Math for the Liberal Arts (Professors)

Our internal summer research grants were due yesterday, and for the first time I tried to apply for one doesn’t involve students. A few years ago I received our internal grant for summer research with students, which went well. But I should really get a few more actual “grownup” projects done before I go up for tenure, and the money and cv line this grant will bring won’t hurt. So I went for it.

But this was one of the hardest grant proposals I’ve ever tried to write. Less than two pages describing your project and its relevance to the college, the community, “or beyond.” This is a small college. I know the committee. The person on there who’s the least math-phobic is a historian. This is the most general of general audiences.

If I start with “Let R be a Noetherian ring” I’m dead in the water. Even if I had the space to define all the necessary vocab, almost no one on the committee would bother to try to parse it. I can hardly blame them: they’ve got the same heavy teaching load I do, and they’ve got a ton of these things to read.

This wasn’t so hard with my undergraduate project a few years back, because I’d chosen a topic that had to be digestible by undergraduates, first-years at that. It was easy to state – a nice little semigroup problem, with pictures and everything. Even then I got comments from a committee member that it they couldn’t follow my description. They’d more or less just taken it on faith that I knew what I was talking about, and since I was a brand new faculty member they figured it would be nice to throw me a bone. I’m not sure I’ll get that kind of consideration this time.

So what do you do? This isn’t rhetorical. I’m really asking. People always say that if you can’t explain something simply you don’t understand it well enough. Am I alone in hating that quote?

I decided that my goal for this proposal was not so much to get across the exact nature of my project, but to make the committee¬†feel like they had some idea of what was going on. This word has some negative connotations but I’m gonna go ahead and use it anyway because it’s just so useful: I needed to get across the¬†truthiness of my project.

I at least presented a toy example that lives in the integers, though I’m afraid that will either still turn the committee off, or worse convince them that this is a totally trivial project. Then I argued by analogy: I have a space of objects and an algorithm to provide information about those objects, but it’s like I only have turn-by-turn directions to navigate this space. I can’t see the underlying street map yet. And then I talked about how I’ll use techniques to gain access to this map (techniques I named but didn’t describe) that are well established but haven’t been used in this case yet. Which should demonstrate in understandable terms that this project is probably not total garbage.

And then I mumbled something about applications to other problems, and other areas of math (which I suspect the committee doesn’t really care about), and…cryptography? Maybe? They’ve at least heard of cryptography.

Who knows if it’ll work. Maybe I have enough clout banked with enough of the committee that they’ll fund me even if they weren’t wowed by the proposal. Maybe they just won’t get many applications this year and I’ll skate through. I will ask the committee for feedback when it’s all over though, and present to you what they said. In the meantime, what advice do you have for people in a similar situation?

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2 Responses to Math for the Liberal Arts (Professors)

  1. Laura Langdon says:

    From the headline, I’d imagined a math workshop for liberal arts faculty. I still like that idea!

  2. Allen Knutson says:

    I went to a math job talk a couple years ago that drove me up a wall. Throughout, the speaker argued by authority — this problem was proposed by this famous guy at this ICM; this field was described this nice way by this other famous guy at so-and-so conference; and on and on. Nothing was interesting for its own sake, or because it was related to something else — everything was blamed on famous people. It made me wonder whether this guy has attended lots of talks in philosophy (I’m guessing?) where the standard procedures for establishing worth are different. He didn’t get the job.

    While I am extremely loath to recommend this approach to you, maybe you could mock up a version of the proposal that operates that way and run it past your committee member asking if that’s closer to the sort of thing they want. Different departments, different standards.

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