New Editor-in-Chief

To all the readers of the AMS Graduate Blog,

First, let me say thank you all for supporting mathematics graduate students (possibly even your fellow graduate students) by reading the blog! I am very excited to announce to you all that the AMS Graduate Blog has a new Editor-in-Chief. As of this Fall, Jasmine Camero will be taking over as the Editor-in-Chief. Jasmine is a second year Mathematics Ph.D. student at Emory University. I am very excited to see the future of the blog under her supervision, as I am sure you all are. So a warm welcome and congratulations (not to mention big thank you for all the future effort) Jasmine! She will be introducing herself better than I ever could in a future post soon.

Posted in Announcement, Editorial Statement | Leave a comment

Pedagogy of the oppressors

It seems like everyone these days has got teaching advice. The sheer volume can be overwhelming, but it’s heartening that most of it seems to be centered around how to treat students (and ourselves) more humanely amid health and economic crisis, and growing consideration of inclusive teaching practices. The movement away from lecture-style one-way teaching towards active and engaged learning has been building steam for decades. But I suspect the existential alienation derived from weeks of speaking at a screen-sized void of black boxes with name-tags must have made even the keenest lecturers think that something might be off in their approach. I always valued humanity and engagement in my classrooms. But I’ve definitely tried to step it up in the past year, thanks in part to the chorus of voices that has risen in the education blogosphere in renewed support.

Valuing the humanity of students sounds like something so obvious that it need not be expressed. But the lecture-exam style that has been dominant in Western higher education for the past century or more, along with its neoliberal attitudes about competition, does tend to treat students rather more like absorbent sponges than human beings. The idea that the fact of students’ humanity should actually inform how we approach our time in the classroom is neither new nor dare I say attributable to any particular individual or group. All I can say is I find it both heartwarming and odd that humanizing and egalitarian ideas are being applied inside the bureaucratic architecture of universities that are run like businesses, within the larger landscape of a hyper-individualistic and capitalist society. But try don’t let these contradictions make you feel cynical — maybe this is how slow revolution works.

A purpose of traditional academic devices like exams and grades is to stratify students. They (we) are conditioned to think of themselves as perpetually comparable and ultimately unequal. It has been said that an education system is the most effective device for a society to implement and reproduce its internal order. So in a mythically meritocratic society, exams and grades make perfect sense. If you didn’t get an A, you just didn’t work hard enough. (Same goes for you on your academic job hunt, amirite.) But do modes of education that are intrinsically anti-hierarchical have a place within brutally unequal and hierarchical academia? Apparently yes, if you can back it up with data. Statistics, those faithful friends of the bureaucrat and businesswoman (which wave of feminism is it again that was about liberation through private enterprise?) are finally revealing to us that when students participate in creating their own educational experiences and are allowed to discover things for themselves, they (a) are more satisfied, and (b) learn more. In the administrator/economist’s view of student as both consumer and intellectual-capital-in-progress, we have happier customers and more effective future laborers. It’s the same principle behind those giant slides for employees at Google, or even the free coffee in your department. And you thought it was because they loved us.

Some statements about teaching: I believe in participatory modes of learning. I think that encouraging student ownership of the classroom will better lead them to ownership of knowledge. When learners engage with each other and work together to reach a goal, there is unpredictability and dynamism that is undeniably fun to witness. I have felt the greatest satisfaction as a teacher watching well-designed activities set a classroom abuzz. I was attracted to these practices instinctively at first, but now I realize the political ramifications of educational styles. Yes, sorry, teaching is political too. But not just in content; rather in form. To quote a phrase, the medium is the message.

Inquiry-based approaches, active learning, math circles, “student centered” what-have-you. What they have in common is the decentralization of knowledge, the ceding of authority by the so-called teacher and the vesting of same within a community of learners in dialogue. Some of the terminology and practices as we know them in the 21st century university seem to be sanitized versions of radical pedagogical theory going back through Marilyn Frankenstein[1] and Paulo Freire to the early 20th century anarchist escuela moderna (modern school) movement, and I’m sure further still. (There’s another thesis there that would be fun to have time to write.) Commonalities can also be found in more palatable alternative educational philosophies like Montessori and Waldorf, which do not openly challenge the social order. Adherents have sworn by these practices based on direct experience, moral principle, and gut feeling. But when science eventually certifies that they are safe and effective, institutions run in.

It is easy to dismiss radical ideologies that prioritize humanity and freedom over any kind of measurable produce as deconstructivist nonsense. It is not too much harder to see that evaluating theories by their quantifiable outputs will inevitably lead to the convalidation of theories that are centered around maximizing measurable outputs. Rest assured, scientists and big tech are hard at work trying to figure out both ways to induce and measure that elusive quality of “real human experience,” but humanization with a profit motive is probably something to be suspicious of. I’ve always had some unease about the pedagogy training provided by the higher ed industrial complex, fearing a similar perversion of noble ideas for the sake of bottom line.

I want my students to have rewarding and transformative experience in the classroom because I value and respect their humanity. But I’m not totally sure my institution values and respects mine, insisting on in-person classes this Fall while continuing refuse to provide health insurance to graduate student workers. I want my practice of education to lead to a freer and more equal society. But how can it when a degree costs a few hundred thousand dollars, administrators make around fifty times what I make, and so many of my students are the children of the one percent? Not to mention that the name of building I work in and the person to whom the glory of the math department goes is someone who literally owned human beings, went to war for it, was swept to US Congress atop a wave of vote-suppressing racial terror, and whose legacy to the university was making sure it was re-established as exclusively white after Reconstruction. Never mind, let’s just think about how can we make teaching more transgressive at this institution. Let’s brainstorm how a university can be simultaneously diverse, equitable, inclusive, and elite. Is there a manual on education of the overclass as the practice of liberation? Am I joking?

Even if they don’t give me health care, one thing my institution does offer me is teacher training. Probably yours does too. The acronym is always a mishmash of the same letters: CELT. They offer an abundance of advice and support for engaged (or excellent) learning and teaching. They care about our well-being, and want us to succeed as teachers. When we were upended trying to figure out online teaching last Spring and Summer, they contracted a private ed-tech company to offer us free online teaching training. The university made us go back in person anyway, but CELT was there again! They supported us with assessment workshops, syllabus prep help, and support for all the tools we had to learn to make the experience of education in a pandemic more accessible and humane, plus some online yoga sessions! The big joke about going back in-person was that of course everything had to be available online anyway what with hundreds of students infected with COVID on a given week, many more needing to quarantine, and an even greater number realizing that professors had no good way to make them accountable for going to class — it’s like a hybrid model but where no one tells you ahead of time that you have to teach hybrid. I think they call it HyStress. But the promise of the humanizing experience only in-person education can offer really justified the expense to the university, which really threw down for capital-assisted safety protocols and education enhancements (you should see the warehouses they built us to teach in). More importantly, it was worth it to students and their families as well.

The discourse around research, that other pillar of our professional development, is a bit more honest about its premises. I have been counseled many times against going into this area or shifting toward that because that’s where the money is(n’t). You wont find a job. No one will care about what you do. But what is it useful for? This is the standard criterion by which scientific and intellectual exploration is judged nowadays. It is magnificently simple and reasonable, seemingly unimpeachable. Yet the question betrays an imperialistic framing of the whole business of science. If there is plunder to be had, all else be damned.

The insinuation is that knowledge of nature is not worth much effort unless it can be exploited for human purposes. Nature is to be dominated. Scientists are not the high priests of modernity because we have a culture that truly values broad intellectual practice. It’s because scientists have “done so much for society.” Only science could save us from a pandemic. Only (military-backed) science could build the internet, get us to the moon, or develop weapons capable of ending wars. Fused with capitalism, science will soon take us to Mars. Scientific manifest destiny is a nearly unquestioned ethic in contemporary culture. We don’t often like to think about the fact that the very predicaments we need science to get us out of are also the same ones science got us into, by, say, technologizing warfare in the first place, creating the conditions for human population boom, and devising extractive uses for every animal, mineral and vegetable on this decreasingly green earth. We may be forever chasing that dragon.[2]

It’s tempting to map the problematic and imperfect pure/applied mathematics distinction onto the divergent values of personal intellectual freedom vs. measurable social utility. But just like education reproduces its own organizing social structure, “pure” mathematics research also operates by a subordinating and self-perpetuating force. Math research is a patriarchy. Your legitimacy as a mathematician is granted according to your ability to master the style and body of mathematics of the great (men) who came before us. Once you do that, you are granted the freedom of solving your advisor’s problems. If you are really top-notch, you will solve your advisor’s advisor’s problems — stuff that the elders couldn’t figure out. Do this, and they will give you awards and professorships named for the patriarchs. Cultural progress in mathematics is measured by the rate at which these honors are bestowed upon women and people of color. But the system can remain intact regardless of who sits in the chairs.

There are relatively few incentives for producing liberated mathematics research (if such a thing exists). If it is not useful to society (broader impacts) then it better at least answer some questions the elders had (intellectual merit). In either case, the primary personal attribute our system rewards is mania because that’s the fuel of scientific production, and it doesn’t cost your dean a dime. Just a little bit of humanity off the top. Competitive academic market pressures are squeezing us to always do more with less, just like globalized capitalism squeezes workers in other industries. We are trained in academia to get used to a mentality of scarcity. Scarcity of jobs, scarcity of funding, scarcity of time to explore our imaginative and curious sides. Scarcity of time to engage with students! I think students were starting to get wise that their interests were being subverted to scarcity ecology of the professoriate, which is why the universities had to respond and set up things like CELTs in the first place. So were back to the question — how can educators deliver liberatory education from within a system that is wringing them out?

The neoliberal model of education as commodity, and its correlate patriarchy in academic research, is a deeply engrained system. Its power seems inescapable. But, as a hero reminds us, “so did the divine right of kings.” We must seek transformation collectively; no one individual has all the answers on how it should work. And probably doing teacher trainings and making use of the resources of CELTs and their like is part of the way forward, despite the apparent macro-inconsistencies. At the very least, these workshops (should) get us in dialogue with one another. But I’m sure this is not enough. The arc of an academic career does not in general to bend towards broader freedom and justice. You might have to go out of your way for that.

There are many good discussions happening about these issues and how to effect change. To name just one other source, check out Abolition Science. But if you also need some escape into fantasy, try Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed. It was recommended to me by a fellow graduate student some years ago, and I recommend it to anyone else looking for a vision of the pursuit of truth in a society removed from profit-motive and imperialism. (Also for sci-fi nerds, it gives the back story of a device for instantaneous communication across space called the ansible, which term/device appears in lots of later works from many other authors (notably the militaristic Ender’s Game series).) I see this book as something like solarpunk for mathematicians  — a prefigurative work that can help us move toward a better future by envisioning it for us. But it’s an ambiguous utopia. It’s never clear whether you have to abandon the world you know to get the one you want, or whether transformation is forever possible from within.

As a final note, the thoughts and observations shared here come out of conversations with my family, friends and community. I claim no ownership. I am grateful to the AMS for the opportunity to write for this blog and for encouraging open discussion among mathematicians. Any deficiencies or offenses caused, I do own.

[1] Thanks to this blog post for making me aware of Marilyn Frankenstein and critical mathematics pedagogy.

[2] Try Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven if you want to marinate on this point for a while.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on this blog are the views of the writer(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the American Mathematical Society.

Comments Guidelines: The AMS encourages your comments, and hopes you will join the discussions. We review comments before they are posted, and those that are offensive, abusive, off-topic or promoting a commercial product, person or website will not be posted. Expressing disagreement is fine, but mutual respect is required.

Posted in Mathematics in Society, Teaching | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Networking to get the most out of the Virtual Joint Mathematics Meetings

By Pamela E. Harris and Abbe Herzig

In addition to sharing our mathematical work, the Joint Mathematics Meetings (JMM) provide a valuable opportunity to network with other mathematicians. Networking allows you to learn about other people and what they are doing, meet them, help them know who you are, and generally share ideas about mathematics, education, the profession, or any other topics that you might want to talk about.

This year with JMM being held virtually you might wonder about options for networking and how to make good use of them in this new format. As you prepare to embark on some virtual networking during JMM you should check out the advice provided in this eMentoring blog Networking Basics for Math Undergrads. Although the advice provided is targeted for  in-person events, much of it continues to hold for a virtual conference. In particular, we suggest the following for virtual networking events.

Prepare for a networking event in advance:

  1. Create a virtual business card. This can be a google document with a sharable link where you can provide your name and contact information. You can also include where you are in your mathematical journey (Undergraduate/graduate student/on the job market, etc.) and any specific mathematical interests (“interested in algebraic topology”). Bonus points: turn your long sharable link into a tiny url to get a personalized short link with your name on it. Remember to make this document available to the public! You could also share your LinkedIn profile or personal webpage, if you have them.
  2. Have a second document ready so you can keep track of  contact information of people you meet, or that they share in a chat. This might be a document you save to your desktop, or you could also have a link to share where folks could write their contact information as well. This will be a helpful resource to you later, so you can follow up and build professional relationships.
  3. Upload a photo to your AMS profile and also in the Zoom platform, so that when your camera is off a picture of you is still displayed. This will help people remember you.
  4. Update your name as you would like it to appear and so that people can see it displayed in the Zoom window. Feel free to add your pronouns.
  5. If there is an individual or a group of mathematicians you’d like to meet, look at the JMM Virtual Program to see where you can find them (the JMM program is posted on Mountain Time). You can also attend some general networking events, which will be announced in the program email you will receive each morning of the meeting.

While in a networking session:

  1. Turn on your camera, even if only briefly. We understand everyone’s bandwidth (literal and metaphorical) is different. So this could be just initially to say hello and then explain your bandwidth limits and turn it off. If possible, display your photo as mentioned in item #3 above.
  2. Introduce yourself. Prepare a brief introduction in advance, and consider posting the link to your virtual business card, LinkedIn page, or personal webpage in the chat (see #1 above). If you are in a breakout room or talking with different people, feel free to share it again if you meet others you want to connect with.
  3. An online gathering is different from an in-person one in several ways. Online, if you do not show yourself or speak up, others may not know you’re there. Find ways to make your presence known–make a comment, ask a question. Don’t know what to ask? Try “Can you tell me more about that?” or “How can I find out more?” or “Can you recommend something I can read to learn more about this?”
  4. Step out of your comfort zone. You do not have to talk to everyone or enter every conversation. It can help to prepare some questions or comments in advance. Most people enjoy talking about their own work, so a question about their research can be a good ice-breaker.
  5. Stay in contact with the individual after the conference. A simple email the day after, where you remind them of your name, institution, and the topic of your conversation, can go a long way in building a new professional relationship. Asking a question about their work in the email can keep the conversation going.

You will find other helpful ideas at these posts from the eMentoring blogs:

You will have the opportunity to use these skills by joining the eMentoring Network and the AMS Department of Education for the informal networking session Networking for better mentoring on Friday, January 8th from 12:00-1:00 pm Mountain Time. This informal discussion will address questions like: What is mentoring? Who is a mentor? What can students expect from a mentor? Can good mentoring practices be taught? How do people find mentors? How can we adapt our mentoring to be better advocates for those most marginalized within the mathematical sciences? What lessons have we learned about mentoring in the past year, especially with the move to virtual platforms? These and other questions like these will guide our session, whose goal is to network for better mentoring.

Anyone registered for JMM can join Networking for better mentoring through the JMM Virtual Program.

We hope to see you there!



Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on this blog are the views of the writer(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the American Mathematical Society.

Comments Guidelines: The AMS encourages your comments, and hopes you will join the discussions. We re- view comments before they are posted, and those that are offensive, abusive, off-topic or promoting a commercial product, person or website will not be posted. Expressing disagreement is fine, but mutual respect is required.

Posted in Advice, AMS, Conferences, JMM | Leave a comment

A Reflection on Giving ONLINE Talks

By Dr. Laura Colmenarejo and Andrés R. Vindas Meléndez

Acknowledgments: Special THANKS to Matthias Beck, Sophie Rehberg, and the Discrete Geometry Group/The Villa at FU Berlin.

Dr. Laura Colmenarejo is currently a Marshall H. Stone Visiting Assistant Professor at the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Andrés R. Vindas Meléndez is a PhD candidate at the Department of Mathematics at the University of Kentucky.

Early in 2020 during, January and February, the second author was visiting the FU Berlin Discrete Geometry group where they held a weekly “soft skills” seminar and one of the topics was on how to give a good talk.  After coming back the second author wrote “A Reflection on Giving Talks,” where he compiled some feedback he received about a talk he gave and the advice presented in the soft skills seminar.  Putting the advice into practice for in-person talks was short-lived since the coronavirus has pushed the field to modify the way seminar and conference talks are presented: ONLINE.  

In November, both authors were invited to facilitate the soft skills seminar on the topic of online talks.  Both authors have experience in organizing and facilitating online math conferences and seminars.  For instance, the first author co-organized AlCoVE (Algebraic Combinatorial Virtual Expedition) in June 15-16, and FPSAC (Formal Power Series in Algebraic Combinatorics) during July 3-30, with 27 talks and more than 50 posters distributed during a total of 12 virtual sessions distributed among time zones all over the world.  The second author co-organizes the Discrete Combinatorics, Algebra, Topology, and Statistics (CATS) seminar at the University of Kentucky and the Graduate Online Combinatorics Colloquium (GOCC).  Moreover, both authors participated in AIM UP (Advancing Inquiry/Inclusion in Mathematics Undergraduate Program), a virtual research experience for undergraduates,  during July 6-31 where they mentored undergraduate students on projects focusing on parking functions

Despite the transition to mainly online talks, much of the advice in “A Reflection on Giving Talks” still holds, but we detail a few points here related to online talks with the hope that they may help others in their preparation and presentation of online talks. 

Preparation Ideas:

    • Prepare some slides or notes that you can use during your talk. Some seminars use the following rule: 20 minutes for a pre-seminar + 10 minutes break + 30 minutes for the research talk. The pre-seminar should be aimed for undergraduate and graduate students. 
    • Leave space to annotate during your talk, or even to answer questions. 
    • Leave space for small examples that you have done before, but do not do long or complex computations during your talk. 
    • Take special attention with the colors and the font you will be using. 
    • Preparation reflection: What’s your goal for this talk? Collaboration, presenting results, describing a new project you are working on and the problems you are looking at, etc. 
    • Know your audience by asking about it in advance or looking at the seminar/conference websites or list of participants. You could also attend another session of the seminar if it is a recurring meeting. 
    • Have back-up technology or presentation in case something does not work.  For example, at one seminar a speaker had trouble using their tablet to give their online version of a “board talk.” Fortunately, this speaker had prepared a PDF with notes that they then screenshared and filled in details if needed. 
    • If possible, make your slides/notes accessible before the talk. Have a link ready or file to share with the audience.

On the day of your talk:

      • Pre-talk ritual: these days it is hard to focus and get into the mood for a talk. Find a few things that help you prepare to give a talk. For instance, review your notes, meditate for a few minutes, listen to some music, eat something.
      • Turn off the notifications on your devices, so you are not disturbed during your talk.   
      • Prepare the physical space from where you will be giving your talk: make sure there is good light and that you look good on camera, have some water or another drink nearby, check that you feel comfortable talking to the camera with how your setup is.  
      • Connect a few minutes earlier, between 5 and 10 minutes, and schedule your talk for also another extra 5-10 minutes after the end. 
      • Check with the organizers if there is some pre-talk or after-talk informal meeting or tea-meeting with the audience.

During your talk:

    • If you cannot see the chat, let them know and ask for someone to interrupt you in case there are questions posted on the chat. 
    • If you feel uncomfortable with having all cameras off, invite some collaborators or colleagues and ask them to have their cameras on, or ask the organizers to do it. 
    • Check with the audience that they can hear you without issues and that they can see your pointer as you move it around on your screen, whether it’s your laptop mouse or a pointer from an app. 
    • Recall that many people still take notes during talks, and take your time delivering your talk and give space for people to ask questions. One good way could be to pause for 3 to 5 seconds between slides. 
    • Recall that the audience is watching you as much as your slides and your attitude and mannerisms matter.
    • We should be mindful and minimize going between screens and technical-setups or switching back and forth between windows.  Minimize pressing a lot buttons to avoid confusion for yourself and to not distract from the point of your talk. (Thank you Sophie for this point!)

After your talk:

    • Follow up on questions that were interesting and that could lead to collaborations. 
    • Take notes of what did work and what didn’t, of typos in your slides, or interesting notes that you could use during future talks (both related to the research and about the experience). 
    • Post-talk ritual: Talks are intense and require a lot of energy from us. Take some time to relax, hydrate and eat something, before switching to some other tasks. 

Other ideas:

    • Giving the same talk in different seminars/environments lead to different experiences and there are many factors that affect how we feel about our talks. Some of them are related to us and we can work on them, some are not and we cannot control them. 
    • Be yourself before the talk, during the talk, and after the talk. 
    • Include jokes or have a list of topics to talk about before or after the talk if you are not comfortable in those situations.

We hope you have fun and enjoy giving your online talks! 



Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on this blog are the views of the writer(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the American Mathematical Society.

Comments Guidelines: The AMS encourages your comments, and hopes you will join the discussions. We re- view comments before they are posted, and those that are offensive, abusive, off-topic or promoting a commercial product, person or website will not be posted. Expressing disagreement is fine, but mutual respect is required.

Posted in Advice, Conferences, Grad School, Math, Mathematics Online, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Early-Career Discussion and Social Hour

Hi, I am Anil! Caleb has graciously opened up the AMS Graduate Student Blog for me to plug an upcoming event at the Joint Meetings this week. I am one of the organizers of the Early-Career Discussion and Social Hour, which takes place Thursday, January 7, from noon to 1 PM MST. In this post, I will give some quick background on how this event came about and what you can expect to get out of it.

My first JMM was in 2015 when I was finishing up my PhD and interviewing for jobs. It was by far the biggest conference I had ever attended, and I recall feeling pretty unsure about what I was supposed to do there. Luckily, a good number of my grad school friends were in the same boat, so I had a little “conference crew” to hang out with in the evenings. I have attended every JMM since then, and after five years of networking (with the help of great organizations like SIGMAA-ARTS and Project NExT), I finally feel like I have an established crew to hang with when I arrive.

Back in January 2020, I reached out to some contacts at AMS and offered to help make JMM more inviting to graduate students and new PhDs. What we ended up with is a series of networking events (see here) of which the Early-Career Discussion and Social Hour is just one component. My co-organizer Rebecca R.G. and I are hoping that this event will serve as an informal channel to discuss any issues or questions you may have about the early-career experience. Whether you are on the market this year or still a few years out, we would love to have you drop in and say hello! Most of all, we hope that the event gives you the chance to start filling out your “conference crew” for the years to come.

The event is listed in the JMM Virtual Program like any other session. To attend, simply access it through the Virtual Program and click the “Join Now” button (you must be registered for the meeting). Lastly, please note that events this year are in Mountain Standard Time. We would hate to miss you due to a time zone miscue!

Anil Venkatesh

Assistant Professor, Math and Computer Science

Adelphi University

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on this blog are the views of the writer(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the American Mathematical Society.

Comments Guidelines: The AMS encourages your comments, and hopes you will join the discussions. We re- view comments before they are posted, and those that are offensive, abusive, off-topic or promoting a com- mercial product, person or website will not be posted. Expressing disagreement is fine, but mutual respect is required.

Posted in Advice, AMS, Conferences, JMM, Jobs | Leave a comment