Monday, July 25, 2016

Mentoring Our Colleagues

I have been asked to mentor some of my colleagues, especially those earlier in their careers. I am not an agent of our dean or the university, rather my focus is on being of use for the person I am talking to.  Here are some discoveries I have made, often surprising to me.

1. Although planning is a profession, and we are seen as a professional school, there is ambivalence about applied vs. theoretical work, or so my colleagues tell me they perceive in the system. I tell them to work on their most important problems and fields, and we can justify its theoretical or applied nature once we have the work in hand. Faculty's major contribution is to choose problems or issues and pursue them vigorously--that is what they can provide to the profession and the university.

2. People who have quite nice publication histories are worried about having enough stuff. Someone told them they should publish, say, two articles a year--but this is in fact rarely done, and often done by those who publish with many co-authors. Of course, you have to have a substantial contribution in terms of pages and appropriate venues. But what you want to focus on is the contribution to scholarship made by your work and your contribution to jointly authored work.  Hence, you want to write two brief statements.
     a. the contribution to advancing scholarship: what are the two or three main contributions that distinguish your work. This should be no more than 200 words.
     b. What you did in joint work. This is not meant to go through each paper, rather to indicate generally your role: pose question, fieldwork, grant getting, writing,...

3. You are not a professor for 5-7 years, but for a career that may well last 30-40 years. So you want to write a statement, again less than 200 words, that is a description of your planned trajectory for the next 5-8 years, and perhaps some long term objective if you might discern one.

4. Often people are so buried in their work, in putting out papers, writing grant applications, whatever, they are not explicitly aware of what it is they are doing. You want to write a statement of what you are up to, what you are trying to do, again 200 words. This is the proverbial elevator speech, albeit such a speech actually is likely 100 words.

All such statements should be understandable by a dean or a provost who is not in your field.

5. Some people are unable to convert drafts and working papers into published work. One needs to take on one or two or three such drafts and for each one devote a day to getting it into shape. No more than a day. Show what you have to a colleague. Take their advice and submit it to an appropriate venue. In other words, take the risk of rejection, but also there is the pleasure of doing work.

6. If you are pursuing a serious line of research, research that might deeply affect your field [no more than ten percent of us are so engaged], make sure you are not diverted by duties other than teaching. There are so few of you, the university and the field need you. Tell your dean or chair or whoever is diverting you that you are engaged in this line of research, and you must get it out while it still might be important.

7. If you are coming up for tenure or promotion, it is a good idea to look around and see if there are other institutions that would be better for you. Your own institution may not value what is has in front of itself, and they only way they wake up is if you are being bid away. No threats to leave, for you don't want them to tell you to go. But deans do not want to lose the faculty they wish they could keep because they did not realize what they needed to do. And if your institution does not rise to the occasion, very very graciously indicate that you are grateful for all the your current institution has invested in you, and now you are moving on to a place that will allow you to make further and deeper contributions. You may be denied tenure, but another institution may value you appropriately. And then go out and do a bang up job, and let your current institution realize the errors of its ways.

8. What's crucial is what others think of your work--especially those most prominent in your field at the strongest institutions.

9. There may well be monsters in your department who are trying to do you in. Consult with your closest colleagues and see what you might do. And of course seek other positions. Again, your colleagues may well be too unwilling to take on the monster, but they ought pay for their lack of courage.

10. If you discover you don't like writing, or don't like teaching, or hate your institution, move as soon as is possible.  Find a role that suits your strengths. It's awful to be an eternal associate professor in the modern university. Somebody up there really wants you--find that somebody. Again, thank your colleagues profusely for bringing you to where you are, and don't look back. If you choose to have a career at a research institution that is not a university, or in a consulting firm, or perhaps in finance or whatever, keep in mind that some of your former colleagues are envying you, and more importantly you are likely making more money and having more fun now. Some of us do not want to take care of other people's teenage and young-adult children, and that is no shame.

There will be more added to this list....

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Publicizing Your Work

You disseminate your work through presentations at meetings, through scholarly publications, through invited talks at other institutions. You may write popular articles. You may well have a web page and even a blog. (If you want help in setting these up, please ask me. There are easy cost-free ways of doing this nicely.) And I am sure you send out preprints or offprints or electronic files to colleagues elsewhere, as well as the ssrn network or arXiv. In general, we work much harder at doing our work and writing it up, than in making sure it is appreciated more widely. As you must be aware, publication is only the beginning of having your work become impactful, and often it is the last move, your having given talks about the work at various institutions and received comments from audiences so making the published work much stronger. (We all read the acknowledgements in papers, where the venues are listed, the useful readers mentioned, etc. This is part of an implicit claim thatthis paper is important.)

As I have mentioned before, I have been doing brief podcasts for Academic Minute. They offer me a chance to give an "elevator speech" to a bigger audience, so to speak. Actually, I have no idea of the size of their audience. For me, the value lies in my being forced to say it all in about 1'40", something like 275 words. You might consider this venue. I am sure there are other venues that are better. Think of this a way of focusing your thinking. I have placed below a link to my podcasts.

Just for those of you who think all of this is vulgar self-promotion: I know of no distinguished scholars who do not engage in publicizing their work, often shamelessly so. (It's not the self-promotion that makes them distinguished, it is the work itself. Lots of scholars who are excellent at promotion may not achieve distinction because their work is not so strong.) They are telling the scholarly community of their research, and that community, by definition, should be interested in advances and improvements. There are no quiet geniuses, as far as I know. (Even the scholars who are recluses make sure that the "right people" know of their work, and know that those right people will publicize it. If they don't formally publish, they send out working papers. On the other hand, unpublished articles and books, especially if they are longstanding, are dismissed unless you have a very distinguished list of previous publications.)


Here are some of my podcasts:

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Making your work stand up to criticism.

Recently, I have been rereading chapters in two or my earlier books, from 1996 and 2003 (2nd edn, 2013), with echos from my 1992 (2nd edn 2012) book. I have been trying to understand why various counting procedures, arithmetically adding up individual interactions in a city--lead to macroscopic accounts that exhibit scaling symmetry (eg. fractals)--things look "the same" at various scales. (In the last twenty years this has been a recurrent theme in empirical research, and actually goes back a hundred years at least, as in Bachelier's work on security prices.) 

There are similar phenomena in mathematics, so that a way of packaging all the prime numbers into a single function--Riemann's zeta function--was shown by Riemann (1850s) to be related to a function that exhibited scaling, the theta function (earlier in the century, Fourier used theta to describe the flows of heat), where the world looks the same at various scales. [You know this from the central limit theorem of statistics, where a sum of gaussians is a gaussian at a larger scale.] Or, somewhat differently, in a spatial model of a city, where interactions among people or institutions is only with your neighbors, we might have remarkable city-wide phenomena such as homogeneous neighborhoods and heterogeneity among neighborhoods. [That this might have been sourced in zoning, red-lining, discrimination, Tiebout sorting, geomorphology, is surely the case. But even without such, you get this heterogeneity of homogeneity.] Yet, if it becomes a bit more difficult to maintain such neighborhood interactions (much as has upset neighborhood commerce), one again sees such scaling behavior--with homogeneous neighborhoods adjacent to differently homogeneous neighborhoods, and regions that are comparatively homogeneous next to differently homogeneous other regions (each region itself exhibiting that heterogeneity of homogeneity).

My point is that one wants to write in such a way that if you look at what you wrote 20+ years ago, you want to feel that you did a good job then, even if you have subsequently discovered improvements or errors. You want to tell yourself something to the effect that you are surprised that you had been able to do that then. "I knew that then?" (Surely, in retrospect there will be passages you are embarrassed about, as well. Even whole articles.) 

The secret is to write carefully, to say just what you know to be the case, to separate out speculation, and to make your arguments clear and cogent. For 20 years from now, you will be the audience, the readers of your work (now) who are not you.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Could Your Department be The Warriors: Character, Strength in Numbers

NOTE   If you would prefer another team, say the San Antonio Spurs (with Duncan, Gino'bili, and Parker) I am sure we can make the change in the remarks below.

In watching the Golden State Warriors vs. the Houston Rockets yesterday, there was a clip where the Warriors' coach Steve Kerr said something to them to the effect that how they would play today would show their character. And when Steph Curry could not play in the second half, Kerr referred to their theme, Strength in Numbers.

Schools and departments are ranked and evaluated as a whole. Professors may see themselves as individual scholars, and evaluated as such (salary, offers from other institutions,...). But we as a school are evaluated as a whole, in the rankings, in students' choice to attend our school, etc. In effect, detailed information about individual faculty is less influential in these evaluations than is that overall impression (surely affected by your stars and the depth of your bench). 

That means that we must have Strength in Numbers. Showing up with our students at the relevant meetings, publishing in the most-read, most-prestigious journals, invited to give talks at the right places as well as everywhere else. Franchise players, like Steph Curry, do not make the Warriors so formidable without their being part of a team who has the character to deliver when Curry is not there.

The next five years aare a chance for us to show our character, and to instantiate Strength in Numbers. For departments and field committees, that means a sense of focus as departments and degrees. For research centers, that means that not only are centers sources of scholarly publications, they are as well sources of syntheses so that they provide informed overviews of policy in their area. For individuals, not only must we step up our quality, we need to figure out how to help our colleagues do so as well. (Quite crucially, we need to figure out what not to do, what tasks to lay by the wayside, so that we can focus on what is most crucial. We cannot do it all, and we cannot play injured for long.)

What I am talking about is likely quite incredible, since leading a department is likened to herding cats. We are going to have to coach ourselves, since there is little reason to believe that instituional demands on chairs and deans will enable them to be coaches as well (but if they are Steve Kerr-like so much the better). Perhaps geniuses are a dime a dozen, as in that quote I sent you. But we can make each other's work better and more effective. 

You will readily note that I have no practical prescriptions. I know it is difficult to change individuals. I write this under the influence of watching basketball on television on a Sunday afternoon. I'm hoping that we can over the next few months, as we sculpt our departments, figure out how to show our character and have Strength in Numbers.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Edward Teller, Genius, Safety. Emil Artin (mathematician) on course loads, and insisting on teaching freshman calculus

 From Dyson's Biographical Memoir of Edward Teller for the National Academy of Sciences
If you want a genius for your staff, don't take Teller, get Gamow. But geniuses are a dime a dozen. Teller is something much better. He helps everybody. He works on everybody's problems. He never gets into controversies or has trouble with anyone. [Tuve's letter of reference to Chicago for Teller]

A much larger fraction of Livermore bomb tests failed [than those at Los Alamos], but Teller considered failed tests as a badge of honor...

Safety must be guaranteed by the laws of nature and not by engineered safeguards. [Teller on reactor design.]
From Bulletin of the AMS, vol 50,#2. Emil Artin was one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century.

While at Indiana, Artin taught three classes each semester plus the graduate seminar, which he held on Monday or Tuesday evenings, depending on the term. He taught across the mathematics curriculum. In the fall of 1940, for example, Artin taught8 • Math 210a, Advanced Calculus, • Math 357a, Relativity, • Math 334a, Algebra and Number Theory, • Math 322, Graduate Seminar. In the spring of 1945, he taught • Math 103a, Trigonometry, • Math 210b, Advanced Calculus, • Math 213, Differential Equations, • Math 322, Graduate Seminar.

Later at Princeton: Indeed, Artin initially declined the position because “the Fine Chair does no teaching. I will not give up my freshman calculus course and so I must respectfully decline the honor.” Apparently Tucker consulted with university lawyers about the exact terms of the Fine endowment and they determined that voluntary teaching was permissible. With that issue resolved, Artin accepted the Fine Chair.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Talent and Top Performance: The Role for Those With More Limited Talent is Still Wide Open

I am sure that at the top of the performance hierarchy, natural talent matters. Below that, and including at that level, one must be hard-working, practice lots, be reasonably intelligent, disciplined, etc. My feeling is that for most professors in most fields, they are well below the top, and those characteristics of hard work etc matter the most. There are some fields, mathematics, musicianship, ... where you do have to have lots of natural talent to get anyplace at all. And if the university tenures people only after two books or after about ten years (Harvard, MIT, ...) , with stellar references, it's likely that more of its faculty has both high performance and natural talent.

On the other hand, if you have some natural talent, it is easier to get better and that may affect your willingness to work. More generally, matching your self to the potential role/work is important.

What this adds up to is that many more people can be trained/educated for many of these roles dealing with uncertainty. And some people will prove to be naturals, others will not but will be more than good enough and quite committed (the trouble with naturals is whether they are willing to be committed, be coached, realize they are not quite as good as they might believe).

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Sitzfleisch, NOT "Passion, Tenacity, and Grit" advertises on radio to the effect that they will help employers find workers with "passion, tenacity, and grit" (=PTG).  And "grit" is now the term of art, combined with "resilience," to talk about how those less well off might succeed. (Those better-off benefit from ties and backgrounds that make PTG less important than manners.) It is striking that little is said about specific abilities in specific jobs, as if talents were not paramount in some fields.

In scholarly work, PTG is majorized by talent and Sitzfleisch. You have got to do the work, roughly on time, with the requisite quality and quantity. It helps to be "brilliant," but it matters more to have a modicum of talent and the ability to sit down at your keyboard and write and rewrite (of course having done the research). It also helps to make systematic connections in your field, disseminate your work, and train students. Distinguished professorships are for the most part occupied by well-behaved and likable yet qualified scholars. Similarly, membership in national academies surely depends on your being qualified, but as important is that a bunch of people feel like they owe you (rather than you owe them). One of the major tasks of academy members is to get their qualified institutional colleagues into the national academy.

Of course, there are extraordinary scholars, and some of them receive the distinguished professorships and academy memberships, but surely not all. We might say that the market for honors satisfices.

The message for you is Do Your Work, and keep doing it, publish and disseminate your work orally. And assume that if you are not doing this your unknown competitors are doing their work and publishing and disseminating.

For example, in a study in the history of mathematics, a lone American (A. A. Albert, U Chicago) cannot really compete with a school of German mathematicians (Noether, Hasse, Brauer...)--who as a group not only collaborate, but keep secret their progress yet elicit from the lone American his progress. So it surely helps to have terrific colleagues. But in the end, you have got to do the work. If you live long enough you might well receive recognition, and surely you or your students will be able to herald your achievements while the competition is now under ground.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Technology and Equity

Freeman Dyson is a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study. He wrote an essay, "Science in Trouble," in about 1990. Here is an excerpt (my italics),.

Attacks against science are likely to become more bitter and more widespread in the future, as long as the economic inequities in our society remain sharp and science continues to be predominantly engage in building toys for the rich. To forestall such attacks, whether or not we feel guilty for the sins of society, the scientific community should invest heavily in projects that benefit all segments of our population. Such projects are not hard to find, and many individual scientists are working on them, working long hours for meager pay. Scientists can participate in the education of children and teachers in poor neighborhoods, or in the staffing of accessible public-health clinics… What is needed is a major commitment of scientific resources to the development of new technology that will bring our derelict cities and derelict children back to life, If our profession does not put its heart into such a commitment, then we shall deserve the passionate hatred that we shall sooner or later encounter. 

Dyson's remarks struck me as important, although I am quite willing to believe I am the last on the block to think this way.

Rodney Ramcharan pointed me to Goldin and Katz's The Race Between Education and Technology (2008), as being to the point of Dyson's concern. I then found a review article by Acemoglu and Autor that goes further, and I commend it to your attention--

I suspect that many of you are aware of this literature and are up to date. I was only dimly aware of it (Becker,...), and so AA's paper is a nice survey. The point is that education matters enormously, but our system of providing such has broken down--at least for males, and the structure of the skills needed has changed as a consequence of technology, hallowing out the middle-skills except for those that are human-caring centered.

Actually, none of this addresses Dyson's concern about toys for the rich, but what for the less well off? He was thinking of the Superconducting Super Collider (eventually killed by Congress, early 1990s), it would seem, and scientists as greedy--and perhaps other sorts of science would be good to encourage. None of this has to do with scientists doing their work for charity, or that science and technology have raised the lots of the poor or that such often raises the lot of all, as some have interpreted the quote.

As for the less well off, males mostly it would seem, AA suggest that the problem is to make the education system work much more effectively for them at least through community college.

Again, this says little about our investments in science. 

Making Appointments, Promotions, Tenurings Stronger. The Analogy with Recruiting in Football...

Listening to an AM sports station this morning, there was talk about NFL recruiting. The announcer spoke with some confidence, yet with provisos and backing out, about teams and whom they might recruit given the teams' current composition. Lots of stats and lots of interpretation of those stats.

That started me thinking about our future colleagues. My remarks are of course already part of our current rules, but perhaps thinking in terms of athletic teams might be useful for colleagues, chairs, deans, and the provost. I realize that the long term is very different for us than for most sports.

1. Every case should be accompanied by an evidence-based indication of future promisespecific achievements in the next five years, more general ones in the longer run. Of course, contributions during the probationary period or during the career up until now play a dominant role.
2. Marginal cases need extraordinary justifications. If a golden egg is about to be laid, perhaps we need to see the egg about to come out before we take it as evidence. As we say, if the university is to move up, each candidate needs to be (potentially) stronger than perhaps 2/3 of the current faculty in that department or school.
3. Considerations of the composition of the department or school (the "team") are important, because the world evaluates a university by its "teams." What do you (chair, dean) need to move up? There should be little problem of protecting faculty rights given these considerations.

4. We might even write a brief memo about each such appointment, promotion, and tenuring, about hopes and demurrers, and then check up on how things turn up in five years.

As for such advice to higher ups:I like the following (with no implications that I am in Langlands' league or game):

In 1967, Robert Langlands, as an assistant professor, wrote a letter about his ideas in mathematics to one of the great mathematicians, Andre Weil (Simone Weil's brother). Langlands turned out to be in Weil's class, and The Langlands Program is ubiquitous these days. Langlands wrote, “If you are willing to read it as pure speculation, I would appreciate that; if not — I am sure you have a waste basket handy.”