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.”

Thursday, April 14, 2016

This Blog, Mentoring, Mentoring Oneself, Coloring Books

In this blog I try to give suggestions for doing better as a scholar. The advice and suggestions are meant to be helpful rather than monitory, and lots won't apply to any single reader. I seem to be a good mentor (several such awards) and I have been around long enough to have seen just about every sort of pathology and nonsense, in the lives and work of graduate students to senior professors. 

I am surely subject to my own suggestions, even if it is easier to give than receive, even from oneself to oneself. I seem to have made just about every mistake in the book (see The Scholars Survival Manual), from graduate school on, but have been able to have a productive and interesting scholarly career nonetheless (9 books, lots of articles, my share of fellowships and grants, and a job!, and I continue to work) and bring up my son--it's a matter of taking what you have done already and making use of it, I guess. I have worked in several distinct scholarly areas, and for me they feed on each other.

 I rarely hear of something that is not just like previous cases.

PS  I don't receive much feedback, but I am pasting below one such response. It pushed me to write the above post

I am responding not to this email but to an email you sent a few weeks ago about writer's block... I wanted to let you know that it was EXTREMELY helpful to me as I working to complete my paper. I was suffering from severe writers block... I was frustrated and concerned that I might have to drop out of the program because I just... couldn't... get... anything valuable (I thought) out of me.  I fall into the overly critical of myself category, by the way...

Based on the suggestions from the article, I started to engage in more creative pursuits to help me get unstuck. I'm not very artsy so I started coloring in those adult coloring books to relax my mind and give me some free head space to think. At first I have to admit, it was weird  to be coloring when I SHOULD have been writing... but I would go into my home office and sit at my desk, open my computer, pull up my paper and color for a few hours, shut down and walk out... After about a week of this... I suddenly got an idea for my paper... So I wrote it down. Next thing I know I had been writing for 3 hours... It has been that way ever since. Sometimes I am quite prolific and have lots of ideas and write for hours, other times... I just color. Either way, the creative distraction is helping.

Now, just a few short weeks later, I write more than I color, but I keep the coloring book close at hand and color as a "break" during a writing session.

Thank you so much for all of your helpful advice. I think all doctoral students should get a coloring book at orientation. :)

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Aiming High, When Others Do Not: We want a university of which the football team can be proud.

In 1922 George Lynn Cross, coach of the team, said this to the Oklahoma legislature.

We want a university of which the football team can be proud.  

I thought of this a propos of some conversations I have had of late.

Some of you may feel if you stand out in your work (where you publish, your visibility in the profession) you may well find there is some resentment among your colleagues

I believe that may be the case. Their argument will be that you do not do enough service, you are too devoted to your work and external scholarly meetings and invited presentations, and being out there, and not being stuck with the scut work of the department, or your work is really not serious, or it may just elicit lower annual ratings than are warranted--or other reasons too wondrous to imagine. There is a legacy of "the average" (or cutting down those who stand out) at many a university that goes way back. Deans and the provost want excellence, but as a consequence they will find that more than half their faculty does not look so good and are reluctant to challenge that half. Being smart and successful and ambitious might work at MIT or Berkeley or Columbia, but perhaps it is a mixed deal at your institution.

For the sake of your university, aim high. Do you very best work, feed your ambition with achievements that are extraordinary, be as prominent as you can be outside your home institutions. If they do not reward you appropriately, and recognize your excellence, other universities will.

I am not suggesting anything dramatic, or suggesting that your university is a weak institution. However, your remarks reminded me of what I sense at many an institution, and what I gather happens at promotion and tenure committees. Perhaps all this has disappeared, but I think not.

Also, it is crucial that you not get shanghai'ed into heading too many committees or institutes or centers--if such duties will slow down your scholarly work. In the prime of your career, as you are, you need to focus on family and work, making sure you do not kill yourself with overwork. [One example, recently: one school had a faculty member as its vice dean for administration or some such. The dean realized that what the school needed was more scholarship, in quantity and quality. Now a non-tenure-track faculty member is the vice-dean. And the pressure and freedom to produce scholarship falls to the former vice-dean--appropriately.]


I was talking with my sister, and she suggested that my following my own nose, rather than doing what was expected, did not mean that others appreciated what I was doing and hence I might well not have been as rewarded as I "ought" to have been.

Now, I really cannot complain. I have received my share of grants/fellowships, published lots of books and enough articles, and I have a job!--where I have been able to write many of those books and tend to my family, and teach more or less what I wanted to [the secret here was to invent courses that met specific needs, or undergraduate, or were manifestly interesting, or make courses into what I wanted to do, or say Yes! to whatever they needed to be taught], and live in a good place. I got paid! I knew what I was getting into when I started, since I had just been at a top university and before that a more average one, and before that at a top university. And I did need a job! I did not have alternatives or choices, to speak of, at least a university despite two books and the rest. I am grateful for my job.

My point here is that following your internal compass, one that has been guided and molded over the years by the strongest institutions and teachers, is what you should be doing. I know that you have choices, and I suspect that for the next 5-10 years you will get nibbles regularly. But, that freedom to point your work in the direction you wish is perhaps the biggest reward for our profession. To be able as well to attend to your family, both your spouse and children, and your parents, is the other reward.