To be or not to be there: Conferencing in the age of flygskam

I didn’t go to the joint meetings (JMM) this year. This is despite the following good reasons I had to go:

  1.  I’m in my fifth year, applying for jobs, and this is the time when you’re supposed to get out there and spread your name.
  2.  I’ve been a few times before and actually kinda enjoy the spectacle of the “world’s largest gathering of mathematicians.”
  3.  Flights to Denver were mega cheap, even as of like two weeks ago.

I even resisted some light pressure from peers and professors by staying put, and given the low airfare and reliable sources of on-campus support for academic travel, the trip would have cost me next-to-nothing. So why not?

A large chunk of the academic apparatus is set up to encourage you to travel. There are many grants available from many organizations to attend conferences, and travel support for attendees is one of the major budget items for many conference organizers. Many jobs include travel allowances, or require travel to present at conferences as part of the job description. Departments like mine seem to have sizable budgets for the express purpose of covering the travel expenses (and honorariums) of invited speakers who seem quite willing to travel many miles to spread their gospel. Travel is part of the job it seems – both a perk and a responsibility for the academic mathematician. Insofar as I can tell, there are a few source causes of the fact of academic travel, which I guess are obvious, but are worth recounting for what I want to say.

The first reason is personal. By disseminating your knowledge through the unique performative medium of a live-action talk, your work penetrates into mathematical culture and you become better-known to the community. You can also build your network by meeting folks with common interests in person, and perhaps sharing a drink or a bite. This can lead to collaboration, the production of new mathematics, and further opportunities to disseminate it, which I’m told also leads to jobs with greater prestige and pay. Briefly, geographic mobility begets social mobility.

The second reason is institutional. Imagine you already have a position of great prestige and pay. What cause do you have to get off your butt and go preach to the unwashed mathematical masses? Well, besides all of the personal incentives, your employer wants you to go out there because your renown is ultimately their renown. An institution accrues and maintains prestige by the the fact that its members are invited to speaking engagements, so they will want to make the mechanics of academic travel as easy as possible for you. The actual (as in non-rhetorical) you may have witnessed this system in action whenever a professor cancels class because they are out of town, or when you have been excused from your duties for same.

The last reason is similar, though more deeply cultural. Academia is replaying a decades-old fantasy which I think is common to many sectors of society: that the upper-classes are the jet-setters. Frequent travel is an emblem of status, and the other modes of academic life, namely those which demand contact with the immediate community, are subordinate to the higher purpose of missionary work. The work that requires travel, by its resource-intensive nature, must be limited to those of rarefied talent and ability. And while scarcity is the origin of this regard, in the present age of commodified luxury and full capitalization of earthly resources, it has become the norm – now you have to travel just to keep up with the Joneses. The gross domestic product thanks you.

A small perversion of this fantasy, it is no wonder that our community so celebrates the myth of Paul Erdös, the mathematician whose life was an amphetamine-fueled itinerant rampage of collaboration. From Erdös’ claim that mathematics was set back commensurately by his one-month abstinence from stimulants, one might also suppose that a refusal to travel could be injurious to mathematical progress. What self-respecting mathematician would abnegate their responsibility to speedily delivery the bounties of their enterprise by such refusal?

So here’s my real question. As highly educated people, we know that air travel is a particularly energy-intensive form of transportation. The emissions-per-passenger produced by a single transatlantic flight yields more CO2 than the average citizen of many countries produces in a year. Can we continue to justify our privilege of air travel for the sacred purpose of scientific progress when scientific progress also tells us that we, as a planet, cannot all afford to travel by air? Can we expect the peoples and nations of the world to take the scientific community seriously on climate change if we are not making strenuous efforts to reshape our own behaviors in accordance?

Don’t get me wrong: I love a good conference as much as the next person. I’ve had the good fortune of visiting places I would never have been able to afford or justify if not for academic travel. I’ve met wonderful people and been blessed to share a room or even a conversation with many mathematicians I greatly admire. I know there are experiences enabled by conference-going which have no substitute, and collaboration over video chat may never quite be the same as working at the same chalkboard. The expense of academic travel does bear value, yet I still don’t know if things have to be exactly the way they are.

It’s true, aviation only accounts for about two percent of all carbon emissions.  But this is complicated by the fact that the particular type of high-altitude emissions from airplanes can be more dangerous in the short term. Also, in the US, two-thirds of air travel is accounted for by the twelve percent of the population that takes six or more round-trip flights per year — the “frequent flyers.” I’m certain many academics are among this class. Do we need to stop flying? Probably not entirely, but I feel some hypocrisy knowing that we would be in real trouble if everyone started flying as much as we do. I felt this sort of guilt before I learned the Swedes had a name for it: flygskam, or “flight shame.” As soon as I learned this, I felt the rush of relief that comes with learning there are other people out there like you, and that there’s a name for you, probably like how X-Men (I assume the term is gender-inclusive) feel when Dr. X taps them and gives them context and purpose. Needless to say, now I’m devoted to spreading awareness of the term.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably confess that I attended an AMS sectional meeting in Hawaii last year, and I have to say it was great. But I feel complicated about this privilege. This meeting was very well attended, and I’m sure organizers bank on the appeal of a meeting in Hawaii, but the decision to hold it there is demonstrably not good for the planet when compared to alternatives. As Denver is relatively centrally located, maybe JMM should be there every year? Or if we really want to go for it, we could campaign for the construction of a carbon-neutral/negative conference center at the geographic/population center of the US (near the Nebraska-Kansas border, or somewhere in central Missouri, or somewhere else depending on how you measure), with connecting high-speed rail, to be used for all national scientific conferences.

There are also advocates of the video-conferencing approach. We know it has limitations, but if university courses can be conducted online and at massive scale with the assurance of comparable student outcomes, I don’t see why a video conferencing solution couldn’t be appropriate for some purposes. I think part of the solution here could be purely technical. Humans have been organizing traditional conferences for decades so the mechanics are both familiar and highly-developed, while video conferencing is still (in my experience) often clumsy and frustrating. If someone would design a slick and reliable platform for organizing video conferences, I could see this becoming a thing. Imagine one portal with all the conference abstracts, schedule, relevant chatrooms, etc., and then you could easily enter and leave sessions at your leisure… say, if I don’t get a job due to my lack of conference attendance, maybe I could start this business…

One study found that CO2 emissions due to travel for the purpose of presenting scientific papers accounted for only 0.003 % of the annual total, somewhere between the transportation emissions of Geneva and Barcelona. This sounds maybe not that bad. But I think what sets the climate crisis apart from other challenges is that
it requires action on all fronts. We won’t achieve our goals on reducing carbon emissions by singling out individual sectors that need reform. We need to create a culture which considers the impact of all of our personal and professional activities on the environment, and as scientists, high priests of this secular era, we are responsible for leading the cultural shift. If we aren’t going to stop flying to conferences (and we aren’t, I guess) we need to start thinking of ways to offset this activity. We need climate-consciousness to be baked into the process of conference organizing. I don’t know of any math conferences that are explicitly trying to address their environmental impacts, but I would like to.

To be clear, I’m not calling for any sort of a heroic abandonment of all air travel by the scientific community or advocating the use of sanctimonious hashtags (see #istayontheground). I’m sure I will fly again for a conference, and probably even use a paper cup or two for coffee when I have forgotten my reusable mug. I just want to point out that the path of minimizing the consequences of our own actions is too tempting for a community that should be taking leadership, and that this path is made even easier by the fact that individualistic resource consumption and accumulation is still de rigeur in this country in general. Non-conformity might initially require a little bit of courage, but I think it’ll be a bit easier for the rest of society, and result in less political strife, if scientists act first.

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.

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Dear first year, this isn’t something you can plan for (Part 3)

In case you want to catch up: here are Parts 1 & 2 of my first-year journey.

We like to think that our life stories have happy endings, perhaps that we can carefully partition our lives into fourths of each year, and successfully say, “Well, after I learned this, my life was great!” But anyone who has lived life — so, I suppose, anyone reading this — knows that that is not what life is like. Life is a continuous (not discrete!) story with changing hurdles. The gist of this series called “Dear first year, this isn’t something you can plan for,” is that if anything has, grad school has shown me how much truth the quote “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry” holds. Every quarter of my first year had some unexpected obstacle or victory and sometimes both, and sometimes the victory turned into an obstacle. The following is the story of my third quarter as a math Ph.D. student at Oregon State University, along with some thoughts that stay with me from that time.

I lived every term of my first year of grad school desperately hoping things would get easier. I still remember my first term as the most bitterly difficult of them all, but the truth is that each one of them — as my mentors warned me would happen  — were approximately equally difficult (I recently thought maybe I should just turn this series into a memoir about the entirety of graduate school, since this past term, my fourth at Oregon State and the first of my second year, was busy as all heck and I felt like I’d stepped out of first year into a fire). I started spring quarter with the hopeful energy with which I had started every other quarter: with a determination to excel in my courses and return to my peak mental performance.

Winter quarter ended with the knowledge that my first attempt at Ph.D. qualifying exams was about ten days in the future. By this time, I understood that this attempt would be my practice run: I had been so completely overwhelmed during the past two terms that I hadn’t had the ability to study as much as is necessary for these exhausting tests, so I was intent on studying as much as I could throughout spring break and giving it an “honorable effort.”

The analysis exam went better than I thought it would, but that’s hardly surprising, since analysis is my field of study. Linear algebra, on the other hand, went absolutely terrible — I left the exam early, knowing without a doubt that I’d failed because I couldn’t get much more than one problem out of four solved. Two weeks later, I received the predictable news that I had failed both exams. In my head, I tried to tell myself I didn’t care, but failing those exams only made that little voice whisper more persistently, You are a failure. You don’t deserve to be here. You don’t work hard enough. You didn’t deserve to be a Provost Scholar.

Spring quarter, my course load was Real Analysis III (focused on general measure theory), Complex Analysis, and Partial Differential Equations III (largely bent toward applied mathematics; the last four weeks or so we discussed important topics in fluid mechanics). The beginning of the term, I was so excited about working really hard in complex analysis: we had reading assignments and problems to solve for each class day, as well as the typical set of four or five problems to hand in at the end of each week. Unfortunately, these daily assignments didn’t work out quite the way I expected. I hoped they’d be fairly simple: instead, they would often consume two or three hours of my time if I wanted to actually, really understand (they were graded on completion). As a result, I was left little time to work on the weekly homework, which was graded extremely carefully for correctness. The class I was excited to do well in quickly became the class for which I pulled multiple all-nighters, rarely managed to finish the homework, and was convinced I’d fail.

I could compare the three or so years prior to the beginning of May 2019 to being encapsulated in the deflector shields Droideka wear in Star Wars. Inside the deflector shield was math, math, and more math. Sure, being inside the deflector shield wasn’t a cakewalk, and the shield temporarily shut down in January 2018 when I learned that the only grandparent I had been very close to, my last surviving grandparent, had passed away. But it went back up again, shutting me inside with my math and not much else of the world.

Around the beginning of May, the deflector shield had sustained too much damage to protect me, and it burst. I started experiencing wretched allergies (did you know that Linn County, Oregon is the grass seed capital of the world?) and had to go to the health clinic three or four different times to try to (unsuccessfully) combat symptoms of allergies which left me with about 50% of my normal hearing. I randomly got heat exhaustion, even after drinking many fluids, after volunteering at a math outreach event in Eugene for the afternoon and then going on a bike ride in a Corvallis heat wave. I later learned that the random nausea was likely to be attributed to my new medication, the only side effect of which I had yet experienced was annoying itchiness on my extremities. Completely unexpectedly, I experienced a few weeks of relationship turmoil and confusion — the romance ended as suddenly and dramatically as it had begun, but the turmoil and confusion consumed my mind for months after. Then I received the news during one of my four recitations that my business calc class’s primary instructor was going on unforeseen leave; the next day I was asked to consider taking over a 100-person lecture, which I imminently decided to do, since it would give fellow grad students the opportunity to receive a teaching assistantship for the remainder of the academic year. I found a new apartment and my car got towed, and partly as a result of those two things experienced my first bout of the financial trouble grad students notoriously face.

All of this happened over the space of about two weeks. I said the deflector shield burst, didn’t I?

Having written almost three of these memoir-ish posts by now, one would think I would know how to end them. Do I discuss what I learned from that time, what I advise others to do? But I am a candid person; I have learned that honesty, even when it is brutal, is the best course of action; I have learned that lack of vulnerability is one of the tremendous weaknesses of humankind. So I’m afraid I will never be the one to wrap up a post like this with a nice little bow and make it pretty enough to put under a Christmas tree.

Perhaps what I think of when I think about the chaos and emotional toll spring term took on me, I am most thankful for the growth I see in myself — and not only the growth, but the evidence I gave myself that I am brave. It was not easy to know that I had to stop seeing someone I really enjoyed being around, but I did have to for the sake of multiple people involved, and so I did. It was not easy to keep showing up to teach a class where attendance on Fridays was around 15%, but I had to because I said I would, and I did. It was not easy to witness the subsequent strife in the mathematics department and feel that I was its cause, but I stood equally for both sides of the argument, knowing that I had made a decision and that I had to stand by it, so I did. It was not easy to read insulting student evaluations at the end of the term, knowing that I had poured so much time and energy into this body of students and into being as clear and precise as possible, but I knew I had to take their insults with a measure of salt, so I did. I did not know I could be strong, but I was, and I can be, and I am.

And you? You are strong too. Unfortunately, it is not the case that merely because we are human beings sequestered in learning the most beautiful field of study (I admit to being biased), we do not have to experience the pain of real life along with the pain of learning. I say this not to be pessimistic, but rather to tell you that I am aware that it is hard, and that showing up is hard, and that if you are showing up, you are standing strong in a hard battle. Don’t give up! I’m rooting for you.


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 Advice, Grad School, Grad student life, Starting Grad Schol, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mathematics from arts?

Last Halloween I found myself the lone math student at a party, wearing a Springer Yellow Book costume. While I do not claim to be good at making costume decisions, to my relief people enjoyed a good “textbook costume” pun. Most of all, I was happy that nobody found my costume scary1.

After a while I started a conversation with a couple of people about our jobs and what we enjoy about it. I told them about the research and teaching aspects of my graduate program. This semester I was a teaching assistant for a lower-division Linear Algebra and Differential Equations course. I find this course to be quite fun to teach, because I get to help students develop a geometric intuition for abstract mathematics and point to wonderful applications of that abstraction.

As it turned out, one of the people in our group was a graphics design student. He told me about a project involving linear algebra, and how he wished that he had taken more math courses. He also mentioned using the Bézier curves in his classes. I had never heard of that name, so I wrote a note to look into it later. This conversation reminded me of something I had read in Jordan Ellenberg pitch for Outward-Facing Mathematics:

“Those of us who teach spend a lot of hours talking about math in front of students who have been forced to be there. That makes it easy to forget that people out in the world generally admire math and are excited to learn about it, if we give them a way in!”

Back at home, I looked up Bézier curves, which lead me down a delightful rabbit hole of computer fonts and automobile design2, and in the process I learned new math. In this post (and hopefully others) I am going to write about the wonderful mathematics that I learn inspired by people in other professions.

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A Defense of Diversity Statements in Hiring

Recently, Abigail Thompson, a Vice President of the AMS and Professor at UC Davis, wrote a short opinion piece coming out against the use of diversity statements in hiring. As I read her piece, I found myself troubled by some of the assertions and decided to do a bit of research to confirm my suspicions.

Before I dive into the gist of Professor Thompson’s argument, I think it is important to reiterate why diversity matters in mathematics. Here, I risk making Professor Thompson into a strawman; she’s not asserting diversity in mathematics is unwelcome, just that diversity statements should be removed from hiring. But humor me so I can climb on this soapbox.

First, creating a more equitable society and correcting past injustices that have disadvantaged underrepresented minorities is the most obvious reason diversity should matter. Of course, I have heard the rebuttal, “Yes, but why is it a responsibility of mathematicians to facilitate this change in our field?” Well, mathematicians have the power to enact substantial change by incorporating diversity initiatives into hiring, extracurricular programs, and candid reassessments of the academic climate. Sure, mathematicians may not cause systemic change in society at large, but undoubtedly academics have the power to influence climate and advocate for their values at their own universities.

More selfishly, collaborative environments benefit from diversity. A Tufts study on collaboration efforts of mock jurors found that diverse groups “deliberated longer, raised more facts about the case, and conducted broader deliberations” (6). While the Tufts study focused only on racial diversity, it is emblematic of a larger trend in social psychology which has demonstrated positive effects of diversity in a variety of collaborative environments (7). Crucially, mathematics is more collaborative now than it has ever been and, unfortunately, is not much more diverse (5). Through this lens, if we care about the advancement of our field, we should value diversity for its practical use in addition to its moral imperative.

Now, to the substance of Professor Thompson’s argument:

One of Thompson’s major planks is that a diversity statement is “a political test with teeth.” Thompson likens diversity statements to McCarthy-era loyalty oaths (back in the 1950s, the UC system forced faculty to sign pledges that they were loyal to America and not the Communist party, infamously firing those who refused to comply). Gently put, this is an odd comparison. Even if we accept Thompson’s claim that diversity statements are “political,” they hardly seem comparable to McCarthy-era extremism with respect to harm and disruptiveness. People didn’t sign the loyalty oath, likely because it aimed to exclude, isolate, or punish individuals for their political beliefs. A diversity statement’s entire purpose is to include historically excluded, silenced, or isolated minorities and allow them space in the academic community.

Moreover, is assessing whether job candidates treat people as individuals really a political statement as Thompson asserts? A person’s background influences the way they interact with most things–the classroom is no exception. Consider a student who can’t afford school supplies. Likely, that student will encounter challenges many others won’t: working a job outside class, distracting financial concerns, or even how to take notes each day. I’m not arguing that the instructor should give preferential treatment to this student; just that an inclusive instructor should strive to work with each student to help them realize their academic goals, being sensitive to the backgrounds different students bring into the classroom.

Studies also support the notion that individual identity influences performance in the classroom. For instance, two different studies (one conducted in Florida, one in Tennessee) found that having a teacher of the same race contributed positively to academic success (1, 2). Other studies reiterate that representation matters and that even math classrooms aren’t immune from the effect one’s background brings. For instance, a University of Massachusetts Amherst study found that “increasing the visibility of female scientists, engineers and mathematicians […] profoundly benefits [young women’s] self perception in STEM” (8).

While I agree with Thompson that treating people as individuals is an assertion of how society “ought to be organized,” I believe characterizing this sentiment as “political” misconstrues the meaning by associating it with partisan politics.

All of this is to say: it’s not political to treat people as individuals. It’s human and it’s logical.

Then, Professor Thompson criticizes the fact that “the diversity ‘score’ is becoming central in the hiring process.” Thompson’s language implies that other factors like caliber of research take a backseat to diversity which, when looking at the faculty of any R1 University, seems misleading. The New York Times rebutts this point best:

“The ethos [of mathematics] is characterized as meritocracy [and] is often wielded as a seemingly unassailable excuse for screening out promising minority job candidates who lack a name-brand alma mater or an illustrious mentor. Hiring committees that reflect the mostly white and Asian makeup of most math departments say they are compelled to “choose the ‘best’” […] even though there’s no guideline about what ‘best’ is.”

To paraphrase, hiring committees are just like the rest of us: subject to implicit bias. Certainly, the diversity statement plays a crucial role in patching “the leaky pipeline.”

Moreover, the diversity statement also communicates to underrepresented minorities that a math program cares about creating an inclusive research community. The University of Michigan recently conducted a study on academic attrition and found that, for underrepresented minorities, academic climate was a major factor in their decision to leave (4). In other words, stressing a department’s belief in the value of diversity helps positively shape department norms and combat attrition. The same Times article wrote about Edray Goins, a black mathematician who left a “better” position in a hostile academic environment for a department which emphasized inclusivity (3). Fortunately, Professor Goins chose to remain in academia, but his story is the exception, not the rule.

To her credit, Thompson ends by asserting that “mathematics must be open and welcoming to everyone, to those who have traditionally been excluded, and to those holding unpopular viewpoints.” Unfortunately, the substance of her previous argument makes these words feel empty.

If we truly care about increasing diverse representation in mathematics, we should pursue every available avenue. Diversity statements are only one piece of the puzzle, but they are important nonetheless.

1. Long Run Impacts of Same Race Teachers
2. Representation in the classroom: the effect of own race teachers on student achievement
3. For a black mathematician, what it’s like to be the only one
4. Exit Interview Study: Executive Summary, University of Michigan
5. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering
6. Racial diversity improves group decision making in unexpected ways
7. More sources on the value of diversity in performance
8. Female Scientists Act like a Social Vaccine to Protect Young Women’s Interest and Motivation in the Sciences, UMass Amherst Study Shows


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 AMS, Diversity, General, Interview, Jobs, Mathematics in Society, News | 2 Comments

CROSSWORD! (or: Diversion as a vehicle for conversation on power and usage)

There is so much that is peculiar, irregular, silly, or downright twisted in mathematical verbiage that, certainly, we could all benefit from some soul-searching on the language of our culture. Some of mathematics usage is confusing (e. g. overuse of “normal” and “regular”) and some irritating (personal peeve: persistent classroom use of “guy” to refer to mathematical expressions – I know anthropomorphization makes things friendly and all, but I’m not sure that thinking of all mathematical objects as “guys” is good for our ongoing gender problem). And then there are other things that just floored me the first time I heard them (um, “clopen,” anyone?), not to mention our obsession/affliction with eponymy and its discontents. There is a dissertation in linguistic anthropology waiting to be written on mathematical usage, and perhaps several that already have been.

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Posted in Crossword Puzzles, Math Games, Math in Pop Culture, puzzles | Tagged , | 1 Comment