Careful what you wish for…

So around two months ago, as the novel coronavirus was just breaking in the Western media, I wrote a post bemoaning the culture of carbon-intensive academic travel. Funny — here we are, barely a quarter of the way into the year, and every conference in sight (including those I had planned to attend) is either cancelled or postponed for the foreseeable future. Let me say for the record: this is not what I had in mind. Sorry, everyone. Still, it’s hard not to feel some awe about the fact that air pollution over China has been dramatically reduced over the past weeks, and that the canals of Venice are shimmering their crystalline Adriatic blue thanks to the lack of boat traffic. My goodness, what happens when we all just stop for a bit?

But more importantly, what are the consequences for mathematics? ; ) While some are predicting that all of the at-home time we have in store will lead to another baby boom, knowing this audience I am going to predict… A MATH BOOM! Let’s face it, there is perhaps no sector of the population more suited to social distancing than mathematicians. Avoidance of public gathering is basically our lifeblood. There’s a reason some of our most renowned and productive research stations are isolated deep within the Black Forest, or in the middle of the Canadian Rockies. Unlike Ariel, we don’t want to be where the people are, because people have a well-known habit of messing with my concentration. This lockdown, we will be getting busy at home reading the papers in that special pile on our desk that only seems to grow in an ordinary semester, finishing proofs of tricky technical lemmas, and polishing up our pre-prints. I would bet on an observable uptick in arXiv uploads resulting from this whole situation, at least for us, the tribe of the portable research lab, pencil and notebook.

Disclaimer #1: Contrary to popular stereotype, mathematics is very much a social and collaborative activity, and there is no reason to believe that isolation is a beneficial precondition for its pursuit.

On the other hand, many of us are busy gearing up to face the bugbear we’ve steadfastly avoided for years — online teaching. After participating in a few trainings about (insert commercial video-conferencing service), I have to say it’s honestly better than I thought it would be, and even the dinosaurs of the department seem to be taking to it pretty well. It seems at least the basic task of communicating course material to students will be achieved at a reasonable level, though I’m still a bit skeptical of the substitute systems for evaluation and feedback on coursework. I’m concerned that the extra distance and technological hurdles will prevent students from taking the opportunities to talk one-on-one with their instructors, and also that instructors may fall into patterns that reduce their levels of availability. Then again, there may be some students that find the modes of electronic communication less intimidating than, say, showing up to office hours. Plus, blah blah millennials blah blah digital natives blah, right?

Disclaimer #2: I know there are many people out there (workers of many stations that do not have the luxury of working remotely, and healthcare workers in particular) for whom this pandemic is no frivolous affair. I wish them health and safety, and I hope my levity does not offend them.

While educators are making the online transition for our courses, it’s a little perplexing that more conferences aren’t doing the same. There are likely others, but I only know of one conference which was planned to be in-person and is making the switch to virtual (and it’s run by hardworking graduate students, on top of it all). I think this is great for at least three reasons. First, as early-career mathematicians, the ceasing of all conference activity for a long period could be injurious to our employment prospects, if indeed there are any jobs left when all the coronavirus dust has settled. Second, this will be a good excuse to have social contact, feel more normal, and less alone. Talk of virtually reviving the graduate student colloquium in my department has come up on these grounds. Third, thinking more long-term, I think something really cool could come out of this. The conference organizers are giving speakers the option to record presentations to upload, and such presentations, if well prepared, could be a real asset to people’s research profiles.

Think of having on your webpage not just a vague one or two paragraph description of your research plus links to papers, but also a 20-minute accessible video presentation on your work. This could take forms much more creative than your typical recording of a chalk talk at a conference, and really open up the world of math research — both amongst ourselves and to outsiders. I realize this is not a radically new idea: the promise of The Internet 2.0 was basically that we were all supposed to become content creators. As is often the case, academicians lag behind culture; but the video conference is a great excuse to think hard about how to produce good expository media about one’s own research.

I imagine this not as a way to supplant conference talks or research papers, but to supplement. The culture of academic publishing is such that research papers read dry and obscure to those outside the subfield, and (as a senior researcher and journal editor recently told me) there are (some) good reasons for this. But very often this style is a tool for exclusion. I am sure I am not alone in having had the experience of a professor handing me a paper or telling me to go read one as a way to make me buzz off. They don’t expect you to come back, and often they are right.

Lucid, informal, and big-picture explaining is usually reserved for talks, but on the one side, we can’t always make it to everyone else’s talks, and on the other (as AndrĂ©s points out), it’s a lot of work to put together a well timed and executed talk, only to do it once. It would be nice to be able to capture all of the thought and effort that goes in for posterity. I mean, your own work is the math that you should care the most about presenting — there’s no reason that the online calculus and algebra cartels should have a monopoly on well-produced, expository math videos.

Disclaimer #3: I have no idea how to produce any such media at present, but if I figure out anything cool, I will be happy to share. There was one tip in Mahrud’s recent post, and probably Mohamed Omar knows a thing or two as well.

Much is being made about how this is online education’s big opportunity, but this might also be a kick in the pants to the channels of research dissemination. I expect it’ll be rough at first, but when this dry-run is over, we may have some hard questions to face about how we’ve been doing things. At my university, (at time of writing) we are currently on pause to regroup with classes resuming on-line next week, and the virtual conference is next weekend, so I can’t yet really make any judgements on the tenability of these digital alternatives. In the meantime, I would be interested to hear how it’s going for graduate students in other places. Is your institution handling this pandemic very differently? Did anyone’s semester/quarter just get postponed or cancelled entirely? Is anybody being forced to move? What about plans to take quals/graduate/find a job? Are international students’ visas or applications being affected? Is your advisor taking advantage of the situation to really ghost you now?

I’m sure it’s still too early to really understand what this will all mean, so in the interim I wish everyone peace and safety, and that we can all treat one another with compassion. I hope to see you at the next virtual conference.



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About Aram Bingham

I used to be a Ph.D. student at a university in so-called New Orleans which is problematically named for Paul Tulane, and where I worked in something like algebraic combinatorics. I drink plenty of coffee, though I also sometimes turn kombucha into theorems.
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