How many conferences is too many conferences?

Conference folks inside Number Man on MIT campus. Vaguely in rows, from back left to front: Joe Gunther, Frank Thorne, Ben Smith, Colin Weir, Jen Berg, Mckenzie West, Irene Bouw, David Harvey, and my forehead.

Hello from the end of my first week back to teaching! I’m teaching Linear Algebra right now, and enjoying it quite a bit. In some of the in between moments, I’m looking back on my summer and wondering where it went. I spent the last week of summer at the Arithmetic Geometry, Number Theory, and Computation Conference at MIT. This was a great conference for me for lots of reasons. I was looking for an application of a technique for a paper I am working on, and BAM one appeared before me in a talk! There were just tons of wonderful people there, both friends and people I didn’t know but whose work I admire. The conference was really well organized (thanks, Simons Collaboration on Arithmetic Geometry, Number Theory, and Computation group members!) and right in my area of interest, so it makes sense that things could go well. But a non-trivial part of everything going great was that this was my only conference of the summer. I had lots of social energy because I hadn’t already had 10 giant conference dinners this summer. It was the first time I’d seen all of the talks, and there was a really good slate of speakers, so I didn’t have any trouble staying engaged. If I had already been to 10 conferences this summer, I might have been checked out during the talk when the exciting application appeared. As it was, I felt that I took almost optimal advantage of this experience. I had the most fun, and learned the most math, possible for me.  So this brings me to ask the question: Do I usually go to too many conferences? How many conferences should a person go to in a summer?

One of the pieces of advice I have been given over and over, especially in my role writing this blog, is that early career people should get out there and talk about their work. Meet people, make connections, get a broader understanding of the field. I think this is great advice, and I followed it. I followed it hard. So did a lot of people that I know, and I/we saw all of the advertised benefits. Certainly there are still many good points to going to conferences: there are tons more people to meet and results to share/hear about. It also keeps my CV growing (third year review this fall) to go and give a lot of talks. Giving talks has a whole extra set of benefits, in that it makes me think of my work in a fresh way each time I explain it in a new setting. But even conferences (like this one) where I don’t speak can have enormous practical benefits.

However… there are costs. Costs as in literal money. Being out of graduate school for a few years, I’m not funded to go to as many conferences as I used to be. Also, there are costs in time to work or relax, lost sleep in bad flight schedules, and costs in experiences I could have connecting with people in the place where I actually live. Environmental costs visible in my ballooning carbon footprint and all the disposables that I use every time I travel. Sometimes there are costs to my students, when I travel while teaching. All these costs are payable, and sometimes really worth paying. But they add up, and I have decided that there has to be a limit. More is not always better. Sometimes I even have to say no.  

I have written about this before, and limiting my conferences was just one in a long list of ideas to better manage my environmental impact and work-life balance.  But the idea that going to fewer conferences could make those conferences I do go much more worthwhile was not prominent in my mind at the time.  This conference at MIT made me appreciate just how much I can enjoy a conference when I have the energy and mental space to take full advantage of it. I don’t think I can bring those resources to more than a couple conferences in a summer, so I want to learn how to make the resources that I do have count as much as possible in choosing my travel. Some people just thrive on the conference circuit—maybe it’s okay that I don’t. So I think that next summer I will go to a maximum of three major math events. Maybe one conference wasn’t quite enough, but two or three sounds like the sweet spot.

What is the optimum number of conferences for your math life? How do you decide when to say yes or no? Other thoughts? Let me know in the comments!

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MathFest 2018

This is a somewhat belated round up of this year’s MathFest. I got home from Denver and immediately left on vacation, and then the pre-semester meetings started, and now classes have begun, so I’d better get this out before I forget everything that happened entirely.

I wasn’t presenting or bringing students this year, just helping out with a couple of committees and attending talks, so it was a very low-key meeting for me. I saw some great talks and got to see some old friends, but I’d like to emphasize a couple highlights.

Through my chair I got tapped to help with the MAA minicourse committee. Which was probably the most entertaining bit of service I’ll do all year, because I got to sit in on the first half of “Card” Colm Mulcahy’s course on Mathematical Card Magic.

If you’ve never looked at the minicourses at the JMM or MathFest before, they’re four hour courses, split into two sessions over two days. They span a variety of topics, usually related to either pedagogy or recreational mathematics. I’ve taken a couple before: Carolyn K. Cuff’s lifesaving minicourse on teaching statistics, and the one that introduced me to the TIMES inquiry oriented curriculum. Both were full of practical, actionable ways to immediately improve my teaching, and they were well worth the sticker price. But I never felt like I would sign up for one of the courses that seemed more just for fun. Not like they’re that expensive compared to the cost of a conference, but I always thought I had to make sure my time and dollars were spent in as utilitarian a way as possible.

“Card Colm’s” Minicourse

So I probably wouldn’t have signed up for this minicourse, which meant I would have missed out on a lot. Even with a bad wrist, Colm showed a lot of neat card tricks and the math behind them. And moreover they were ones I could see bringing into my classes, or inspiring new colloquium topics, or even short student research projects. I’ve been browsing through his column archive ever since. I didn’t stumble across any of the legends of recreational mathematics until well after I left school; I think if I’d gotten some earlier exposure it might have given me a different impression of the mathematical community.

As for the other highlight, I should lead by saying I looked like this at MathFest.

The first and only bump photo I’ve taken.

For the standard pregnancy FAQ:

  • I’m due in the second half of November
  • We’re not finding out the sex ahead of time
  • I feel pretty good all things considered
  • Yes we’re very excited, thank you for asking.

So even though I couldn’t stay the whole time, I had to swing by the Mathematical Mamas: Being Both Beautifully town hall meeting, organized by Jacqueline Jensen-Vallin, Emille Davie Lawrence, and Erin Militzer.

Some of the topics discussed were ones I’ve thought a lot about, like how do you handle having a more flexible schedule than your partner, when flexible doesn’t mean dissolvable? On paper it might be easier for you to stay home with a sick kid, or bring everyone to the dentist, but you still have work to get done just like your partner with a traditional work schedule. Others I hadn’t even thought about, but really should: like how do you pump when you’re on an interview?

I think the most miraculous thing to me was that this discussion was taking place at a math conference at all. I had one female lecturer as an undergraduate, and knew of one female graduate student. There were a couple other women majoring in math, but it was never unusual for me to be the only woman in a room. The situation got better in graduate school, but nowhere near parity, especially when it came to tenure-track faculty. Now I’m in a department that’s not only majority female, but half mothers (if you include me, at least). The slow normalization of not just female mathematicians, but female mathematicians being successful parents, hasn’t stopped being kinda mind-blowing every time I stop to think about it.

I’d like to thank the organizers and panel participants and everyone who attended that town hall meeting. I can’t wait for the next one. I’ll definitely have some more questions by then.

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Teaching What You Really Don’t Know, Part II

This fall I’ll be teaching a new prep: our senior capstone class on the history of math, featuring an intense research project. The course also counts as a Global Perspectives credit for our students, meaning the class should broaden our students horizons beyond a classic western viewpoint.

Which is great. I’m excited for the challenge, and I think it’ll be interesting to explore this material with them and help train them to be more well-rounded. The only problem is…

I don’t know anything about math history.

I know the anecdotes and the just-so stories that get passed down as asides in lectures: Gauss summing  1 to 100, Euler and Hamilton crossing bridges, the cult of Pythagoras’ thoughts on flatulence. But until recently the closest thing I’d ever done to learning real math history was reading The Baroque Cycle. Which doesn’t count.

So now it’s almost August, my summer class is over, and I have a month to learn math history. I’m starting with a book I started awhile ago, Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World by Amir Alexander. It’s a real gripping read, covering the state of mathematics in the 16th and 17th centuries (so far, I haven’t finished yet) and how the Jesuits’ abhorrence of the concept of the infinitesimal affected first the development of mathematics, and then the development of the Jesuits.

The mathematics in it aren’t completely dumbed down, but are still pretty accessible to a motivated layman, and the author goes through arguments for the utility of the concept of the infinitesimal, as well as the reasons why many thought such a thing is patently absurd. There are also some really relatable stories in the book: colleges throwing shade at their weird mathematics departments, academics struggling to get hired, and people claiming to read the standard treatises of the time, even though it was obvious nobody had the patience to slog through a particular author’s borderline-unreadable text.

I’m selecting some sections for students to read, and one thing I’m having to really pay attention to is the amount of cultural and historical context the author takes for granted. He does lay out a short history of the reformation, and the Jesuits arising in response, but if I pull other sections without that context students might get lost.

Two other books are on the docket once I’ve finished this one. One is Journey Through Genius, by William Dunham. I’ve read bits of this, and one of Dunham’s other books The Mathematical Universe, and I really enjoy his writing. The other is the textbook I’ll use for the course, adopted by the previous instructor, Math Through the Ages by William P. Berlinghoff.  The subtitle is A Gentle History for Teachers and Others, but I’ve been told not to let that fool me into thinking this is kid stuff. I’m sure I’ll let you all know how it goes.

Any other recommendations for math history? Books? Podcasts? Documentaries? Especially ones with a non-Western focus? Lay ’em on me, because I’ve got a whole semester to fill.

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