We've had possession of our new house for a few days now and I've been diligently working to clean and paint it. All the new appliances are in and I'm waiting on the flooring. This heat wave has been hitting hard and the grass is on the verge of death. So I went out yesterday evening to hand water (I'm hoping a new irrigation system comes when my dad visits).
While I was watering I met one of my new neighbors, Anne. She's a nice retired lady who lives next door. Of course, one of the first things that anyone asks is, "What do you do?" The question was asked and I gave my usual nondescript answer, "I'm a professor at [very well respected university in town]." I don't like being more specific than that since it seems to make people a little uncomfortable. I get lots of "I was really good at Algebra/Physics in high school" or "My son/daughter was really good at Algebra/Physics in high school" or worse yet "I hate math/science. I always liked art/reading/PE". (I'm not trying to insult the humanities proffies here. I'm just stating an observation I've made over the years).
Anne was absolutely delighted that I (a woman!) was a college professor and she was even more delighted when she found out I was in the natural sciences. It was a very unusual reaction I must admit. But perhaps she had some socially unfulfillable dreams in her life that are realized in today's society. After she returned to the air conditioning I thought about what a nice exchange it actually was. I couldn't put my finger on the reason. But then it hit me. She didn't ask, "What do you teach?" after she found out I was a mathy type.
My experience has been as follows:
Joe Schmoe: What do you do?
Me: I'm a professor at [very well respected university in town.]
Joe: What is your field?
Joe: Oh! What do you teach?
That last question always throws me. I'm not sure what is meant by it. On the one hand it could be that since I'm a youthful woman that I must not teach "real" math since I wouldn't be qualified. On the other hand it could be that people think that we only ever teach one or two courses in our lives or that there are only one or two math courses beyond high school math. Either way I'm not sure how to answer. I don't want to be a prick and say I'm qualified to teach it all but I also don't want to imply that I only every teach 12th grade/freshmen courses.
The fact is that university teaching these days is getting more and more remedial. Easily 50-66% of our courses are Calculus or below (this is probably mostly because math is service department). I'll pretty much always have to teach a business calc or math for math haters course but I usually get spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down. So my answer to Joe's last question varies from term to term.
Q: Do you get that last question, too? Or is it just a question young looking, 115 lb, blond women get? Or is it just a math thing? How do you answer it without sounding like a prick or remediation specialist?