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.

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My four languages

I have never known what it’s like to speak only one language. I speak four altogether: Polish (my native language) and Russian, English, and French, learned in that order. I’ve lived half of my life now in English, technically my third language but in truth second and competing for first. This sort of thing is common in Europe and among academics, and especially among American or Canadian academics of European origin such as me. It’s less common elsewhere, and I’ve heard all kinds of myths and misconceptions. I’m writing this mostly for those who haven’t had the experience.

I got an early start on Russian. I have no memory of not being able to speak it, or not reading and writing in both Polish and Russian. (I’m told that I learned both around the same time.) That did not make me bilingual. My family spoke only Polish at home. My mother knew Russian fairly well from her youth, though, and sang Russian songs to us sometimes. Here’s one. If you ever decide to learn Russian, you can’t skip Pushkin.

Polish and Russian belong to the same Indo-European language family. They’re often similar in terms of grammar and vocabulary, once you get past the Cyrillic alphabet. Yet the cultures are vastly different, divided by history, religion and ethnic influences. Neither one is exactly monolithic, either.

We’d buy children’s books from the Russian-language bookstore and read them alongside Polish ones. I often returned to that bookstore later on as a university student, this time for advanced mathematics books: monographs written by Russian mathematicians, Russian translations of English-language books, all incredibly cheap. I still have a few in my office.

Russian was mandatory in school back then. Poland was part of the Soviet bloc and there were Russian troops stationed throughout Poland, including in my home town. We resented that but sometimes shopped at their grocery store anyway.

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Via James Fallows, a link to a slideshow by Monica Tan:

[…] what (apart from BMI) would distinguish a white American within a crowd in Berlin or Manchester, or an Asian American walking down the street in Seoul or Beijing. The answers involved clothing, hair styles, heft, even head shapes — but most of all body language and the way people carry and present themselves.

Monica Tan is a writer from Sydney now working in Beijing, who may or may not be pictured at right.

I put it that way because Tan has produced a wonderful slide show challenging readers to apply their “judging nationality by appearance” skills. She includes a photo of herself, a Chinese Australian, among photos of eight Chinese-Chinese women of similar age. Thumbnails of all nine pictures are below. I encourage you to go to her site and page through the nine-picture slide show to see if you can tell which one of these women grew up in a rich Western country, versus the rest who were born and raised in China. Then, you can go down to the very bottom of her post, where she reveals who is who.

Indeed. Fallows claims that he picked out Tan right away, and so did most of his readers, according to his follow-up post. Here’s one quote:

I’ve never traveled in Asia or Australia, but I immediately picked out the Chinese Australian among the Chinese Chinese women in the slideshow at first glance. I looked at the photos several more times to attempt to figure out why it had been so easy, and the best I can come up with is that Monica Tan’s smile is bigger, she’s standing straighter, and her shoulders are more open.

Fallows and others mentioned posture, directness, confidence of stance. And that got me thinking…

Some of you know well enough what I look like. For those who don’t, here are a couple of photos from the last 2 years. The quality isn’t great. I don’t have many photos of myself – never got into that habit – and of those, there are fewer still that show me standing and facing the camera, as in Monica Tan’s photos. I’ve thought of having a photo taken specifically for the purpose of this post, then decided against it.

And this is me in 1981, at the age of 15.

Continue reading “Unslouched”

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”

Lillian Alling and the immigrant experience

The Vancouver Opera has just concluded a run of 4 performances of Lillian Alling, a new opera by John Estacio and John Murrell based on a true story. Lillian Alling was allegedly a Russian immigrant who arrived on Ellis Island sometime in the 1920s and travelled across the continent, mostly on foot, with the stated intention to return to Russia via Alaska and Siberia. In 1927, she was arrested for vagrancy and possession of an unlicensed gun and sent to prison in present-day Burnaby. She then continued her journey to northern British Columbia and may have reached Alaska; her ultimate fate is unknown. The writers took more than a little bit of creative license with this material, inventing a fictional backstory for Alling and an ending with a twist.

This is the second new opera that the Vancouver Opera staged this year, after Nixon in China, which I have also seen. Nixon was an unqualified masterpiece. It had the larger than-life theme, the grandeur, the mystery. The score moved back and forth between soaring Philip Glass-like orchestral pieces and sonic dissonances reminiscent of experimental jazz. The libretto… forget everything you’ve heard about opera librettos being silly and disposable. It was brilliant, poignant, poetic. The breathtakingly choreographed scenes, and especially the theatre performance within the opera, will remain with me for a long time.

You can probably see where this is going. Lillian Alling didn’t even come close. Musically, it was far more conventional, entertaining enough but not that memorable. The story didn’t necessarily benefit from the rewrite, either. The real-life Alling must have been a fascinating character, a woman travelling alone through any number of rough places. I would imagine her like Sharon Stone in The Quick And The Dead, determined and resourceful; there’s even a vague physical resemblance. I don’t know whether I would have identified with her, but I think I would have admired her at the very least. Alling the opera character is inconsistent: somewhat silly at first, then sympathetic once her true motives are revealed in the second act, then… then she does something far too naive for a woman who’d grown up in Russia, not exactly a kinder, gentler place, and then crossed the continent on foot. Give me Sharon Stone any time.

I’ve been asked whether I could identify or connect with Alling’s “immigrant experience” as presented in the opera. The answer is no. Here’s her immigration experience in a nutshell: her English gets mocked a few times early on (all good-natured, of course), then during her journey she takes a moment now and then to look around and exclaim that this land is so wide (or so peaceful, or whatever) – and that’s all. We’re given to understand that within a few years nobody will be able to tell her from an honest-to-goodness Anglo-Saxon Canadian. That’s par for the course in opera where realism isn’t anyone’s top priority and characters are supposed to be drawn with wide brushstrokes. But I can no more identify with her character than I would with a recycled Christmas gift of someone else’s Mary Sue.

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