A Halloween post about the scariest thing I can think of

I’m caught up on my grading. I’ve done more academic writing this fall than I have the whole rest of the year. My office is (relatively) clean. I’ve remodeled my bathroom. I’m even ahead on my ironing.

I wish I had a tenure dossier to procrastinate about every semester. I’d get so much more done.

Tenure Dossier by Mosaic36 on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

The deadline for my mid-tenure review materials is two weeks away, and for every item I add, I think of three more that I’ve forgotten about. The stuff that seemed trivial is fiddlier than I thought it would be. And the part that I’ve been bracing for – the narrative, where I lay out exactly why I’m a superstar professor – is still looming.

This is where I remember that the people in my department occasionally read this thing. Don’t worry Ann, it’s almost done. No you can’t look at it yet. I just need to tighten up a couple paragraphs before I’m willing to let people see it.

Of course the point of a dossier is that most of the work should already be done: you just need to put it all together for people to see. But I wasn’t anticipating how hard it would be to select the right things and tweak them to my satisfaction. I hadn’t updated my cv since I was on the market last time. Is it time to take my undergraduate research fellowship off of there? Sure it was 15 years ago and in another field, but c’mon, an award’s an award. Then there’s whom to ask for letters, which course materials to include, whether the formatting is right…

The big decision was whether to try to bring in years towards the tenure clock from my postdoc. According to my faculty code, I technically don’t have to declare that now, but the committee has made it clear that it would be helpful to indicate that in this review. I don’t think I will for a couple of reasons, the biggest being that there just aren’t many financial or other incentives to tenure early at my school. I’ve never once felt my academic freedom constrained, or worried about what the provost thinks about my choice of research topics. So especially with the hope of starting a family sometime soon, I don’t see a reason to push.

I also had a choice of submitting a binder for my dossier, or making an electronic version. I chose the latter for the convenience of everyone involved. But typically our electronic dossiers are done via Blackboard, as if this whole process weren’t painful enough. When a friend described taking screenshots of her documents in order to post them as .jpgs to get everything to look right, I balked. Getting full control over a personal webpage at my institution has historically been difficult as well, so I got my own domain. And since my web design skills never really made it out of 1998, I installed WordPress to handle that. It’s been well worth the minor hassle of setting it all up, and I’m really happy with how easy it is to edit pages and add files.

So now it’s two more weeks of dumping content and handwringing over minor details that will probably either not be noticed or will be wrong according to somebody no matter what I do. I’ll post more specifics about what I’m including in coming weeks, and definitely more details on what people tell me to fix. In the meantime, fueled by tonight’s leftover Halloween candy, I’m just going to keep uploading until it’s done.

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Thoughts on Inclusion and Simons Collaboration Grants

The Simons Foundation recently released new eligibility requirements for their Collaboration Grants for Mathematicians. These grants fund five years of collaboration-related expenses for a total of \$8,400 per year.  In previous years, the foundation accepted applications from PhDs in tenure-stream jobs at U.S. colleges and universities with “a current record of active research and publication in high-quality journals” who do “not hold any other external grants of over \$3,000 per year that allow for support for travel or visitors during the collaboration grant award period.” This year the requirements are much the same, except that the foundation is only accepting applications from tenure-stream faculty in departments that grant PhDs (if you visit the linked page above, click on “Eligibility” to see this restriction). This does not include me, of course.  More importantly, it also excludes at least 18 of this year’s awardees and the majority of faculty members in Mathematics departments at US colleges and universities.[*]

The Simons Foundation’s mission is to “advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences.” The foundation was started in 1994 by Jim and Marilyn SimonsDr. Jim Simons is a mathematician who started and managed Renaissance Technologies, an extremely well-performing hedge fund. From the foundation’s website:

“The Simons Foundation at its core exists to support basic — or discovery-driven — scientific research, undertaken in pursuit of understanding the phenomena of our world. The foundation’s support of scientists generally takes the form of direct grants to individual investigators, through their academic institutions….  The Simons Foundation seeks to create strong collaborations and foster cross-pollination of ideas between investigators, as these interactions often lead to unexpected breakthroughs and new understanding.”

Villanova AWM student chapter visiting Simons-supported MoMath this spring.

Simons supports hundreds of mathematicians each year through several different grant programs, and also funds other wonderful stuff, including Math for America, Quanta magazine and MoMath.  This foundation does great things, and I am really happy that it exists and does so much to support mathematics.  However, I am very disappointed about this change.

I am dedicated to my research, and I also am happy with and proud of my choice to work in a non-PhD-granting institution. Grant funding is hard to come by, from any type of institution. I totally understand that finding support for my research will involve a lot of rejection, especially since I devote quite a bit of time to teaching, so I may not write as many papers as some mathematicians at other kinds of institutions. However, I do publish regularly, have serious research aspirations and accomplishments, and I believe that I can make a compelling case that my ideas and efforts are worth supporting   The troubling message of this change is that because of my institutional profile, the collaboration grant proposal I write is less worthy of review.  My mathematical insights and interactions seem to have been deemed too unlikely to lead to breakthroughs or new understanding.

This is not just about a discouraging message.  Another issue with the change is what it means for women and other underrepresented groups in mathematics. Using the AMS Annual Survey Data, I calculated that the change in eligibility rules excludes about 61% of the former applicant pool. Among PhD-granting institutions, women make up about 16% of the full-time tenure-stream faculty, whereas women make up about 30% of the full-time tenure-stream faculty at Bachelors- and Masters-granting institutions. The 2010 report from the CBMS Survey found that the percentage of faculty members from race/ethnicity groups underrepresented in the mathematical profession was also higher at Bachelors and Masters-granting institutions than at PhD granting institutions.

On the Simons Foundation website, I found that at least 18 of last year’s 164 grants were made to faculty at non-PhD-granting institutions. This does not count the 4 to faculty at non-PhD-granting colleges in the CUNY and Claremont systems, which I left out because of their close affiliation with PhD-granting programs (I’m not sure how Simons classifies these colleges).  Among these 18, I was able to ascertain (by Google searches for gender-identifying information, not totally scientific) that at least 6 are women, meaning that approximately 33% of the successful applicants from this pool are women.  Among the grantees from PhD-granting institutions, I estimated (through more than an hour of Google searches, again) that 18 are women, meaning approximately 12% of the successful applicants from these institutions are women.

Dr. Louis DeBiasio of Miami University of Ohio and students Bob Krueger and Robert Garrett also looked into past awardees, compiling data from 2012-2016.  They compute that 15.6% of the grants were awarded to faculty from Bachelors- and Masters-granting institutions. To me, this is strong evidence that there are a significant number of worthy applications from this pool.

The Simons Foundation is a private entity, and is clearly allowed to fund whomever/whatever it would like. I have a great deal of respect for the foundation’s work. I also respect the work of Yuri Tschinkel, the Director of Mathematics and Physical Sciences at Simons.  I wrote to Dr. Tschinkel to confirm my data, also inquiring about the reasons for the change, and asking if the program committee had considered the likely effects of this rule change on the number of grants awarded to women and members of other underrepresented groups in math.  Unfortunately, I have not yet received a response.

I also wrote to Francis Su, former president of the MAA, who has posted publicly on Facebook about the rule change.  Dr. Su also wrote to Dr. Tschinkel, and received the same response as many others:

“Thank you for bringing this to my attention. The program is becoming better known and more competitive. Last year, we received 665 applications for 140 awards. While there are many active mathematicians at currently ineligible institutions (which include national labs and various research institutes), we cannot open the program to all. “

Dr. Su also agreed to share some of the responses he received to his Facebook post:

“The beauty of Simons used to be that anyone with quality research had a fair shot.”

“That’s really, really rotten. I thought they were better than that.”

“As someone at a PhD-granting institution who has an active Simons Collaboration grant, I am strongly against this change. Feel free to quote me on that.”

“So, it is possible that it’s an attempt to reduce the number of applications, which is something I understand (I know some schools, for example, don’t post on mathjobs, because that means they have to read a ton of applications). But like many things in which you try to ‘focus’ applications, you actually get some problematic results. Like this is pretty close to outright discrimination — this is almost as bad as saying ‘we are not taking applications from women anymore because there are too many applicants, not a lot of women apply anyway, and most of them don’t get the awards in the end’.”

“So, assuming (and knowing) that there are excellent projects/applications out there at PUI’s, we go for a lower average quality because that makes our job of selecting easier.”

“We understand that there are many active mathematicians whose surnames fall in the latter half of the alphabet, but we cannot open the program to all.”

“NSF grants are not tied to being at a PhD granting institution. Why Simons?”

“As someone who is at PhD granting institution, having had a Simons and now having an NSF grant, I oppose this new rule. Quality math from any place and anyone should be supported.”

“I was trying to imagine what would happen if, when hiring a position, a department said “We will only accept applications from Ivy League schools” and how problematic the community would find that. The Simons Foundation is doing the exact same kind of ‘old boy network’ cronyism. Sigh.”

“Ironically, imposing such a requirement may limit the pool of reviewers—many researchers at both PhD and non-PhD granting institutions have expressed dismay about this policy, and some have indicated they will refuse to review proposals because of this change.  This will only exacerbate the stated problems the Foundation is having with numbers of applications.”

For himself, Dr. Su says:

“While I have deep admiration for many Simons Foundation initiatives, the problem is that this policy, on its face and by the way it was rolled out, appears to use the existence of a PhD program as a proxy for quality of proposals and research impact.

“Limiting this grant to PhD-granting institutions isn’t based on merit.  It will adversely affect research climate for women and under-represented groups who are not represented in great numbers at PhD-granting institutions, not to mention making such funds unavailable to faculty at HBCU’s, women’s colleges, and minority-serving institutions.

“There are better ways of limiting the flow of applications—for instance, imposing requirements that are merit based.”

Mathematical research can be lonely and isolating—there are often only a few people on the planet who are thinking about a given mathematical problem.  And there is no way to make mathematical research easy.  All the money in the world cannot buy a proof.  Support like these collaboration grants can help make mathematical research much easier, though, by allowing mathematicians to connect with those few other people who share their particular world of ideas. Researchers at non-PhD-granting institutions do amazing mathematics every day, and are often even more isolated and have fewer resources than their counterparts in PhD-granting departments. Non-PhD-granting institutions are also home to a higher proportion of mathematicians from underrepresented groups; mathematicians that our students, the profession, and the world really, really needs. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Simons Foundation for all of the great things they do–I didn’t realize the tremendous extent of their support for mathematical initiatives until I started researching this blog post. I hope that the Simons Foundation will find other ways to limit their application pool, if limiting it is necessary, and return to their tradition of supporting excellence within a more diverse mathematical world.

[*] Data from the 2015 AMS Annual Survey of Mathematics Departments.  From Table DF1, PhD-holding, full-time tenure-stream faculty in mathematics departments.  Numbers came from adding tenured and pre-tenure faculty.  The survey data used binary gender classifications.

PhD-granting Masters-granting Bachelors-granting
Male 4861 2105 4261
Female 925 823 1904


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Block Plan Round 1: Linear Algebra in 3.5 Weeks Flat

Cheesy prom-style photo of my Linear Algebra class after the final poster session

Four weeks since the start of fall semester, and I just submitted final grades. How is this possible? For those of you who didn’t catch my update earlier this month, I just started a new position at Colorado College, which operates on a distinctive yearly schedule of eight 3.5 week blocks. Students take one course and faculty teach one course per block. So my students from last week are now totally immersed in a new class. Luckily, I am not—this is a non-teaching block for me, so I have a month to regroup, do research, and get ready for the next round (Calculus 2 in block 3).

During the first block I taught Linear Algebra, one of my favorite courses so a bit of a treat to start out with. Some general info about the course: I had 23 students, with majors including math, math-econ, computer science, physics, biochemistry, and geology. All students had taken Calculus 2, but some had taken more advanced courses including Differential Equations and Number Theory. We met every morning from 9:15 to noon for lecture and classroom activities. I had office hours scheduled from 2-3:30 or so every afternoon, but, to be honest, my real office hours were more like 1-4:30 or 5. Then it was home to grade and prepare for the next day, just to go to bed and go back to work in the morning. Rinse and repeat.

This was probably more intense than it will always be, because I was redesigning my Linear Algebra course and essentially re-preparing all of my notes, and because I was starting a new job, which has a lot of start-up cost in itself. But it is clear that even as I get into the groove here at Colorado College, my teaching blocks will always be solidly busy with teaching. And the first few days after teaching will be solidly busy with sleeping, laundry, and catching up on email.

I feel tired, and a little disoriented, but somehow… satisfied? Yes, it was really satisfying to work so closely with my students, and to be able to ask for their full attention. Not every student gave it their all, but actually most students did, and they produced some really excellent work. They seemed satisfied, too, because they had totally immersed themselves in the topic and were able to remember knowing very little about it only weeks before. The huge progress of a math course, always hard to keep in perspective over a whole semester, was observable and exciting.

Highlights of the block:

• First day activity: We started with an icebreaker: as they entered the classroom, I gave each student a SET card. They were assigned to spend the first 5-10 minutes finding and introducing themselves to other students with whom they formed a SET. This developed into how we could use linear algebraic data structures to model the game SET, and then a discussion of what linear algebra really is and how it generalizes to finite fields. Though this course was only linear algebra over the real numbers, some students had taken number theory and knew about finite fields, while others had worked over the complex numbers, so over the course of the block we were able to touch on what the theorems we proved would look like over these fields. SET gave us the simple example of the integers modulo 3 to reference, and let me talk about how my own research in curves over finite fields uses linear algebra constantly. I will work on this activity and use it to start my linear algebra courses in the future.

• Sticky note questions: In the last three years, I have begun assigning daily or weekly pre-reading and reading questions for classes beyond calculus. I hadn’t tried this at CC yet, and I didn’t want to swamp the students with reading every night when they also have homework problems to do every night, so I decided to modify my approach. I assigned the first part of each section as reading, and asked students to write a question from the material on a sticky note before class. When they got to class, they were supposed to go to the sticky note board, read the questions there, and arrange them to group similar questions. We started class with a discussion of the important parts of the reading, and when we took our first break I would go to the board and read the questions. Some of them would already have been covered, but I could make sure to cover some of the others in the next discussion. I really liked having immediate response on their reading assignments, and I liked that they could see that all their classmates had questions, too. They put their names on the back of the sticky notes, and I counted them for a small portion of the final grade. It was fun to give each student their sticky notes back at the end of the block—for the most part, all the questions were answered, and it was a nice look back at the progress we’d made.

• Field trip: In the second week of the course we took a field trip to a park for a picnic lunch. We set math aside and just talked for a while, then sat together in a circle and had a group discussion. The starting point was a set of questions that the students had for me—in an email before the block started, I asked them what they would want to know about a professor when starting a new class. There were a wide range of questions, from “How do you grade?” to “What was your mathematical path?” and “What is your research about? Does it use linear algebra?” So I started out by answering some of these questions, mostly the more personal ones. My math history seemed very surprising to my students. I think they expected that I had always known what I wanted to do, and that perhaps I had always been on a straight path to becoming their math professor. In fact, I drifted around a lot and tried many things, and probably had much less direction at their age than they do. The questions front the emails also included the less serious “what is your sign?” and “what is your favorite color?” so we all went around the circle and answered these. It sounds ridiculous but was kind of fun.

After talking for a while, the students helped me set up a white board that we had brought along, and I gave a 5-10 minute lecture on computer graphics and linear algebra. Finally, I revealed the surprise final destination: the Manitou Springs penny arcade. This is large indoor/outdoor arcade filled with coin operated games dating from the 1920s to the present. It has lots of old cool pinball games and the original arcade video games: Galaga, Space Invaders, etc. I had a bag of quarters (now that I don’t need to go the the laundromat, they are really stacking up) and asked the students to each play at least one of the old-fashioned 2-D graphic video games and consider what matrices would create the graphics of the game. I walked around, answered questions, and played a few rounds of Space Invaders myself. So fun, and the math questions were surprisingly insightful!

• Final project poster session: The students took their final exam on the second to last day of class. The last day, I returned the exams (after a marathon grading session the night before), answered questions, and we then embarked on an hour-long poster session where they presented their final projects. The students worked in groups of 3-4 on topics that were not covered in the course, and created some really ambitious projects. One group actually built a complicated circuit and tested the current to see if it matched what they got by solving the linear system (not a great match, in fact… I guess the old resistors were not very predictable, and apparently one burst into flames in the process). Another group used images from a student’s work in a biochemistry to show principal component analysis in action. The poster session was an interesting, upbeat way to end the semester, unlike the stress and uncertainty of a last-day final exam.

Thoughts about the block plan? Linear Algebra ideas? Thoughts on how I should adapt Calc 2 to the 3.5 weeks? Let me know in the comments!

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