Category Archives: college

Are math departments better at recruitment than elite financial firms?

Via Bryan Caplan, Lauren Rivera at Northwestern studied hiring practices at top financial, law, and consulting firms and found some surprises:

[E]valuators drew strong distinctions between top four universities, schools that I term the super-elite, and other types of selective colleges and universities. So-called “public Ivies” such as University of Michigan and Berkeley were not considered elite or even prestigious… In addition to being an indicator of potential intellectual deficits, the decision to go to a lesser known school (because it was typically perceived by evaluators as a “choice”) was often perceived to be evidence of moral failings, such as faulty judgment or a lack of foresight on the part of a student.

I’m not sure what those four schools are, but they exclude some pretty good undergraduates:

You will find it when you go to like career fairs or something and you know someone will show up and say, you know, “Hey, I didn’t go to HBS [Harvard Business School] but, you know, I am an engineer at M.I.T. and I heard about this fair and I wanted to come meet you in New York.” God bless him for the effort but, you know, it’s just not going to work.

And don’t neglect those extracurriculars:

[E]valuators believed that the most attractive and enjoyable coworkers and candidates would be those who had strong extracurricular “passions.” They also believed that involvement in activities outside of the classroom was evidence of superior social skill; they assumed a lack of involvement was a signal of social deficiencies… By contrast, those without significant extracurricular experiences or those who participated in activities that were primarily academically or pre-professionally oriented were perceived to be “boring,” “tools,” “bookworms,” or “nerds” who might turn out to be “corporate drones” if hired.

All this stuff sounds bizarre to people outside the world of corporate recruitment.  And it is natural for academics like me to read this and silently congratulate myself on our superior methods of judgment.  But surely there are things about our process which would seem just as irrational and counterproductive to people outside of academic mathematics.  What are they?

It might make more sense to concentrate on graduate recruitment as against tenure-track hiring, since then both we and the financiers are talking about recent BAs with little track record in the workplace.

(Linguistic note:  “Counterproductive” is surely a word that people would deride as horrible managementese if it weren’t already in common use.  But it’s a great word!)

(Upcoming blog note: At some point soon I’ll blog about Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, which I just finished, and which is the reason the credentials of financial professionals are on my mind.)

 

 

Tagged , , ,

It’s like a state, a state of Kong

For the few people who will get nostalgic pleasure out of this, a 1992 article from the Harvard Crimson in which I am extensively quoted about my love for the Hong Kong restaurant in Harvard Square.  I still go there just about every time I’m in town, most recently with Steve Burt.  The once-great “Top of the Kong” comedy club appears no longer to exist, sadly.  Update: No, apparently there’s still a comedy club there, it just changed its name to The Comedy Studio!

Glossary for non-Boston people: “Peking ravioli” is New England nomenclature for fried dumplings, developed by Joyce Chen in order to get Italian people to come to her restaurant.  If an entrepreneur of her caliber had ever lived in Milwaukee, I could probably get Shanghai spaeztle around here.

Tagged , ,

Franzen blows a joke

Given the weirdly ambivalent best-friendship between Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, it’s sort of a strange choice to invite Franzen to give this year’s Kenyon College commencement address, the 2005 edition of which seems destined to be the essay of Wallace’s that stands in the popular imagination as a portrait of the man himself.  (Not without reason.  And if you haven’t read it, then maybe do that instead of continuing on with this somewhat small-minded blog post.)

Franzen’s essay is good, but I thought he made a mistake in one place:

If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).

Surely the joke is much stronger without Trump, or the parenthetical:  “You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or running for president.”  Then, instead of going for Leno-style yuks, he’s actually gently reminding the high-achieving students at a fancy liberal-arts college that an unreflective drive to achieve, and to win, is second cousin to corrosive melancholy.  That would have been a good nod to Wallace.  And it still would have gotten laughs, while gently turning the knife.

Instead, Franzen talks bird-spotting, reiterating the similar material in his much-discussed New Yorker piece on Wallace and solitude.  This part didn’t sway me.  Jonathan Franzen likes birds, we get it.  Not all enthusiasms have a lesson to teach.

Tagged , , , , ,

In which I am impressed by Biddy Martin’s political savvy

The University of Wisconsin, like all big public institutions, faces a future of declining state support.  And, like all big public institutions, we have to figure out how to keep doing our jobs despite that.  Chancellor Martin’s proposal is a New Badger Partnership, under which UW would be allowed to set its own tuition, as Michigan does.  The sticker price of a Wisconsin education would go up, and the extra revenue would be plowed back into financial aid in order to keep college affordable for middle-class students and their parents.

I don’t know enough about higher education policy to comment on the merits of the plan.  But it’s kind of a work of political genius, isn’t it?  To the Democrats in the state government, Martin can say “UW needs to do much, much more to give working families a chance at a world-class education, even if rich Chicago parents take a hit. ” And to the Republicans, she can say, “I came here to run this university like a business, and that means charging market rates.”

Why it’s genius:  because she’s right on both counts!  The ultimate free-market dream is differential pricing:  charging each customer the maximum they’re willing to pay.  Most businesses don’t get to examine their customers’ bank balance before naming a price.  But UW does.  If the university can be more capitalist than the capitalists, redistribute wealth downward, and reduce our dependence on legislative whim, all at the same time, why shouldn’t we?

Tagged , , , ,

In which I publish my first paper

The first one I wrote, that is.  It happened like this:  my undergraduate thesis advisor was Persi Diaconis, and in 1993, my senior year, Diaconis was really peeved about the proof via Selberg that every element of SL_2(F_p) could be expressed as a word of length at most C log p in the standard unipotent generators.  (See Emmanuel’s comment on Terry’s blog for useful references.)  Diaconis felt it was a combinatorial problem and it should be solvable by purely combinatorial means, and that a hard-working undergraduate who was good at Putnam problems, like me, ought to be able to do it.

That turned out not to be the case.

So Persi gave me another thesis problem; he asked if I could get good bounds on the diameter of the unipotent subgroup U of SL_n(F_p), with its standard generating set id + e_{i,i+1}.  When n = 2, this is easy; the unipotent group is just Z/pZ and its diameter is about p.  The question is:  what happens asymptotically when n and p are allowed to grow?

It’s not possible any longer for the diameter of U to be on order log |U|, as is the case for SL_2(F_p); the abelianization of U looks like (Z/pZ)^{n-1}, which already has diameter on order of np.  Unless n is much larger than p, this swamps log |U|.

But it turns out this is in some sense the only obstacle:  one can prove that diam(U) is bounded above and below by constant multiples of

np + log |U|.

(My memory is that I conceived the key step of the argument during a boring Advocate meeting.)

Much later, when I was a new postdoc at Princeton, I talked about this problem with Julianna Tymoczko, then a graduate student working with Bob McPherson.  Julianna very quickly saw how to make the argument much more conceptual and general, and in particular how to extend it to all the classical groups.  So we decided to write it up as a joint paper.  That was probably 2002.  Then we got around to writing the paper and submitting it.  That was 2005.  It was accepted in 2007.  And now here it is!  That’s the abstract; if you’re at a computer that doesn’t subscribe to Forum Math, here’s the arXiv version.  17 years from first version of the theorem to publication!

Update: Harald Helfgott politely comment-hints at something I should have put in the original post, which is that nowadays, thanks to him, there is a combinatorial proof that the diameter of SL_2(F_p) is on order log p!  The subject of uniform bounds for word growth and spectral gaps in finite groups of Lie type is currently moving very quickly.  I won’t try to summarize the state of the art, but you can expect in the medium-term to hear something about an interesting application of Harald’s work to arithmetic geometry.

Tagged , , , , ,

An unsettling image from Mifflin

Dear college men of Madison,

The correct answer to the question “Where should I apply my Axe cologne?” is almost never “Right here on the street.” The correct answer to “How much Axe should I use?” is almost never “the rest of the bottle.”

Tagged , ,

Wisconsin math conquers Britain

This year’s winners of the Churchill Scholarship have been announced — and of the fourteen US undergraduates who will spend 2010-11 at Cambridge studying the sciences, three have studied math at UW!  Daniel Lecoanet is the first UW undergrad to win a Churchill in 30 years; he was my research assistant for two years, carrying out experiments on low-height points on P^1 over cubic fields that were essential to the production of this paper.  Two other winners, George Boxer from Princeton and Maria Monks from MIT, are former participants in Ken Ono’s star-studded REU program in number theory.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Getting that A, by means fair and foul

This week’s Capital Times leads with a story on grade inflation at UW-Madison.  I’m with ex-chancellor John Wiley on this:  “Grade inflation is one of those topics that initially seem clear and simple, but become murkier and more confusing the longer you think about them.”  I more or less stand by what I wrote about grade inflation in Slate in 2002.  The discussion on grade inflation has improved since then, actually:  I think people generally understand now that our moral standing doesn’t rest on whether our shorthand for “student did fine, showed they basically learned the material, is about average among classmates” is “B+” or “C.”  The Cap Times focuses on the more important question of whether different grading standards between departments creates weird incentives for undergraduates.

“I’m trying to get into medical school and it’s frustrating,” says Sheala M_____, a junior majoring in pharmacology and toxicology.  “I can work my butt off and come out of school with a 3.5 in my major, and a women’s study major going pre-med can come out with a 3.9 due to a much easier schedule. All of my courses have very strict policies — some where only 10 percent or 20 percent can get A’s.”

If you like statistics and large .pdf files you can look directly at the source of the article’s numbers: the registrar’s data for GPA in every department in Madison in 2008-2009, broken down by course number and class year.  For instance:  Sheala M_____ is required to take statistics, pathology, and biochem, which have average GPAs around 3.  (All give well above 20% A’s.)  The courses in her major, on the other hand, will be  in the pharmaceutical sciences department, where the average undergrad GPA is 3.43 and 46% of the grades are A.  The corresponding figures for women’s studies are 3.5 and 48%; not much of a thumb on the med school admission scales.  (Remember, the women’s studies pre-med has to take orgo too!)  That said:  I think the weird incentives are real and I think they’re bad.

Meanwhile, at my alma mater, Winston Churchill HS in Potomac, MD, up to 50 students may have broken into the school computer system and changed their grades.    The description of WCHS’s current reliance on computer-graded multiple-choice tests is sort of depressing.  But the worst part is I now have to stop making fun of my friends who went to high school with Blair Hornstine.

Tagged , , , ,

well, did we, okay did we determine that Moebius maps were like isometries or whatever?

From the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English, a 16,000 word transcript of an undergraduate math study session.  In case you ever wanted to know what it really sounds like when students work on our homework.

S1: what if- what if A plus B, equals two times Y and C plus D equals two? [S3: yeah. ] it just has to be proportional so you can’t break it up… but if we have A and C being whatever, then let’s make them something that works.

S2: like one?

S1: let’s… like what if you made, A equal Z and C equal one or something.

S2: but they can’t equal whatever because in the bottom A over C has to equal Z.

S1: i know. [S2: okay ] you make it so that it works.

S2: so you want A to be equal to Z, and C to be equal to one.

S1: okay, so what if we do that…? well no then that gives us uh, Z in the Y equation. unless B equals like Y minus Z or something well it could be done… it’s gonna get complicated though… so if A equals Z,

S2: i think this sucks.

Continue reading

Tagged , , ,

Jim Carroll is dead

I don’t have many firm ideological beliefs about novels, but here’s one:  you can’t write a good novel by good luck.  No matter what your life story is, no matter what a raconteur you are, it takes years of practice, intense attention to boring detail work, and thorough rewriting if you want to produce anything worthwhile on the page.

Also good luck, of course.

You can’t have a good hearty ideological belief without a counterexample, and mine is The Basketball Diaries, a beautiful memoir/novel which was more or less a greatest hits collection from Jim Carroll’s diary, ages 13-16.  I like the way it shouldn’t be as good as it is.

I used to buy used copies whenever I’d run across them and give them to people.  I gave one to a girlfriend in college.  (For college friends, the one whose name rhymes with “I need a DJ on Ramadan.”)  She gestured in the direction of her bookshelf, where there was already a copy, and said “Men always give me that book.”

I’m pretty sure she didn’t mean that to be as crushing as it was.

Tagged , , ,
%d bloggers like this: