Universities in the time of climate change

This is the HTML version of my submission to the Proceedings of the JHU Workshop on Professional Norms in Mathematics, organized by Emily Riehl in September 2019. I gave a (virtual) presentation there, circulated a set of slides, and was in the process of writing a longer piece based on that when life started to get in the way. Here it is now, with updates to account for recent events. I owe much gratitude to Emily for her encouragement and patience.

1. My first attempt at this essay grew out of my frustration with common institutional responses to the climate emergency. “Sustainability” has become yet another bonanza for developers and manufacturers. New energy-efficient buildings are joyfully constructed, appliances are replaced as soon as a newer and slightly more efficient model becomes available. A typical sustainability webpage boasts of new construction, fundraising, and multimillion “green” developments, with a sprinkling of low impact feel-good projects on the side: bikes, straws, reusable coffee mugs. Institutions act as if “shop more, save more” were deep words of wisdom that applied to the environment, as if we could address a crisis of uncontrolled expansion by doing more of the same. As for the employees and customers, or faculty and students, we are expected
to allow ourselves extra time for construction-related detours on our way to work, yield the right of way to heavy machinery, take a yoga class if we discover that we have anger management issues, and otherwise continue as usual.

I spoke about this, remotely, at the JHU Workshop on Professional Norms in Mathematics in September 2019. I wrote in my set of slides for the talk:

Climate change will be hard on us, both physically and mentally.
Heat waves, wildfires, air quality, disaster preparedness and responses, power outages,
boiled water advisories, etc.: we will not be able to rely consistently
on modern age conveniences.

When the slides were circulated on the internet and blogged at the Azimuth, reactions were divided. One tech person on Twitter said that this was nonsense: we would be able to shield and air-condition a university in the middle of the Death Valley if needed, this would be an obvious priority given that the future of humanity depends on the continued ability of the smartest people to work in comfort. A few weeks later, under the threat of wildfires, the California utility PG\&E cut off electricity to various locations including the Berkeley campus of the University of California.

I also wrote this:

We will not be able to demand that everyone must operate at 100% capacity, 100% of the time. Employers will have to acknowledge that people are human, and plan accordingly. If lack of resources does not stop us, public health issues will do it.

I did not know that a global pandemic was just around the corner.

Continue reading “Universities in the time of climate change”

The varsity sports and the musical instruments

This time of year, everyone is applying somewhere. Graduate admission and scholarship applications, postdoctoral applications, tenure-track applications were due recently or will be soon. I’ve helped with a record number of graduate and postdoc applications this year, and that got me thinking about what’s required for such applications and how they’re sometimes evaluated on the flimsiest of criteria.

At one extreme, there’s NSF. Their grants are hard to get, their webpage can be difficult to navigate and I don’t always agree with their decisions, but if you apply for their postdoctoral fellowship in mathematics, you submit a research statement, a CV and the supporting letters, all of which are basically about your research. Even the “synergistic activities” and “broad impact” are expected to be work-related – organizing seminars, say, or perhaps volunteering on a Math Olympiad circle, as opposed to the college basketball team or the musical instruments you’ve played. You don’t have to arrange for a notarized copy of your undergraduate transcripts to be sent by snail mail, either.

The Canadian tri-agency criteria, on the other hand, consist of “academic excellence”, “research potential” and “interpersonal, communication and leadership skills”. NSERC weighs them 30/50/20 at the Ph.D. level. The first two criteria are clear enough; the third, less so. According to these guidelines:

Reviewers will assess evidence of leadership both within university and outside; communication skills as evidenced by publications, presentations; and interpersonal skills as evidenced by reference letters and other work experience.

Communication skills can be reasonably easy to evaluate: if we can’t make out heads or tails out of your research description, we mark you down. But leadership? Interpersonal skills? The funding agencies don’t really place any restrictions on what should or should not be included. Some of the candidates are confused by the whole idea. Others list everything they can think of: the high school choir, the soccer team. I can’t blame them.

A Killam postdoctoral fellow at UBC should:

Be likely to contribute to the advancement of learning or to win distinction in a profession. A Killam scholar should not be a one-sided person. . . Special distinction of intellect should be founded upon sound character.

I wonder if this Harvard student might be a perfect candidate:
Continue reading “The varsity sports and the musical instruments”

Networking, part I

You’re a graduate student due to finish soon. Or perhaps you’ve just started your first postdoc appointment, or your first tenure-track position. You’ve heard many times that networking is important for your career. Unfortunately, you’ve gotten very little specific advice on how exactly you’re supposed to do it: who to approach, how to write letters, how to attract attention to your work, what to do at conferences.

I’m planning to write a few posts about networking – its goals, its mechanics, its traps. (Especially its traps. It’s a rather entertaining subject.) Please keep in mind that this is not A Mathematician’s Complete Guide To Networking. I’m not qualified to write one, and besides, there are plenty of complete guides on networking, habits of effective people, and so on at your local bookstore. What you’ll find here is a variety of things that I wish someone had told me way back when.

We’ll start with an excerpt from Zahir by Paulo Coelho, which I read last summer. I’m not sure that I buy the somewhat questionable metaphysics therein, given how much of it runs contrary to my own life experience. However, Coelho’s social observations tend to be right on the spot. Some, such as this description of the crowd at a literary award ceremony, are absolutely priceless:

I draw up a catalogue of the kind of people who attend events like this. Ten percent are Members, the decision makers, who came out tonight because of some debt they owe to the Favor Bank, but who always have an eye open for anything that might be of benefit to their work […] They can soon tell whether or not the event is going to prove profitable or not, and they are always the first to leave the party; they never waste their time.

Two percent are the Talents, who really do have a promising future; they have already managed to ford a few rivers […]; they have important services to offer, but are not as yet in a position to make decisions. They are nice to everyone because they don’t know who exactly they are are talking to, and they are more open than Members, because, for them, any road might lead anywhere.

Three percent are what I call the Tupamaros – in homage to the former Uruguayan guerilla group. They have managed to infiltrate this party and are mad for any kind of contact; they’re not sure whether to stay or to go on to another party that is taking place at the same time; they are anxious; they want to show how talented they are, but they weren’t invited, they haven’t scaled the first mountains, and as soon as the other guests figure this out, they immediately withdraw any attention they have been paying them.

The last eighty-five percent are the Trays. I call them this because, just as no party can exist without that particular utensil, so no event can exist without these guests. The Trays don’t really know what’s going on, but they know that it’s important to be there; they are on the guest list drawn up by the promoters because the success of something like this also depends on the number of people who come.

Something to think about next time you attend a conference banquet or a departmental social event.

There’s a whole lot that could be said here, but I will keep it down to two things. One is that you should not mistake social popularity for a professional reputation. Mingling with people can be fun, and free food and drinks are always good, but the bottom line is that your professional reputation is based on your work and not on your interest in mingling. In other words, networking works much better once you have something to offer, because then people start to see you differently. A person with better social skills will be able to get a better deal selling their work, but if you have no work to sell, then social skills will get you a free sandwich and a cookie.

Second – according to Coelho’s statistics, most of us are Trays most of the time. Did I mention already that there is nothing wrong with free food and drinks? But before you go, you might want to think about whether the event has any other purpose than socializing and, if so, whether you support that purpose. Your presence can count as a vote. It’s a good idea to be aware of this.