Category Archives: academia

Rescinding an offer when the candidate tries to negotiate

From the Philosophy Smoker, via Liz Harman:


As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier.
1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.
2) An official semester of maternity leave.
3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.
4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.
5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.
I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.


Thank you for your email. The search committee discussed your provisions. They were also reviewed by the Dean and the VPAA. It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered. Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.
Thank you very much for your interest in Nazareth College. We wish you the best in finding a suitable position.

Talk amongst yourselves.


Scientists aren’t experts on what makes jokes funny

Ben Lillie:

This week I finally realized what bugged me about the talk I was hearing about the science of science communication: Nothing. The issue is what I wasn’t hearing.

This was catalyzed by a short news item Lauren Rugani linked on twitter. A scientist had run a study where they discovered that sometimes a punchline is funnier if words from the punchline had been mentioned several minutes earlier. From the abstract:

“These findings also show that pre-exposing a punchline, which in common knowledge should spoil a joke, can actually increase funniness under certain conditions.”

This is shocking. Not the conclusion, which is clearly correct. The problem is that the conclusion has been known to comedians for at least the last several thousand years. When I trained in improv comedy the third class was on callbacks, the jargon term for that technique. The entire structure of an improv comedy set is based around variations on the idea that things are funnier if they’re repeated. And yet to the authors it was “common knowledge” that this will spoil a joke. There is a long tradition of people who know, from experience, how this works, and yet the idea of asking them is not evident anywhere in the paper. This is the problem — the sense that the only valid answers come from inside science and the research world.

Yes!  Everybody knows by now that when mathematicians try to do mathematical biology alone, without people with domain knowledge of biology in the room, they do crappy mathematical biology.  “Digital humanities” or “neuroaesthetics” or “culturomics” &c are just the same.  New techniques drawn from science and mathematics are fantastic research tools now, and they’re only getting better, but it seems like a terrible idea to study cultural objects from scratch, without domain experts in the room.

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Yes, newspapers, you need us!

The story so far:  New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece called “Professors, we need you!” in which he mourned the loss of the public intellectual of yonderyear:

SOME of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

And so on from there.  You’ve heard this song — we speak in our own jargon, we’re obsessed with meaningless turf wars, there’s too much math, “academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose” (must we?)

Lots of pushback on this, as you can imagine.  But the predominant tone, from professor-defenders like Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo or  Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker and Ezra Klein in Bloomberg View, is that it’s not really academics’ fault our writing is so bad and unreadable and sealed off from the world.  It’s our bad incentives — the public intellectualizing we’d like to be doing isn’t rewarded by our tenure committees and our academic publishing system!

I’d put it a different way.  I think our incentives are fine, because our incentive is to be right about things, which is our job.  Newspapers have different incentives.  I’ve been writing for general-audience publications for years, and I can tell you what editors mean when they say a piece is “too academic.”  They don’t mean “there’s too much jargon” or “the subject isn’t of wide interest.”  They mean “you didn’t take a strong enough position.”  When I write about a matter of current controversy, I often get asked:  “What’s the takeaway?  Who’s right here and who’s wrong?”  In real life there are no takeaways.  In real life one person’s sort of right about one thing and the other person’s sort of right about another thing and understanding the nature of the controversy may require a somewhat technical unraveling of those two different things which are thoughtlessly being referred to as one thing.  Most editors hate this stuff.  That’s why they don’t print it.  But it’s the work you have to do if you want to say things that are true.

I’ve been lucky to have done a lot of my journalism for Slate.  A lot of other academics write for them, too, and you know why?  Because they might tell you “this is too complicated, can you say the same thing but clearer?” but they’ll never tell you “this is too complicated, can you say something simpler and more bullshitty instead?”

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Good student bad student good professor bad professor

From an essay called “Why Your Professors Suck”:

Good student: “When will the midterm be?”
Me: “Why do you care?”
Good student: “Um… I’d like to be able to plan when I should study for it.”
Me: “Oh, okay. I don’t know when it’s going to be.”
Good student: “Um… Okay. What’s it going to cover?”
Me: “I’m not sure, but it’ll be really great!”
Good student: “That’s good, I guess. Can you be more specific?”
Me: “Not really. But why do you care?”
Good student: “Well, you’re the professor!”
Me: “I am? That’s odd. You know, I got mostly Cs and Ds in college. Maybe you shouldn’t be listening to me.”
Good student: “But you do have a PhD, right?”
Me: “Sure, but any jerk can get a PhD. Just think about all your professors. It can’t be that hard!”

The author presents this as a special delivery of some much-needed real-world wisdom to the boringly conformist “good student.”  But I think it comes off as free-floating nastiness directed at a kid asking a perfectly reasonable question.  Discuss.

Update:  Actually, I think what follows this exchange makes it even a little worse:

This sends my “good” students into conniption fits. My cynical students enjoy watching these interactions.

Basically, I think I like my cynical bad students more than my good students because the good students are wrong and the cynical bad students are right.

So yeah — it’s not just pure nastiness, it’s served with a charming helping of “humiliate the disfavored student in public while the favored students look on and enjoy.”


The trouble with billionaires

Cathy blogs today about the enthusiasm for billionaires displayed at the AMS public face of math panel, and her misgivings about it.  Cathy points out that, while gifts from big donors obviously accomplish real, useful, worthwhile goals for mathematics, they have a way of crowding out the public support we might otherwise have gotten, and sapping our will to fight for that support.

I think there’s an even deeper problem.  When we’re talking about putting up buildings or paying people’s salaries, we’re talking about things that require many millions of dollars, and asking:  who’s going to pay for them?  It’s not crazy that the answer “a rich person” is one of the things that comes to mind.

But when we talk about improving the public image of mathematics, we are not talking about something that automatically costs lots of money.  We’re talking about something that we can do on social media, something we can do in the newspaper, something we can — and frankly, should — do in the classroom.  Cathy describes the conversation as centering on “How can we get someone to hire a high-priced PR agent for mathematics?”  That means that the billionaire solution isn’t just crowding out other sources of money, it’s crowding out the very idea that there are ways to solve problems besides spending money.


Two views on peer review

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Mathematics is not terribly individual

From Oswald Veblen’s opening address to the 1950 ICM:

Mathematics is terribly individual.  Any mathematical act, whether of creation or apprehension, takes place in the deepest recesses of the individual mind.  Mathematical thoughts must nevertheless be communicated to other individuals and assimilated into the body of general knowledge.  Otherwise they can hardly be said to exist.  By the time it becomes necessary to raise one’s voice in a large hall some of the best mathematicians I know are simply horrified and remain silent…

The solution will not be to give up international mathematical meetings and organizations altogether, for there is a deep human instinct that brings them about.  Every human being feels the need of belonging to some sort of a group of people with whom he has common interests.  Otherwise he becomes lonely, irresolute, and ineffective.  The more one is a mathematician the more one tends to be unfit or unwilling to play a part in normal social groups.  In most cases that I have observed, this is a necessary, though definitely not a sufficient, condition for doing mathematics.”

This view of mathematics and mathematicians is deeply alien to me.  I experience mathematics as thoroughly communal.  Does this reflect a change in mathematical practice in the last 60 years, or just a difference in temperament between Ozzie and me?


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Interview with DeMarco and Wilkinson

Nice joint interview with Laura DeMarco and Amie Wilkerson at Scientific American.

I didn’t know this about Amie:

 I went to college, and I was feeling very insecure about my abilities in mathematics, and I hadn’t gotten a lot of encouragement, and I wasn’t really sure this was what I wanted to do, so I didn’t apply to grad school. I came back home to Chicago, and I got a job as an actuary. I enjoyed my work, but I started to feel like there was a hole in my existence. There was something missing. I realized that suddenly my universe had become finite. Anything I had to learn for this job, I could learn eventually. I could easily see the limits of this job, and I realized that with math there were so many things I could imagine that I would never know. That’s why I wanted to go back and do math.

This was basically me, too.  After college I got into the fiction writing program at Johns Hopkins, which made me think maybe I could really make it as a writer, and I deferred grad school and moved to Baltimore and wrote fiction all day every day for a year, and while I valued that experience a lot, there was not a single day of it where I didn’t kind of wish I were doing math.  Having had that experience — not just suspecting but knowing how annoying it is not to be doing math — took the edge off the pain of the painful parts of grad school.

Hiring at and from Wisconsin

Happy to report that the UW-Madison math department has added two more terrific young faculty members, both joining us next fall:  Daniel Erman in commutative algebra and algebraic geometry (seen previously on the blog counting smooth members in semiample linear systems over finite fields) and Uri Andrews in model theory.

In other awesome news, my former Ph.D. student Derek Garton will join the department at Portland State (his master’s degree alma mater!) as a tenure-track assistant professor.

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The Magic Circle, by Jenny Davidson

Strange and kind of great new novel by Jenny Davidson (who, for full information’s sake, is someone I’ve known on and off since college) about young intellectuals who believe in the power of text more than is perhaps good for them.  “Text” here means books, as you’d expect, but also text-as-in-texting and chat windows and games.  A lot of the dialogue is in an interestingly distant Delmore Schwartz register.  It reads strangely at first but makes sense once you get used to it.

What I liked best is this.  The book gestures at being one of those in which real life gives way to the fantastic, but ends up insisting (correctly, I think!) that when the fantastic intrudes into ordinary life, it does not replace ordinary life but rather overlays it — so that one can have the most heightened and extrawordly experience possible, and then go home, with the smell of it still on you, and check your e-mail and brush your teeth.  It is a novel for the world of Google Glass, and should be read whether or not the world of Google Glass turns out to be our world.


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