Job Security Calculus: Reasoning about our futures

Most aGraphic from have a love/hate relationship to teaching, and especially teaching Calculus.  Prior to the first exam of the semester, it seems that everyone in the class is there for learning’s sake, discussing ideas, engaging in problem-solving.  But we worry that we are providing too detailed feedback (that those more jaded might argue some students don’t even read).  Or that we spent too long creating the perfect exam when a not-so-perfect exam will do and afford us more time for research.  There are some who see their teaching as the perfect complement to research since it reminds us as we watch students stumble through our courses how we too are stumbling, just on the brink of discovery.  We are  warned nonetheless by our seniors of “liking teaching too much”.

But Catherine O’Neil, the author of MathBabe is worried about those Calculus classes disappearing.  As MOOC’s take over the function of teaching Calculus to the masses, there will be less need for Calculus Instructors, and therefore less need for Research Mathematicians at all but the most elite institutions.

While finding an academic job is already pretty difficult, she thinks it’s only going to get harder.  Dr. O’Neil writes:

“But for my younger friends who are interested in going to grad school now, I’m not writing them letters of recommendation before having this talk, because they’ll be looking around for tenured positions in about 10 years, and that’s the time scale at which I think math departments will be shrinking instead of expanding.”

What do others think about the future of research mathematics?  With 60 comments posted after her entry, its clear that many people have some opinion on the matter.  An early career mathematician, Kaisa Taipale, who is visiting at Cornell and got her PhD the same year I did (2010) writes on the Limit Institute Blog  about a recent panel she attended at the JMM about MOOCS:

“The economics, one of my favorite puzzles, recurred several times in discussion. Robert Ghrist and Tina Garrett both said that making a MOOC or a SPOC was not cheap or a real cost-saving measure. It comes out of tenured faculty time and perhaps special pots of administration money. I asked about the position of postdocs, graduate students, and others who might participate in online education initiatives …. There was some discussion of the fact that universities or colleges might hire adjuncts to do online courses in particular, which did not thrill me. Time to get into management I guess. There was universal acknowledgement that intellectual property and copyright rules have not yet been standardized. Patricia Hersh asked about the economics of asking recent PhDs to produce high-quality math materials for K-12 teachers. Hmmm… I have heard of no such official effort, and the economics are indeed interesting.”

By the way, The Limit Institute has a nifty mission: “The Limit Institute for Mathematics, Innovation, and Technology (LIMIT) is a loose affiliation of mathematicians at all levels of training and employment. We are interested in how technology is changing how we carry out math research, teach math, and even understand what mathematics is.” And it doesn’t hurt that they quote a Paul Simon lyric on their homepage.

For the cynics (like myself), the answer may be to seek jobs outside academia.  Izabella Laba wrote a post on her blog The Accidental Mathematician remarking on the lack of advice for those seeking non-academic jobs, especially on the AMS website.  She is seeking good sources as she will be helping to update the AMS site.

To me, the most significant point is that we should be thinking about these issues as a community and deciding how to best face them.  While the everyday pull of research, teaching, grant deadlines, and committee meetings, we may look up and find that administrators, businessmen, and bureaucrats  have made  all the decisions on behalf of mathematicians.  While Dr. O’Neil thinks relying on billionaires is not the right way to go (see her post ), there may be other alternatives.  How do you see MOOCs as changing the landscape, if at all?

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