My pet hate: I wish people stopped opposing “math” to “creativity”!

What a bad article to read before going to bed at 1am. Now I won’t sleep, grr. No, the article itself isn’t bad, it is even making a valid point: “Creativity just as important as math and science”. What made me angry, you ask? 

The argument is always “science and math are essential, especially in today’s job market”. I agree, they are essential on the job market. Just as literacy, the ability to retell, interpret, improvise, communicate, the knowledge of history, cultures and languages. Many things are important “on today’s job market”. But I do wish people asked themselves more often what is essential for the development of a person, for the wellbeing of society, and for the enjoyment of life. Perhaps then – to come back to our “not enough people do math” problem which is only a symptom of  a bigger problem in the way we treat learning – more people would enjoy playing with maths. But Peter Lockhart said it better. I am going to shamelessly quote the first 1.5 pages from his amazing essay just to make sure that more people read it. Please, read it, whether you have always liked, hated, or been undecided about mathematics. I will check in my stats how many people click on the link.

Amusician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory. “We are helping our students become more competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world.” Educators, school systems, and the state are put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and decisions are made— all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or composer.

Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious black dots and lines must constitute the “language of music.” It is imperative that students become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; indeed, it would be ludicrous to expect a child to sing a song or play an instrument without having a thorough grounding in music notation and theory. Playing and listening to music, let alone composing an original piece, are considered very advanced topics and are generally put off until college, and more often graduate school.

As for the primary and secondary schools, their mission is to train students to use this language— to jiggle symbols around according to a fixed set of rules: “Music class is where wetake out our staff paper, our teacher puts some notes on the board, and we copy them ortranspose them into a different key. We have to make sure to get the clefs and key signatures right, and our teacher is very picky about making sure we fill in our quarter-notes completely. One time we had a chromatic scale problem and I did it right, but the teacher gave me no credit because I had the stems pointing the wrong way.”

In their wisdom, educators soon realize that even very young children can be given this kind of musical instruction. In fact it is considered quite shameful if one’s third-grader hasn’t completely memorized his circle of fifths. “I’ll have to get my son a music tutor. He simply won’t apply himself to his music homework. He says it’s boring. He just sits there staring out the window, humming tunes to himself and making up silly songs.”

In the higher grades the pressure is really on. After all, the students must be prepared for the standardized tests and college admissions exams. Students must take courses in Scales and Modes, Meter, Harmony, and Counterpoint. “It’s a lot for them to learn, but later in college when they finally get to hear all this stuff, they’ll really appreciate all the work they did in high school.” Of course, not many students actually go on to concentrate in music, so only a few will ever get to hear the sounds that the black dots represent. Nevertheless, it is important that every member of society be able to recognize a modulation or a fugal passage, regardless of the fact that they will never hear one. “To tell you the truth, most students just aren’t very good at music. They are bored in class, their skills are terrible, and their homework is barely legible. Most of them couldn’t care less about how important music is in today’s world; they just want to take the minimum number of music courses and be done with it. I guess there are just music people and non-music people. I had this one kid, though, man was she sensational! Her sheets were impeccable— every note in the right place, perfect calligraphy, sharps, flats, just beautiful. She’s going to make one hell of a musician someday.” 

Waking up in a cold sweat, the musician realizes, gratefully, that it was all just a crazy dream. “Of course!” he reassures himself, “No society would ever reduce such a beautiful and meaningful art form to something so mindless and trivial; no culture could be so cruel to its children as to deprive them of such a natural, satisfying means of human expression. How absurd!”

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a painter has just awakened from a similar nightmare…

I was surprised to find myself in a regular school classroom— no easels, no tubes of paint.”Oh we don’t actually apply paint until high school,” I was told by the students. “In seventh grade we mostly study colors and applicators.” They showed me a worksheet. On one side were swatches of color with blank spaces next to them. They were told to write in the names. “I like painting,” one of them remarked, “they tell me what to do and I do it. It’s easy!”

After class I spoke with the teacher. “So your students don’t actually do any painting?” I asked. “Well, next year they take Pre-Paint-by-Numbers. That prepares them for the main Paint-by-Numbers sequence in high school. So they’ll get to use what they’ve learned here and apply it to real-life painting situations— dipping the brush into paint, wiping it off, stuff like that.
Of course we track our students by ability. The really excellent painters— the ones who know their colors and brushes backwards and forwards— they get to the actual painting a little sooner; and some of them even take the Advanced Placement classes for college credit. But mostly we’re just trying to give these kids a good foundation in what painting is all about, so when they get out there in the real world and paint their kitchen they don’t make a total mess of it.”

“Um, these high school classes you mentioned…”

“You mean Paint-by-Numbers? We’re seeing much higher enrollments lately. I think it’s mostly coming from parents wanting to make sure their kid gets into a good college. Nothing looks better than Advanced Paint-by-Numbers on a high school transcript.”

“Why do colleges care if you can fill in numbered regions with the corresponding color?”

“Oh, well, you know, it shows clear-headed logical thinking. And of course if a student is planning to major in one of the visual sciences, like fashion or interior decorating, then it’s really a good idea to get your painting requirements out of the way in high school.”

“I see. And when do students get to paint freely, on a blank canvas?”

“You sound like one of my professors! They were always going on about expressing yourself and your feelings and things like that—really way-out-there abstract stuff. I’ve got a degree in Painting myself, but I’ve never really worked much with blank canvasses. I just use the Paint-by-Numbers kits supplied by the school board.”


Sadly, our present system of mathematics education is precisely this kind of nightmare. In fact, if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done— I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.

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Killing me softly with your REF

If you work in an UK university you probably know about the REF (understatement). If you don’t, then you might be forgiven for thinking that it is an American black comedy from the 1990s (known in some countries as Hostile hostages). Although the film’s poster is strangely appropriate, that’s not it. Here is the official definition:  The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the new system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions.” (, 18 Dec 2014).

I just discovered an article which apparently made quite a splash when it was first published in 2012. I agree with many of the criticisms in the first half of the text. The best point of the article is about the ambiguous nature of the REF. It chimes with something I’ve been trying to argue in conversations with British academics: namely, that the REF does at least have a good reason behind it, and in other countries where there exists tenure, but little or no accountability, professors can sometimes slack off and lie on their laurels instead of doing research, and that is bad for the careers of younger aspiring academics:

“This ambiguity, of processes which are managerialist, anti-collective, even oppressive, and at the same time potentially progressive, pervades both the REF, and academics’ engagements with it.  The whole evaluation of submissions is by panels of disciplinary peers,  resulting from the collective, if tacit, understanding that it is better done like this than any other way”

It turns out that things weren’t so different in the UK, only happened earlier. I hadn’t realised that the turn to Human Resource Management was initially brought about by well-meaning people who wanted to change old inefficient practices:

. […] Along with customer satisfaction surveys for lectures, an individualized, a per capita REF enables (it seems) the atomization of universities’ intellectual endeavour, and, the performance of each faculty member to be exposed, measured and judged, on its own terms, and against that of others. This is helped by the techniques of human resource management (HRM) – probationary periods, target setting, annual performance appraisals,  and performance related pay. HRM is also associated with disciplining, by both its proponents, and its Foucauldian critics. But against those who see mutual cause and effect in the simultaneous rise of HRM and Thatcherism, I counterpose my anecdotal experience of its practices being developed and realized in public sector by the political left.  When I worked for Leeds City Council in the 1980s, advocates of what now are seen as everyday HRM tools –  job descriptions, person specifications, annual appraisal – presented them as objective methods to counter racism and sexism. It was the stroppy, brave people from councils’ and health authorities’ equal opportunities units who drove the HRM movement, as much as it was privatising, union-busting right-to-managers.  When I left Leeds for my first proper HRM job at British Telecom in London, I found most of my colleagues developing its new entrepreneurial culture had a similar public sector background.”

The article also goes off on a very long rant about the forced disclosure of exceptional circumstances in the second half, which I don’t like as much. But it is very worth reading:

P.S. if you want a serious sociological critique of performance-based appraisal systems, check out Lisa Lucas’ 2006 book “The research game in academic life”. (It is based on her PhD thesis which, I was surprised to learn, was written at the department of sociology at Warwick!)

Or read these slides (I wish I knew who their author is!) which give a nice summary of Lucas’ book, as well as a useful bibliography.

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Women: Stop shrinking, “Take up space!”

This video isn’t about mathematics. But when you think about it, it really is about mathematics. I believe that the chief reason behind why there are few women in mathematics (relative to the number of men) is the same reason that urged Vanessa Kisuule to write this awesome poem.

Here is a selection of serious and funny descriptions from some of my interviews (I’ve done 50 so far, mostly in Germany, and some in the UK, with more to come), referring either to an abstract, or a real successful mathematician. Try to imagine the people with these attributes which are necessary, though insufficient, for success in absolutely any competitive field:





“not be afraid to experiment and fail”

“must have fun with maths”


“barges forth”

“does not get discouraged”


“you know the old saying, ‘fuck up early, fuck up often”

“focused on the thing s/he is doing and not so much on success itself”


“believe in yourself, believe that you can”

“a bit bloody-minded”


“not a shrinking violet when it comes to maths!”

“ready to make mistakes”

“get used to the idea that you will fuck up all the time”

“…seeing them helped me realise I’m not the only one getting stuck”

“focused on the work, not on how others see you”

“We mathematicians are a very tolerant bunch: we don’t care how you look or sound, as long as you have an interesting theorem to talk about!”

It is also the same reason for why many “mathematically-minded” men don’t make it into mathematics, or into other areas for which they might otherwise have a potential ability or even a full-blown talent.

That is not to say that this reason is simple or easy to overcome.  And it certainly can’t be overcome just by individual willpower – even if it may be useful in each individual case to realise that “yes, I am just as valuable as any other person and I deserve to take up all the space that I need”.

Taking up space, obviously, isn’t meant just in the physical sense. There are plenty of women who take up space and men who don’t. Just look next time you are on the Tube. (OK, some people think that men do it more often – I don’t have reliable quantitative data on that). But it’s a useful reminder that there is something fishy with any system in which many people belonging to any one group (in this case, women, though there are many other groups that face similar problems) face an inequality unrelated to the definition of their group. “Women” are simply “female people” – there is no intrinsic reason in being a woman that directly leads to the group of women not being represented equally in certain human activities, instead there are plenty of social, historical, institutional, political, personal, as well as plain stupid, reasons.


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“I do it to make mathematicians cry”

I love my research topic. Math[ematicians]-related procrastination is fun. This post of the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal: “I do it to make mathematicians cry” almost made me spit out my breakfast cereal onto the keyboard earlier today. As my friends over in the maths institute like saying, the physicist in this comic strip needs to have his infinity licence revoked! Nice to see the mathematician prevail in the happy end. Oh, you thought i was unbiased? No, I’ve totally gone native.

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Postdoc and motherhood in Austria or Germany: is it good or not good?

Everyone agrees that postgraduate, postdoctoral and other early career researchers struggle with reconciling the geographical demands of their careers with personal and family life. A lot has been said (informally over a drink or during conference coffee breaks) and written (on blogs and in academic journals) about the fact that the current academic system is unkind and detrimental to researchers’ families, relationships, childbearing decisions, parenting, other care responsibilities, and mental health. Everyone (including myself) has a bunch of criticisms and reasons why the institutional conditions in academic employment are not optimal. But in terms of what these optimal institutional conditions are, can, or ought to be, there is no agreement! I find it fascinating how much opinions on this can differ. Here are two articles I read recently. I struggle to disagree with both. And yet, they have opposite arguments. The first one argues that in Germany mothers are pushed out of the labour market because of societal expectations to be “perfect mothers”, and in comparison, in France mothers are far more relaxed, they trust the state childcare services more, and return to work much earlier instead of “devoting themselves wholly to their offspring”.  The article is not specifically about academia, but I have heard similar sentiments expressed by some of my interviewees in Germany who, for example, felt excluded and unrespected by their colleagues after one or two maternity leaves. The second article praises Austria’s system (which is similar to the German one) and says that it enabled the author to combine work and family life.

Article 1 (in German):“Es wird ein Mutterkult betrieben”

Article 2: A European postdoc for the family, by Michelle Gabriele Sandrian

I guess all should be read in context. The second article (the one which praises Austria’s Mutterschutz law) is written by an American researcher who has been exposed to a much less kind system (to me it sounds unthinkable that in the US there is NO paid leave for new mothers AT ALL). However, it is very important to notice also the hidden injuries of the more protective German (and Austrian) system, pointed out in the first article by an author who has experienced motherhood and work in both Germany and France.

– – –

A few related articles about Germany:

Gender Inequality in British and German Universities, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, Volume 37, Issue 5, 2007

Academic career structure in Germany (online resource)

Gender Inequality in German Academia and Strategies for Change, 2001 (free PDF)

FRAUEN IN DER WISSENSCHAFT: Wo sind sie bloß?, Die Zeit, 13/2014

Attitudes to gender equality issues in British and German academia (in English, free PDF)

Paths to Career and Success for Women in Science, 2014 (Google book)

Kind da, job weg
Warum die Babypause zum Karrierekiller wird
Aussortiert und abgelegt

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Why aren’t graduates called Spinsters of Arts/Sciences?

Reading a book* about higher education. Found an interesting quote in the historical background section. So this is why university graduates today are called BA/BSc (Bachelors of Arts/Sciences). Duh!

“…Next came the bachelors, who were advanced students and were allowed to lecture and dispute under supervision. They corresponded to and derived their names from the journeymen or bachelors, who worked for a daily wage and had not sufficient maturity to establish themselves in the trade. (Hence they were still unmarried). At the top of the profession was the master, a rank common to both universities and guilds. He was a man who had demonstrated both his skill and maturity to the satisfaction of his fellow masters. Entrance to this stage was gained after elaborate examinations, exercises in the techniques of teaching, and ceremonial investiture. Admission fell exclusively under the jurisdiction of the other full members of the university…. The three titles, master, doctor, professor, were in the Middle Ages absolutely synonymous.”

I am not the kind of feminist who would nitpick about terminology. I’m quite happy to keep words along with their historical baggage even if it’s a history of unequality (what history ISN’T a history of inequality?), as long as we are aware of what the baggage means. Much better than opening future gates to new inequalities by erasing all trace of nasty legacies today … So, I feel even better informed about the patriarchal basis of my education (and that of my ‘research subjects’. the mathematicians) now!

Burton R. Clark 1983, The Higher Education System: Academic Organization in Cross-national Perspective, P.47 citing Baldwin and Goldwaite, eds, Universities in Politics, pp.8, 19


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A Mathematician Discovers Ethnography

At the Sociological Imagination, we recently blogged about an interesting article written by a mathematics professor and I wanted to share it here, too. Robert Harington writes about a study he recently had to do, as Head of the publishing division of the American Mathematical Society (AMS) in order to find out how mathematicians use online resources and use that knowledge to inform AMA’s future publishing strategy.

Harington explains pretty well what ethnographic research is:

“…What do we mean by ethnographic research? In essence we are talking about a rich, multi-factorial descriptive approach. While quantitative research uses pre-existing categories in its analysis, qualitative research is open to new ways of categorizing data – in this case, mathematicians’ behavior in using information. The idea is that one observes the subject (“key informant” in technical jargon) in their natural habitat. Imagine you are David Attenborough, exploring an “absolutely marvelous” new species – the mathematician – as they operate in the field. The concept is really quite simple. You just want to understand what your key informants are doing, and preferably why they are doing it. One has to do it in a setting that allows for them to behave naturally – this really requires an interview with one person not a group (because group members may influence each other’s actions).

Perhaps the hardest part is the interview itself. If you are anything like me, you will go charging in saying something along the lines of “look at these great things we are doing. What do you think? Great right?” Well, of course this is plain wrong. While you have a goal going in, perhaps to see how an individual is behaving with respect to a specific product, your questions need to be agnostic in flavor. The idea is to have the key informant do what they normally do, not just say what they think they do – the two things may be quite different. The questions need to be carefully crafted so as not to lead, but to enable gentle probing and discussion as the interview progresses. It is a good idea to record the interview – both in audio form, and ideally with screen capture technology such as Camtasia. When I was involved with this I went out and bought a good, but inexpensive audio recorder. […]

With some 62 interviews under our belt, we are beginning to see patterns emerge in the ways that mathematicians behave online. “

As an ethnographic researcher, I would say that his definition is a bit narrow: ethnography is capable of so much more than just helping you assess user experience. Also I think that he is talking about a simpler and quicker variety of qualitative research (e.g. an open ended questionnaire) rather than full-on ethnography (the second comment under the article, by David Wojick, is spot on: Wojick calls the study described in the article “issue analysis” and points out that an in-depth ethnography is a far bigger “beast”). Nevertheless, it’s great to see ethnography used by mathematicians to study their own online behaviour in order to plan the strategy of an academic journal. Action research done by a community for its own benefit! And this article is an awesome explanation of ethnography by a scientist, for a scientific audience. Having read this will certainly help me next time I have to explain to a mathematician what my research is about and what my method is [and that I’m not simply having fun hanging out in their common room on workdays]!

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How much own money do scientists spend on research?

Dr. Edward Hind (independent researcher) and Dr. Brett Favaro (Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s NL) are conducting a survey to examine how much of their own personal money scientists spend on their research programs, and to compare these values across stage of career.

If you would also like to know how much of their own money scientists spend on research, spread the word. And if you are a scientist yourself (in any field or career stage, provided you have worked in the past 12 months), please contribute your experiences. Here is a link to the survey which will be open until 31 May, 2015:

Informed consent – #Scispends survey


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