.”</p>

    <p>“That is not as clear to me, but if not, then they will take their Ph.D.’s to industry or college teaching. There aren’t enough university jobs for all the Ph.D.’s we turn out anyway. I want to focus our discussion on one particular student, who has already invested three and a half years in the degree and who needs help to get started in research. Can you give her more help?”</p>

    <p>“No. If she needs it, she doesn’t deserve it.”</p>

    <p>Karen, seething, stood up. “Thank you for your time.”</p>

    <p>“That’s okay. You didn’t take too much of it.” He turned back to the symbol-filled pages in front of him.</p>

    <p>Karen’s anger carried her straight down the hall and up a flight of stairs to Daniel Rubenstein’s office. She rapped impatiently on the door.</p>

    <p>“Come in,” called Daniel.</p>

    <p>Daniel’s office was much more attractive than the one she had just left. There were no boxes and no tottering stacks of paper. During the last renovation, the university had offered the professors seascapes for hanging on their walls and Daniel had taken three, perhaps to compensate for people like Kuznetsov who had taken none. Why exactly seascapes were chosen for a university in Chicago was unclear to Karen. The beaches didn’t look much like the shores of Lake Michigan, particularly those with palm trees.</p>

    <p>“Daniel, I have a problem.”</p>

    <p>“Impressive. Two months as Chair and this is the first time you have a problem?”</p>

    <p>“It is the first time I have a problem that I am planning to dump in your lap.”</p>

    <p>“Whoa!” said Daniel, “Let me remind you that I am taking a well-deserved sabbatical to get my research back on track after two years as Chair.”</p>

    <p>“I hope this will help your research. May I take a seat?”</p>

    <p>Daniel jumped up and moved a chair from the side of the room to the spot on the other side of his desk. “There, two chairs and an ex. What is the problem?”</p>

    <p>“Samantha Green. She thinks that she is heading for a nervous breakdown. I hope she is exaggerating but she really doesn’t look good. Bags under her eyes and a nervous tic in one shoulder. We had that one suicide seven years ago.”</p>

    <p>“At Penn, many years ago, one disgruntled Ph.D. candidate tried to murder his adviser, and wounded another professor instead.”</p>

    <p>“Samantha doesn’t seem like the type, but the temptation is there.” Karen steepled her hands and pursed her lips, waiting for Daniel to catch what she was saying.</p>

    <p>“You think it is Vadim’s fault?” Daniel wrinkled his brow.</p>

    <p>“Yes, absolutely. I had her in one of my courses. She was bright and ambitious. Now her self-confidence has been destroyed.”</p>

    <p>“So where do I come into this?”</p>

    <p>“Well, why, exactly, did you match them up?”</p>

    <p>“I was trying to spread the advising burden more evenly, but there isn’t too much room to maneuver. You know, one student might be sure that he is going to solve the Goldbach conjecture, and another is only interested in affine Lie algebras. Samantha didn’t have any clear idea of what she wanted to do. Vadim didn’t have any students.”</p>

    <p>“I just finished speaking to him and it is pretty clear why. He wants research mathematicians to spring out full grown from the forehead of the department, clothed in shining armor, the moment they finish their qualifying exams.”</p>

    <p>“So what is your plan?”</p>

    <p>“At first I thought of adding a second adviser, who would quickly become the real adviser, but it wouldn’t work, because Samantha would still need Vadim’s signature to submit her thesis, and he would never give it, either for revenge or just from high standards. So I simply have to approve a change of advisers.”</p>

    <p>“Vadim is going to be furious.”</p>

    <p>“I know. I will take full responsibility for the decision. I will try to arrange it so that he will be furious only at me.”</p>

    <p>“Who else would he be angry at? Samantha?”</p>

    <p>“Well, yes, but I was actually thinking of you.”</p>


    <p>“Yes, because you are going to be her new adviser.”</p>

    <p>“But my field of research has nothing to do with Vadim’s!”</p>

    <p>“All the better. Samantha probably gets hives whenever she sees a modular form or a zeta function.”</p>

    <p>“You are serious about this, aren’t you?”</p>

    <p>“Absolutely.” Karen leaned forward in her chair. “Daniel, I taught Samantha. With the right handling she can be good, very good. She needs a new start in a new field with a new adviser.”</p>

    <p>Daniel put his elbow on the table and supported his forehead on his hand. Karen sat back in her chair as the silence stretched on. She noticed that the bald spot on Daniel’s crown was growing and the hair on the top was noticeably thinner than it used to be.</p>

    <p> Finally he lifted his head “All right, I’ll do it. What are you going to tell Vadim?”</p>

    <p>“That for reasons of the student’s health, I am trying to make an alternative arrangement for her. I won’t mention your name. At least you and he are not on the same corridor, so it is unlikely that he will notice her going into your office. Thanks. I hope that someday you will be proud of her.”</p>

    <p>Karen strode briskly down the hall, pressing her lips together tightly as she passed the “Men in Mathematics” timeline handing on the wall. It actually had Emmy Noether on it, and Karen could think of some distinguished female mathematicians that they had missed. She trawled the bunch of keys out of her purse. After years of fishing around for it, she had finally attached it to the strap with a chain. Sitting at her desk, she pulled over the “Things To Do” list that she had made at the beginning of the week and ticked off a few items. She called down to the secretary to get her to set up a meeting with Samantha and checked over the rest of the items. </p>

    <p>It was time to get a report from James about the survey of alumni that she had commissioned. James was legally blind and could not earn extra money as a teaching assistant as the other graduate students did. In the office, the secretaries had printed an enlarged the list of alumni phone numbers. James could, of course, type, and was to submit his report that way.</p>

    <p> Getting the number from the address book on her desk, she leaned back in her swivel chair and dialed. “Hello, James? This is Prof. Prescott. I wanted to hear how it is going.”</p>

    <p>“It’s slow. A lot of the phone numbers we have, particularly for undergraduates, are for the parents, and they aren’t so quick to give out up-to-date phone numbers or tell me what the students are working at. Most of the parents of boys agree to give my phone number to their sons. How many of them actually do it is another question. I also offer them the office phone number so that they can check that I am legitimate. I think the response rate will be below thirty percent.” </p>

    <p>“Do you have any impressions? What are the most popular employment tracks for the undergraduates who didn’t go on to graduate school?</p>

    <p>“Low-grade hi-tech, so far.”</p>

    <p>“And teaching high school?” Maybe their graduates could mentor a new generation of science students? Karen owed her own career to a few excellent math teachers.</p>

    <p>“Hardly any. Even low-grade hi-tech pays better than teaching.”</p>

    <p>“If they are going for salary, do any of them work in the finance industry? Banks, insurance companies?”</p>

    <p>“None that I have spoken to.”</p>

    <p>“Thanks for doing the project, James, and let me know when the full report is ready.” </p>

    <p>After she hung up, Karen sat swiveling back and forth for a minute, staring at the pictures across from her desk. She had taken two seascapes, and the stormy weather they depicted fit her mood. She wanted their students to be doing work that was either more useful or more prestigious than low-grade hi-tech.</p>

    <p>She called up Marty Cohen’s homepage and jotted down his office number. In New York the time was already 4:30 and he might have gone home. The phone rang five times, and just when she was about to give up, she heard. “Marty Cohen speaking.”</p>

    <p>“Hi, this is Karen Prescott. I didn’t get your student’s CV yet.”</p>

    <p>“Does that mean you might take him as a post-doc?”</p>

    <p>“I might. It depends on the file.”</p>

    <p>“Oh, no problem there. He is brilliant. There is a Talmudic expression, ‘One sharp pepper is worth a whole bushel of squash.’ Rob is one of the sharp peppers.”</p>

    <p>“How is he as a teacher? Would he be willing to teach one course?”</p>

    <p>“He got teaching prizes a couple of years.”</p>

    <p>“Well, on the one hand, I was elected Chair, which is very time-consuming. I wouldn’t have rushed to take on a new student right now, but on the other hand, I would like to give our students some background which would help them if they wanted to look for work in finance. I thought that if this Rob of yours comes with a year of experience on Wall Street, he could teach such a course.”</p>

    <p>“Well, I can discuss it with him.” Marty sounded disappointed.</p>

    <p>“Listen, I haven’t seen the file. Maybe I will decide to take him even without this teaching option, if he is a bright as you say. Remember that there are a lot of applicants for each post-doc slot. I don’t think he has to be offended if something extraneous gives him a slight edge.” </p>

    <p>Karen quickly filed a few items on her desk, turned out the light, and set off for home. If she got to bed early, maybe she could do some research in the morning. She knew many mathematicians who could work until midnight, but she was not one of them. After about eight-thirty at night, her brain went fuzzy. She could read or do light housework, but not prove new theorems.</p>

    <p>As she parked the car in the driveway of their suburban home, she saw that two boys Eddie’s age were knocking on the door with the discouraged air of a horsefly trying to get through a plate-glass window. They had obviously been knocking for a long time. </p>

    <p>“Can I help you?” she asked.</p>

    <p>The two boys looked at each other and then asked, “Is Eddie home?”</p>

    <p>“If you have been knocking and he doesn’t answer, then I guess not, but he should be home by now.” Alice and Danvir were at school clubs, but Eddie didn’t like any of the clubs at his school. The maid usually stayed until Karen got home, but perhaps she had had to leave early for some reason. Karen pulled out her keys and unlocked the door. “I’ll make sure he’s not home.” Karen stepped through the door, set down her purse on the hall table, and saw Eddie standing behind the door, holding one finger to his lips.</p>

    <p>Karen opened the door wider and turned around to face the two boys, who were trying to peer inside. They were pretty sure that Eddie was there. Eddie, keeping the door panel between himself and the two boys, vanished into the sun porch. Had they followed him from school intending to beat him up? “Can I give him a message from you?”</p>

    <p>“He owes me ten dollars,” piped up the shorter of the boys.</p>

    <p>“That’s a lot of money,” said Karen. “Do you have an I.O.U. or witnesses?”</p>

    <p>“No, but he said he would pay me back last week and now he runs away whenever he sees me.”</p>

    <p>“I don’t think he has ten dollars to pay you with and I never agreed that he borrow the money. I’ll tell you what I will do for you. If Eddie agrees that he owes you this money, then this one time, I will give you one dollar a week from his allowance until it is all paid off. However, if either of you ever lends him money again, I will have nothing to do with it.”</p>

    <p>“But suppose he lies and says he doesn’t owe me anything.”</p>

    <p>“Then, unless you can bring me some proof, I won’t pay you anything. You can come back tomorrow, and if Eddie admits to the loan, I will give you your first dollar.”</p>

    <p>“But I want to buy a light for my bicycle with that money.”</p>

    <p>“Then why did you lend it to Eddie?”</p>

    <p>With very grumpy expressions, the two boys turned and walked away. Karen went out to the sun porch, where Eddie was hiding behind an arm chair.</p>

    <p>“Do you owe that boy twenty dollars?” Karen asked him.</p>

    <p>“Twenty dollars! The liar! I don’t owe him a penny over ten.”</p>

    <p>“He doesn’t claim a penny over ten. Why did you borrow the money?”</p>

    <p>“Oh, that dumb Jordan was going on and on about the cool light he was going to buy for his bike with money his grandpa gave him. So I persuaded him to lend it to me.”</p>

    <p>“What did you do with it?”</p>

    <p>“I bought a light for my bike, but then I gave it to a friend, ‘cause I figured that if I asked Dad to put it on, he would ask me where I got it from. But it doesn’t matter, because Jordan doesn’t have a light either.”</p>

    <p>“This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but maybe it is a boy thing that girls don’t understand. You will explain it to Dad.” Karen sat down in the armchair. “Come here, sweetheart. Sit down with me.” It was tight, but they managed to squeeze in together. Eddie wasn’t willing to sit in her lap anymore, and he usually squirmed if she tried to hug him. This was the best she could do for physical closeness.</p>

    <p>“Eddie, you know, you have to pay Jordan back.”</p>


    <p>“Why? Because you borrowed his money. If you don’t pay him back it is like stealing.”</p>

    <p>Eddie scowled. “I don’t have ten dollars.”</p>

    <p>“Right, so I am going to have to take it from your allowance. You get two dollars a week. So every week, one dollar will go to Jordan and one dollar you can keep or spend.”</p>

    <p>“Why should Jordan get my allowance?”</p>

    <p>“Half your allowance. Because you borrowed money that you couldn’t pay back.” </p>


    <p>“Hmm, shall we figure it out? If Jordan comes tomorrow and I pay him a dollar, how much will you still owe?”</p>

    <p>“Nine dollars.” </p>

    <p>“And the week after?”</p>


    <p>“So go get a calendar and figure out when you won’t owe him anything.”</p>

    <p>A short time later, she heard Eddie squawking, “Valentine’s Day!”</p>

    <p>Marty Cohen was staying late, waiting for his student Rob. The call from Karen Prescott had bothered him, and he had asked Rob to come after work.</p>

    <p>There was a rap on the door. “Prof. Cohen?”</p>

    <p>“Come in, Rob. Take a seat. I called you in because I got a call from Chicago. Prof. Prescott would like you to send her your CV now.”</p>

    <p>Rob’s face lit up. “That’s terrific news, isn’t it? Chicago would be a great place to go. Much better than Denver or Austin.”</p>

    <p>“We will see if you still think so when I explain what she has in mind. It would be a regular post-doctoral position, and she would serve as your advisor. However, in addition she wants to know if you would be willing to give a course to their students which would prepare them for looking for work in finance.”</p>

    <p>“I already give a course like that at work. My boss asked me to prepare the new recruits. My own first month or so was torture and I wish someone had given me such a course.”</p>

    <p>“So you would be okay with that?”</p>

    <p>“Yes. It means working this year wasn’t wasted time, if it gives me a bit of an edge. The competition for post-docs is brutal.”</p>

    <p>Marty, who knew that at that age he would not have been satisfied with a suggestion which still seemed mildly insulting, smiled and said, “So send in the curriculum vitae tomorrow.”</p>

    <p>Rob cleared his throat and said, “Uh, Reb Meir?” The change in form of address signaled that he wanted to ask something connected to Judaism.</p>


    <p>Rob glanced down at his white shirt and the ritual strings dangling over his belt, hanging part way down the sides of his dark slacks. “Does Prof. Prescott know?”</p>

    <p>“I don’t think so, and, since the last conversation I had with her on the subject of Judaism was rather hostile, I wouldn’t suggest that we rush to tell her. If you get the position, she will see everything at a glance as soon as you get to Chicago. If she remembers that conversation as well as I do, she will understand exactly why I said nothing.”</p>

    <p>After his student left, Marty sat for a few minutes looking out the window at the lights of Manhattan. He was now a respected, tenured, Full Professor, but he remembered all too well the days in his early career when his mathematics and his Judaism were at war with each other. Rob was in the midst of that maelstrom now.</p>

    <p>His own son Yossi was one hundred per cent yeshiva student. Yossi had left his secular studies behind when he finished high school, and was studying now in Jerusalem, living in another world. </p>

    <p> Marty had never brought his children to work the way his colleagues did. He had never wanted the university to seem homey to them. He had explained to them that little of his time at work was spent teaching, most of it went to research, but he doubted that they had much concept of what that involved. When the girls in his daughter Shevi’s class heard that her father was constantly creating new equations in mathematics, they advised Shevi to get him to stop, on the grounds that there were already too many equations in math. </p>

    <p> He had surely never given the children even a glimpse of the excitement he felt doing research. It was hardly surprising, then, that in some ways he felt closer to his student Rob than to his son Yossi.</p>

  • HappiWriter

    October 16, 2020 at 5:14 pm

    <p>Love your writing Jane!!</p><p>It’s such an interesting topic. New to me.</p><p>I’m so curious what’s going to happen next…</p>

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