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It could have been worse! Academic lessons of 2020

December 20, 2020 3 comments

Well, this year sure was interesting, and not in a good way. Back in 2015, I wrote a blog post discussing how video talks are here to stay, and how we should all agree to start giving them and embrace watching them, whether we like it or not. I was right about that, I suppose. OTOH, I sort of envisioned a gradual acceptance of this practice, not the shock therapy of a phase transition. So, what happened? It’s time to summarize the lessons and roll out some new predictions.

Note: this post is about the academic life which is undergoing some changes. The changes in real life are much more profound, but are well discussed elsewhere.

Teaching

This was probably the bleakest part of the academic life, much commented upon by the media. Good thing there is more to academia than teaching, no matter what the ignorant critics think. I personally haven’t heard anyone saying post-March 2020, that online education is an improvement. If you are like me, you probably spent much more time preparing and delivering your lectures. The quality probably suffered a little. The students probably didn’t learn as much. Neither party probably enjoyed the experience too much. They also probably cheated quite a bit more. Oh, well…

Let’s count the silver linings. First, it will all be over some time next year. At UCLA, not before the end of Summer. Maybe in the Fall… Second, it could’ve been worse. Much worse. Depending on the year, we would have different issues. Back in 1990, we would all be furloughed for a year living off our savings. In 2000, most families had just one personal computer (and no smartphones, obviously). Let the implications of that sink in. But even in 2010 we would have had giant technical issues teaching on Skype (right?) by pointing our laptop cameras on blackboards with dismal effect. The infrastructure which allows good quality streaming was also not widespread (people were still using Redbox, remember?)

Third, the online technology somewhat mitigated the total disaster of studying in the pandemic time. Students who are stuck in faraway countries or busy with family life can watch stored videos of lectures at their convenience. Educational and grading software allows students to submit homeworks and exams online, and instructors to grade them. Many other small things not worth listing, but worth being thankful for.

Fourth, the accelerated embrace of the educational technology could be a good thing long term, even when things go back to normal. No more emails with scanned late homeworks, no more canceled/moved office hours while away at conferences. This can all help us become better at teaching.

Finally, a long declared “death of MOOCs” is no longer controversial. As a long time (closeted) opponent to online education, I am overjoyed that MOOCs are no longer viewed as a positive experience for university students, more like something to suffer through. Here in CA we learned this awhile ago, as the eagerness of the current Gov. Newsom (back then Lt. Gov.) to embrace online courses did not work out well at all. Back in 2013, he said that the whole UC system needs to embrace online education, pronto: “If this doesn’t wake up the U.C. [..] I don’t know what will.” Well, now you know, Governor! I guess, in 2020, I don’t have to hide my feelings on this anymore…

Research

I always thought that mathematicians can work from anywhere with a good WiFi connection. True, but not really – this year was a mixed experience as lonely introverts largely prospered research wise, while busy family people and extraverts clearly suffered. Some day we will know how much has research suffered in 2020, but for me personally it wasn’t bad at all (see e.g. some of my results described in my previous blog post).

Seminars

I am not even sure we should be using the same word to describe research seminars during the pandemic, as the experience of giving and watching math lectures online are so drastically different compared to what we are used to. Let’s count the differences, which are both positive and negative.

  1. The personal interactions suffer. Online people are much more shy to interrupt, follow up with questions after the talk, etc. The usual pre- or post-seminar meals allow the speaker to meet the (often junior) colleagues who might be more open to ask questions in an informal setting. This is all bad.
  2. Being online, the seminar opened to a worldwide audience. This is just terrific as people from remote locations across the globe now have the same access to seminars at leading universities. What arXiv did to math papers, covid did to math seminars.
  3. Again, being online, the seminars are no longer restricting themselves to local speaks or having to make travel arrangements to out of town speakers. Some UCLA seminars this year had many European speakers, something which would be prohibitively expensive just last year.
  4. Many seminars are now recorded with videos and slides posted online, like we do at the UCLA Combinatorics and LA Combinatorics and Complexity seminars I am co-organizing. The viewers can watch them later, can fast forward, come back and re-watch them, etc. All the good features of watching videos I extolled back in 2015. This is all good.
  5. On a minor negative side, the audience is no longer stable as it varies from seminar to seminar, further diminishing personal interactions and making level of the audience somewhat unpredictable and hard to aim for.
  6. As a seminar organizer, I make it a personal quest to encourage people to turn on their cameras at the seminars by saying hello only to those whose faces I see. When the speaker doesn’t see the faces, whether they are nodding or quizzing, they are clueless whether the they are being clear, being too fast or too slow, etc. Stopping to ask for questions no longer works well, especially if the seminar is being recorded. This invariably leads to worse presentations as the speakers can misjudge the audience reactions.
  7. Unfortunately, not everyone is capable of handling technology challenges equally well. I have seen remarkably well presented talks, as well as some of extremely poor quality talks. The ability to mute yourself and hide behind your avatar is the only saving grace in such cases.
  8. Even the true haters of online educations are now at least semi-on-board. Back in May, I wrote to Chris Schaberg dubbed by the insufferable Rebecca Schuman as “vehemently opposed to the practice“. He replied that he is no longer that opposed to teaching online, and that he is now in a “it’s really complicated!” camp. Small miracles…

Conferences

The changes in conferences are largely positive. Unfortunately, some conferences from the Spring and Summer of 2020 were canceled and moved, somewhat optimistically, to 2021. Looking back, they should all have been held in the online format, which opens them to participants from around the world. Let’s count upsides and downsides:

  1. No need for travel, long time commitments and financial expenses. Some conferences continue charging fees for online participation. This seems weird to me. I realize that some conferences are vehicles to support various research centers and societies. Whatever, this is unsustainable as online conferences will likely survive the pandemic. These organizations should figure out some other income sources or die.
  2. The conferences are now truly global, so the emphasis is purely on mathematical areas than on the geographic proximity. This suggests that the (until recently) very popular AMS meetings should probably die, making AMS even more of a publisher than it is now. I am especially looking forward to the death of “joint meetings” in January which in my opinion outlived their usefulness as some kind of math extravaganza events bringing everyone together. In fact, Zoom simply can’t bring five thousand people together, just forget about it…
  3. The conferences are now open to people in other areas. This might seem minor — they were always open. However, given the time/money constraints, a mathematician is likely to go only to conferences in their area. Besides, since they rarely get invited to speak at conferences in other areas, travel to such conferences is even harder to justify. This often leads to groupthink as the same people meet year after year at conferences on narrow subjects. Now that this is no longer an obstacle, we might see more interactions between the fields.
  4. On a negative side, the best kind of conferences are small informal workshops (think of Oberwolfach, AIM, Banff, etc.), where the lectures are advanced and the interactions are intense. I miss those and hope they come back as they are really irreplaceable in the only setting. If all goes well, these are the only conferences which should definitely survive and even expand in numbers perhaps.

Books and journals

A short summary is that in math, everything should be electronic, instantly downloadable and completely free. Cut off from libraries, thousands of mathematicians were instantly left to the perils of their university library’s electronic subscriptions and their personal book collections. Some fared better than others, in part thanks to the arXiv, non-free journals offering old issues free to download, and some ethically dubious foreign websites.

I have been writing about my copyleft views for a long time (see here, there and most recently there). It gets more and more depressing every time. Just when you think there is some hope, the resilience of paid publishing and reluctance to change by the community is keeping the unfortunate status quo. You would think everyone would be screaming about the lack of access to books/journals, but I guess everyone is busy doing something else. Still, there are some lessons worth noting.

  1. You really must have all your papers freely available online. Yes, copyrighted or not, the publishers are ok with authors posting their papers on their personal website. They are not ok when others are posting your papers on their websites, so the free access to your papers is on you and your coauthors (if any). Unless you have already done so, do this asap! Yes, this applies even to papers accessible online by subscription to selected libraries. For example, many libraries including all of UC system no longer have access to Elsevier journals. Please help both us and yourself! How hard is it to put the paper on the arXiv or your personal website? If people like Noga Alon and Richard Stanley found time to put hundreds of their papers online, so can you. I make a point of emailing to people asking them to do that every time I come across a reference which I cannot access. They rarely do, and usually just email me the paper. Oh, well, at least I tried…
  2. Learn to use databases like MathSciNet and Zentralblatt. Maintain your own website by adding the slides, video links as well as all your papers. Make sure to clean up and keep up to date your Google Scholar profile. When left unattended it can get overrun with random papers by other people, random non-research files you authored, separate items for same paper, etc. Deal with all that – it’s easy and takes just a few minutes (also, some people judge them). When people are struggling trying to do research from home, every bit of help counts.
  3. If you are signing a book contract, be nice to online readers. Make sure you keep the right to display a public copy on your website. We all owe a great deal of gratitude to authors who did this. Here is my favorite, now supplemented with high quality free online lectures. Be like that! Don’t be like one author (who will remain unnamed) who refused to email me a copy of a short 5 page section from his recent book. I wanted to teach the section in my graduate class on posets this Fall. Instead, the author suggested I buy a paper copy. His loss — I ended up teaching some other material instead. Later on, I discovered that the book is already available on one of those ethically compromised websites. He was fighting a battle he already lost!

Home computing

Different people can take different conclusions from 2020, but I don’t think anyone would argue the importance of having good home computing. There is a refreshing variety of ways in which people do this, and it’s unclear to me what is the optimal set up. With a vaccine on the horizon, people might be reluctant to further invest into new computing equipment (or video cameras, lights, whiteboard, etc.), but the holiday break is actually a good time to marinate on what worked out well and what didn’t.

Read your evaluations and take them to heart. Make changes when you see there are problems. I know, it’s unfair, your department might never compensate you for all this stuff. Still, it’s a small price to pay for having a safe academic job in the time of widespread anxiety.

Predictions for the future

  1. Very briefly: I think online seminars and conferences are here to stay. Local seminars and small workshops will also survive. The enormous AMS meetings and expensive Theory CS meetings will play with the format, but eventually turn online for good or die untimely death.
  2. Online teaching will remain being offered by every undergraduate math program to reach out to students across the spectrum of personal circumstances. A small minority of courses, but still. Maybe one section of each calculus, linear algebra, intro probability, discrete math, etc. Some faculty might actually prefer this format to stay away from office one semester. Perhaps, in place of a sabbatical, they can ask for permission to spend a semester some other campus, maybe in another state or country, while they continue teaching, holding seminars, supervising students, etc. This could be a perk of academic life to compete with the “remote work” that many businesses are starting to offer on a permanent basis. Universities would have to redefine what they mean by “residence” requirement for both faculty and students.
  3. More university libraries will play hardball and unsubscribe from major for-profit publishers. This would again sound hopeful, but not gain a snowball effect for at least the next 10 years.
  4. There will be some standardization of online teaching requirements across the country. Online cheating will remain widespread. Courts will repeatedly rule that business and institutions can discount or completely ignore all 2020 grades as unreliable in large part because of the cheating scandals.

Final recommendations

  1. Be nice to your junior colleagues. In the winner-take-all no-limits online era, the established and well-known mathematicians get invited over and over, while their junior colleagues get overlooked, just in time when they really need help (job market might be tough this year). So please go out of your way to invite them to give talks at your seminars. Help them with papers and application materials. At least reply to their emails! Yes, even small things count…
  2. Do more organizing if you are in position to do so. In the absence of physical contact, many people are too shy and shell-shocked to reach out. Seminars, conferences, workshops, etc. make academic life seem somewhat normal and the breaks definitely allow for more interactions. Given the apparent abundance of online events one my be forgiven to think that no more is needed. But more locally focused online events are actually important to help your communities. These can prove critical until everything is back to normal.

Good luck everybody! Hope 2021 will be better for us all!

On triple crowns in mathematics and AMS badges

September 9, 2012 1 comment

As some of you figured out from the previous post, my recent paper (joint with Martin Kassabov) was accepted to the Annals of Mathematics.  This being one of my childhood dreams (well, a version of it), I was elated for a few days.  Then I thought – normal children don’t dream about this kind of stuff.  In fact, we as a mathematical community have only community awards (as in prizes, medals, etc.) and have very few “personal achievement” benchmarks.  But, of course, they are crucial for the “follow your dreams” approach to life (popularized famously in the Last Lecture).  How can we make it work in mathematics?

I propose we invent some new “badges/statistics” which can be “awarded” by AMS automatically, based on the list of publications, and noted in the MathSciNet Author’s Profile.  The awardees can then proudly mention them on the department websites, they can be included in Wikipedia entries of these mathematicians, etc.   Such statistics are crucial everywhere in sports, and most are individual achievements.  Some were even invented to showcase a particular athlete.   So I thought – we can also do this.  Here is my list of proposed awards. Ok, it’s not very serious…  Enjoy!

Triple Crown in Mathematics

A paper in each of Annals of Mathematics, Inventiones, and Journal of AMS.  What, you are saying that “triple crown” is about horse racing?  Not true.  There are triple crowns in everything, from bridge to golf, from hiking to motor racing.  Let’s add this one to the list.

Other Journal awards

Some (hopefully) amusing variations on the Tripe Crown.  They are all meant to be great achievements, something to brag about.

Marathon – 300 papers

Ultramarathon – 900 papers

Iron Man – 5 triple crown awards

Big Ten – 10 papers in journals where “University” is part of the title

Americana – 5 papers in journals whose title may only include US cities (e.g. Houston), states (e.g. Illinois, Michigan, New York), or other parts of American geography (such as Rocky Mountains, Pacific Ocean)

Foreign lands – 5 papers in journals named after non-US cities (e.g. Bordeaux, Glasgow, Monte Carlo, Moscow), and five papers in journals named after foreign countries.

Around the world – 5 papers in journals whose titles have different continents (Antarctica Journal of Mathematics does not count, but Australasian Journal of Combinatorics can count for either continent).

What’s in a word – 5 papers in single word journals: (e.g. Astérisque, Complexity, Configurations, Constraints, Entropy, IntegersNonlinearity, Order, Positivity, Symmetry).

Decathlon – papers in 10 different journals beginning with “Journal of”.

Annals track – papers in 5 different journals beginning with “Annals of”.

I-heart-mathematicians – 5 papers in journals with names of mathematicians (e.g. Bernoulli, Fourier, Lie, Fibonacci, Ramanujan)

Publication badges

Now, imagine AMS awarded badges the same way MathOverflow does, i.e. in bulk and for both minor and major contributions.  People would just collect them in large numbers, and perhaps spark controversies.  But what would they look like?  Here is my take:

enthusiast (bronze) – published at least 1 paper a year, for 10 years (can be awarded every year when applicable)

fanatic (silver) – published at least 10 papers a year, for 20 years

obsessed (gold) – published at least 20 papers a year, for 30 years

nice paper (bronze) – paper has at least 2 citations

good paper (silver) – paper has at least 20 citations

great paper (gold) – paper has at least 200 citations

famous paper (platinum) – paper has at least 2000 citations

necromancer (silver) – cited a paper which has not been cited for 25 years

asleep at the wheel (silver) – published an erratum to own paper 10 years later

destroyer (silver) – disproved somebody’s published result by an explicit counterexample

peer pressure (silver) – retracted own paper, purchased and burned all copies, sent cease and desist letters to all websites which illegally host it

scholar (bronze) – at least one citation

supporter (bronze) – cited at least one paper

writer (bronze) – first paper

reviewer (bronze) – first MathSciNet review

self-learner (bronze) – solved own open problem in a later paper

self-citer (bronze) – first citation of own paper

self-fan (silver) – cited 5 own papers at least 5 times each

narcissist (gold) – cited 15 own papers at least 15 times each

enlightened rookie (silver) – first paper was cited at least 20 times

dry spell (bronze) – no papers for the past 3 years, but over 100 citations to older papers over the same period

remission (silver) – first published paper after a dry spell

soliloquy (bronze) – no citation other than self-citations for the past 5 years

drum shape whisperer (silver) – published two new objects with exactly same eigenvalues

neo-copernicus (silver) – found a coordinate system to die for

gaussian ingenuity (gold) – found eight proofs of the same law or theorem

fermatist (silver) – published paper has a proof sketched on the margins

pythagorist (gold) – penned an unpublished and publicly unavailable preprint with over 1000 citations

homologist (platinum) – has a (co)homology named after

dualist (platinum) – has a reciprocity or duality named after

ghost-writer (silver) – published with a person who has been dead for 10 years

prince of nerdom (silver) – wrote a paper joint with a computer

king of nerdom (gold) – had a computer write a joint paper

sequentialist (gold) – authored a sequel of five papers with the same title

prepositionist (gold) – ten papers which begin with a preposition “on”, “about”, “toward”, or “regarding” (prepositions at the end of the title are not counted, but sneered at).

luddite (bronze) – paper originally written NOT in TeX or LaTeX.

theorist (silver) – the implied constant in O(.) notation in the main result in greater than 1080.

conditionalist (silver) – main result is a conditional some known conjecture (not awarded in Crypto and Theory CS until the hierarchy of complexity classes is established)

ackermannist (gold) – main result used a function which grows greater than any finite tower of 2’s.

What about you?  Do you have any suggestions? 🙂