What do mathematicians actually do?

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.”


Universities in ruins

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)

Universities in ruins

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Irish universities’ gender gap: even worse than in the whole UK

“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/

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An important article by Paul Mason at The Guardian today:

Private schools know how to game elite universities – state-educated kids don’t have this privilege

The argument Mason makes is that school graduates in the UK make uninformed choices about university courses. The problem isn’t necessarily scarce information, quite the contrary:

“Other opinions are available of course – and that’s the problem. This year, a quarter of a million 16-year-olds will make their A-level choices relying on hearsay, myth and information that is outdated or uncheckable. Those choices will shape their options when it comes to university – and the courses they apply for will then shape their chances of getting in.”<\blockquote>

“Why should this matter to the majority of young people, who do not aspire to go to an elite university? And to the rest of society? First, because it is creating needless inequality of opportunity and is just the most obvious example of how poor access to informal knowledge penalises state school kids. Second, because in an economy set to be dominated by information and technology, those 15,000 people who can attempt further maths each year are the equivalent of Aztec gold for the conquistadores. Their intelligence will be the raw material of the third industrial revolution.

There is no reason – other than maintaining privilege – to avoid presenting subject and course choices clearly, logically and transparently. When the system fails bright kids from non-privileged backgrounds, we all lose.”<\blockquote>

Some possible solutions perhaps:

- Better (not necessarily more) online information accessible to all students; a publicly available depository of previous student experiences and statistics on post-A-level trajectories;

- The communication between universities and schools needs to be improved: on the one hand, both universities and schools complain that the other side does not understand their difficulties and poses unreasonable demands; yet on the other hand, both sides complain that the other side is not willing to engage more fully in communication. Where is the truth? Universities have outreach programmes, plenty of information on their websites – but perhaps not the right kind?
The STEM ambassadors initiative is great, but (a) there is a need for ambassadors not only from “STEM” jobs, and also, howeevr successful they are, it’s a charity and they aren’t reaching all the schoolchildren.

- Why is it that universities aren’t more involved in designing, redesigning, updating, A-level syllabuses and monitoring their teaching at 6th form? Is it because university staff are too busy, don’t care, because they have no clue about earlier pedagogy? Or because schools don’t want universities messing into school territory and for example shifting curricula too much towards high-achievers? All viable concerns, but surely a better balance can be found, with more productive involvement and less disruptive meddling of universities into schools! I have heard colleagues involved in admissions sigh that schools just don’t always teach the kids what they really need to know – not just for the entrance exam, but more importantly, for being able to thrive in university. Thinking skills, thinking outside the box, creative and disciplined and active learning… if this really is true, then it’s horrible for both schools and universities in the UK and something has to be done.

- It seems to me that University outreach initiatives such as “Widening Participation” need to be far better developed and embedded into university work. At present, university staff mostly don’t participate – and understandably so, since it is an additional task on top of their already high workloads, and there are already penalties for spending too much time on supervising students and preparing lecture materials if you neglect research and especially publishing. At the same time, there are increasing amounts of administration to be done (as all long-serving academics will confirm, the advent of computers has NOT decreased the amount of paperwork). There is a fundamental imbalance in the way staff are assessed and appraised for job purposes. For example teaching and other “good academic citizenship” behaviour such as administrative work or pastoral care are insufficiently rewarded, whilst research is rewarded – but only through publications in “4 or 5-star journals” (yes, that’s the actual term, I’m not making it up). In this context, when academics are already stretched to do more research, and cope with teaching and admin as much as they can, and most of them routinely work overtime to accomplish their research projects and/or plan lecturers, and/or finish marking – how can we even expect anyone but the young and idealistic academics (the ones most in need of a career boost) to even consider being involved in communication with schools?

- Would it make sense to bring back grammar schools? From the few grammar schools that still exist, it seems that it is a good model… here I must let experts talk, because I know precious little about the UK secondary education system and my impression is largely anecdotal.

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Sexist or not sexist? The debate about academic science

Not sexist:
“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!

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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.

Passive learning in maths!?

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The post-PhD career is [not] like a fairytale

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.

Which head to slay first: PhD student adventures

Which head to slay first: PhD student adventures

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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.

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The price of a citation, or How did King Abdulaziz University get in the world’s top 10?

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:

1. Berkeley
2. Stanford
3. Princeton
5. University of Oxford
6. Harvard
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
– publications
– 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.

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