Lovely article by Martin Krieger explaining what mathematicians actually do: http://www.ams.org/notices/200410/comm-krieger.pdf
“So when you are asked, What do mathematicians do?, you can say: I like to think we are just like lawyers or philosophers who explore the meanings of our everyday concepts, we are like inventors who employ analogies to solve problems, and we are like marketers who try to convince others they ought to think “Kodak” when they hear “photography” (or the competition, who try to convince them that they ought to think “Fuji”). Moreover, some of the time, our work is not unlike solving a two-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, all in one color. That surely involves lots of scut work, but also ingenuity along the way in dividing up the work, sorting the pieces, and knowing that it often makes sense to build the border first.”
A round-up of some recent articles on academic precarity, and inequalities within [Western] academia, some grimmer than others.
France has plans to build a new star university in Paris South in the hope of getting that one university into global rankings. It would have 70,000 students and 10,000 researchers, it would be super modern and have direct connections to the airport, etc. Cost unspecified. In the meantime, the budget for higher education was slashed by 70 million meaning some universities won’t be able to pay their staff – well, the hourly-paid staff that is, those who are paid (at best) 2 months after the end of term. Also this tumbler shows what the non-star universities look like and will probably continue to look like:
(reblogged from https://www.facebook.com/ThirdLevelWorkplaceWatch?fref=ts)
“New data from the Higher Education Authority reveals that women are massively under-represented in senior academic positions across virtually all of the country’s third-level institutions.
The figures, gathered late last year, show that in the country’s top universities between just 14% and 20% of professorships are held by women.
It is the first time the HEA has published a detailed breakdown of the gender gap at senior levels in the sector.”
Read more here http://www.rte.ie/news/2014/1203/664255-academic-posts/
“Academic science isn’t sexist” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/02/opinion/sunday/academic-science-isnt-sexist.html?_r=1
“Science isn’t the problem, scientists are” https://chroniclevitae.com/news/804-science-isn-t-the-problem-scientists-are
The “Everyday Sexism in STEM” blog: http://stemfeminist.com/
If you read this, please, add more links and your opinions in the comments!
Apparently someone came to this blog by searching for “active learning in maths good or bad”… I wish I could tell them, without active learning there CAN BE no maths. Maths is all about DOING it yourself. But what do I know, I’m just a sociologist who thinks maths is fun.
Read this fairytale substituting “Ivan” for “PhD-student”, “Tsar” for PhD-advisor, “Firebird” for tenure, and “Gray Wolf” for the pitfalls of academic life. Don’t forget that this is a fairytale and in real life by far not all Prince Ivans marry the princess and life happily ever after. Not to mention that Elena the Fair may also be on the PhD job market and then they would have the Two Hero Problem. [I’m not even beginning to say anything about the gender politics of fairytales]. The crossroads is the “what now” moment after your PhD where all possible roads lead to problems.
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Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf
(translation of a classic Russian fairytale edited by Anna Anashikina, reposted from http://www.therussianstore.com/blog/the-tale-of-ivan-tsarevich-the-firebird-and-the-gray-wolf/)
A Very long time ago in a certain kingdom there reigned a Tsar who had three sons, the first was Dimitriy Tsarevich, the second – Vassiliy Tsarevich, and the third – Ivan Tsarevich. The Tsar had a magnificent orchard, where grew his favorite magic apple-tree with golden apples. However every night a Firebird fell into the habit of flying on that apple-tree and tear away few apples. Its feathers were red-and-gold, and bright as a fire, her eyes were like Eastern crystals.
The Tsar ordered each of his sons to catch the Firebird alive and promised a half of the kingdom for that. The two elder brothers fell asleep while watching. On the third night the youngest son, Ivan, went to the orchard. He saw the Firebird, crept to it and grabbed it by the tail. But the Firebird managed to get free, leaving to Ivan only a bright tail feather. Since then the Firebird stopped visiting the orchard, but the Tsar ordered his three sons to find and bring him the Firebird alive for the half of the kingdom. All three sons saddled their horses and rode their ways.
Ivan rode far away and get to an open field, where he saw a sign-post with the following words: “If you go to straight, you will be cold and hungry; if you go to the right, you will be alive and healthy but loose your horse; if you go to the left, you will be dead but the horse will be alive and healthy.” Ivan Tsarevich decided to go to the right, he rode two days and on the third day he met a big Gray Wolf, who tore the Ivan’s horse in pieces.
Ivan walked all day long, he was very tired, and suddenly the Gray Wolf overtook him. The Gray Wolf felt sorry for Ivan and offered his assistance of taking him to his destination, since he killed Ivan’s horse.
Ivan Tsarevich got on the back of the Gray Wolf and they were on their way to a kingdom where the Firebird lived. The Tsar of that kingdom after listening to Ivan’s wish to take away the Firebird, agreed to give his Firebird to Ivan in exchange for a golden-crested horse from the neighboring kingdom. The Tsar who was the master of the golden-crested horse agreed to give away his horse in exchange for a beautiful Elena the Fair, who was the daughter of the next kingdom Tsar. However, with help of the Gray Wolf, Ivan managed to get the Firebird for his father, and the wonderful horse and Elena the Fair for himself.
When they came to the border of Ivan’s father kingdom, Ivan and Elena said good-bye to the Gray Wolf and stopped to rest. While they were sleeping, Ivan’s two elder brothers, returning from their unsuccessful expedition, came across the two and killed Ivan. They threatened Elena to kill her as well if she will tell anyone what had happened.
Ivan Tsarevich laid dead for thirty days until the Gray Wolf found him. The Gray Wolf got water of death and water of life and revived Ivan. Ivan got to his home palace on the back of the Gray Wolf just at the wedding day of his brother Vassiliy Tsarevich and Elena the Fair. There Ivan, with help of Elena, told his father what had happened to him. The Tsar got so furious with his elder sons that he threw them to prison.
Ivan Tsarevich and Elena the Fair married, inherited the kingdom and lived in love for many years.
According to a great recent blogpost by Berkeley academic Lior Pachter, there is something very fishy about university rankings. In last week’s global university ranking published by the US News and World Report (USNWR), the top 10 universities listed in mathematics are:
5. University of Oxford
7. King Abdulaziz University
8. Pierre and Marie Curie – Paris 6
9. University of Hong Kong
10. University of Cambridge
The USNWR rankings are based on 8 attributes:
- global research reputation
– regional research reputation
– normalized citation impact
– total citations
– number of highly cited papers
– percentage of highly cited papers
– international collaboration
Now, how did KAU end up in the top 10? Its chair received his PhD in 2005 and has zero publications. Its own PhD programme is only two-years old. It has separate campuses for men and women. The author, and probably many other mathematicians, have never heard about KAU. Apparently, the secret of the ranking success lies in the fact that,
“[a]lthough KAU’s full time faculty are not very highly cited, it has amassed a large adjunct faculty that helped them greatly in these categories. In fact, in “normalized citation impact” KAU’s math department is the top ranked in the world. This amazing statistic is due to the fact that KAU employs (as adjunct faculty) more than a quarter of the highly cited mathematicians at Thomson Reuters. “
The article goes on with a very interesting and evidence-supported discussion of the ranking system, and of the particular approach taken by KAU in order to put itself on the world’s mathematical map. There are also comments by various academics, a few of whom work for KAU. Well worth a read if you have time to be scared about the $$$$$future$$$$$ of global academia.
Pachter’s blogpost raises some very interesting questions about the future of global academia. First of all, it is not at all surprising that universities from the periphery (the “global south”, as we sociologists like to call it) are trying to gain prestige and put themselves out there. It is also not surprising that some, which are very affluent, will attempt to buy their way in the global academic system. In fact, by doing so, they are merely using loopholes and bugs – which to them are “features” – in the ranking and prestige system created by old-world academia. Our indignation at this, while justified, is also somewhat hypocritical: after all, they are simply taking the “money makes research go round” principle that bit further. Academics and administrators in US and European universities should take this as a warning – a mirror held up to our own academic institutional practices which may be less blatant and aggressive, but are nevertheless often the same in their nature. UK universities in particular – more so than in the rest of Europe, but still less so than in the US – are also doing their best to hire highly-cited academics. I’m not at all worried about universities from other places taking the lead in research, and no doubt many of the names on the list are doing just that. What is really worrying is the increasing overreliance on numeric indicators of academic quality as a substitute for much more detailed, more qualitative indicators. I think that we… or someone? but who? well, we – vice-chancellors, academics and administrators – should take the hint from KAU’s success on paper and change the system of science quality assessment not just by tightening existing loopholes, but by not relying on simplified indicators at all.