Over the years, I've told colleagues and friends about things I have seen or experienced. Many times, people have said that I should write them down so that they won't be lost and forgotten, since some of them might be useful parts of our history. I've been writing them down, without being sure what I would do with them. I decided to gradually post them on this website, and see what reactions I get. I suggest reading from the bottom up (starting with the August 2017 post "The Meritocracy"). Thoughtful and kind feedback would be useful for me, and would help me to revise the exposition to make it as useful as possible. I hope that while you read my stories you will ask yourself "What can I learn from this?" I'm particularly interested in knowing what you see as the point of the story, or what you take away from it. Please send feedback to asilverb@gmail.com. Thanks for taking the time to read and hopefully reflect on them!

I often run the stories past the people I mention, even when they are anonymized, to get their feedback and give them a chance to correct the record or ask for changes. When they tell me they're happy to be named, I sometimes do so. When I give letters as pseudonyms, there is no correlation between those letters and the names of the real people.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Don't Label Me!

I went to a short-lived writing group on Zoom early in the pandemic. I think it only lasted the one session. Our facilitator asked us to write down four words that describe ourselves. 

My immediate reaction was that I hate being labeled by others, and it's only slightly less distasteful to apply labels to myself. Then I wrote down "label-averse". On further reflection, I added "mathematician", "beach-loving", and "fairness-obsessed".

When we went around the Zoom room giving our labels, someone asked me, "Why do you consider yourself a mathematician?" 

It hadn't occurred to her that I might actually be one.

I laughed and explained why (PhD in mathematics, math professor for more than 35 years, many research papers published in mathematics journals).

Why am I averse to labels?

Labels can sometimes be helpful. But labels are what we use to stereotype people, to put them in boxes so we can treat them a certain way. Nearly every time someone has told me, "I knew what you'd think about that," based on some stereotype they had about me, they were wrong.

I already regret the term "fairness-obsessed". That's what people call it when they want to sneer at concerns for fairness.

If you insist on labeling me, I guess I won't cringe at "beach-loving" and "mathematician". As far as I know, no one has questioned my "beach-loving" label, or sneered at me because of it, but there's always a first time.

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

My Bluff

As I told a colleague afterwards: 

"The committee meeting was a total waste of time, though perhaps somewhat amusing. It consisted of B and C yelling at each other, and interrupting me whenever I tried to speak. I raised my hand for awhile and eventually gave up. When I was finally given an opportunity to speak, I said:
(1) Robert's Rules of Order are there for a reason,
(2) I think it would be helpful if one person (C, who was the committee chair) ran the meeting and were in charge, and called on people fairly and equitably, and everyone were given fair opportunities to speak and not be interrupted. 
C said that she's not very good at running a meeting. I said I'd be happy to do it.
W once told me that what helped her most as Chair of her department was being the mother of middle school boys---she dealt with her colleagues the way she dealt with her sons. I felt as if today's meeting was like a playground argument."

Before the next meeting, I asked C why she didn't simply bring the contentious issue to a vote, rather than engage in endless argument meeting after meeting. "You have the votes on your side. Let's just vote on it and move on." Both B and C had grown up in communist countries, and they might have been struggling to figure out how to function in a democracy.

C asked me to run the next meeting. I constructed an agenda that we sent out to the committee in advance. That was not a standard practice in my department.

When I was on the Council of the American Mathematical Society (AMS), someone told me that the people who have power are the people who know Robert's Rules of Order. I walked across campus to the library in search of Robert's Rules of Order. I checked out several large old dusty volumes, along with one thin pamphlet that was basically a cheat sheet. Back at my office, I read the cheat sheet. I realized I was never going to get through the large tomes before the meeting.

I took them to the meeting anyway. It was at least a good
weight-bearing exercise. I dropped the high stack of books down on the desk. They made a satisfying thump. I welcomed everyone, said we'll follow Robert's Rules of Order, and pointed to the impressive-looking stack of thick black books. I didn't point out that I hadn't read them. My colleagues looked cowed.

I had been on enough AMS committees to know how to run a meeting. As a stickler for fairness, I tried hard to make sure everyone who wanted to had a chance to speak and feel heard. I probably came close to obeying Robert's Rules of Order, in spirit if not in the details.

Someone made a motion and we discussed it. When it looked as if the discussion had run its course and B was getting ready for a fight, I asked: 
"Is there any more discussion on the motion ...," 
B opened his mouth to speak, and I continued: 
"... that hasn't already been said?" 

B froze for a moment, then his mouth closed. We voted, B's side lost, and we moved on to the next agenda item.

I wrote up minutes after the meeting, and C forwarded them to the committee. Again, something not normally practiced in my department.

I'll amend the advice that the way to have power is to know Robert's Rules of Order by adding "or make it look as if you do."

Monday, October 30, 2023

Likely Weekend

When I applied to some Ivy League colleges, applicants received postcards in the mail, sometime before the final decisions, stating whether their admission was likely, possible, or unlikely.

Brown University invited those who got "likely" postcards (at least the reasonably local ones, such as the New Yorkers) to visit for a couple of days, so Brown could try to convince us to go there. They brought the New Yorkers there on buses.

When we 16- and 17-year-old high school kids got off the buses, we were met by students who had promised to put us up in their dorm rooms. The host for a friend of mine didn't show up. My host wanted to take me and leave, but my friend (whom I'll call Jane) didn't want to be left alone, and convinced me to stay while she waited for her host.

After everyone else was gone, and Jane's host still hadn't appeared, at Jane's insistence my host grudgingly took the two of us back to her dorm room.

My host had a bad cold. It was long ago that she had agreed to take in a prospective student, thinking it might be fun and she'd be doing a good deed. Now that she was ill it no longer sounded like fun, but it was too late to back out of it. After some small talk with my host, Jane and I figured out we weren't wanted and went off to wander the campus.

That evening my host sent us to a party in the dorm. The music was much too loud, and there was way too much beer. The party-goers got drunker and wilder, and someone threw a beer bottle through a window. Broken glass swam in the pond of beer that covered the floor.

A Brown undergrad took Jane aside to chat with her. Eventually Jane returned to inform me that the undergrad had invited her to his dorm room with the excuse that the party's music was too loud to talk over, and I had to go with them. Assuming she wanted to go but was wary enough to want a chaparone, I followed along behind Jane and the undergrad. I was happy to escape the rapidly rising beer pond.

The Brown student had a friend from Bowdoin visiting for the weekend, so there were four of us.

The dorm room had exactly two chairs. Jane ran over to one of the chairs and sat down. The Brown guy plopped into the other chair. That left just the bed. The bed was in a corner of the room, so its head and right side were up against walls. I sat near the corner between the two free sides. The Bowdoin boy sat next to me.

Eventually, he put his arm over my shoulder. I moved away, to disengage. A few minutes later he moved closer. Shortly after that, he again tried to put his arm around me, and I moved further away. This continued, as we gradually moved from the free corner of the bed towards a wall. Jane watched our slow motion pantomime in amusement, and had trouble stifling her laughter.

I worried about what I'd do when we got to the wall and he had me trapped. 

The one good thing about the guys being amazingly drunk was how frequently they had to run down the hall to pee. 

Each time the Bowdoin boy left to pee, I stood up, walked back to the corner of the bed (to maximize how long it would take for him to push me to a wall), and sat down. When the Bowdoin boy returned, the cycle started all over again.

I stayed because I assumed Jane (inexplicably) wanted to be there. Finally, both guys left to pee at the same time, leaving Jane and me alone. I quickly asked her, "Do you want to be here?" She replied, "No!" 

I grabbed her hand, pulled her out the door, and ran down the hall. Just before we disappeared down the stairs, I heard the guys call out to us as they exited the men's room.

Perhaps our Thank You cards to Brown University for its kind hospitality should have consisted of the one word "unlikely".

I was glad I hadn't drunk anything at the party and was clear-headed. After a few parties at still-largely-male Ivy League schools, I quickly learned not to drink alcohol at college parties. 

I also abandoned the ideas, ingrained in American girls of my generation, that women mustn't hurt men's feelings and have to help men save face. I think male classmates appreciated when my rejections of their advances were clear and direct, so they didn't needlessly waste their time with someone who wasn't interested in them.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Conflicts of Interest --- Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don't change the rules of the game

My main advice on Conflict of Interest policies is: 
Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

My main advice on enforcing Conflict of Interest policies is: 
Don't change the rules in the middle of the game.

Someone I'll call Y was on a panel to evaluate proposals. He had followed the Conflict of Interest policy to the letter, reporting in advance, in writing, all the conflicts of interest he was supposed to report.

However, in the presence of the entire panel, the Program Officer who ran the panel claimed that Y needed to recuse himself from the discussion about a proposal written by someone I'll call Q. According to the Program Officer, Y had a conflict of interest with Q, because Q was a co-author of X, and X was Y's wife.

Due to her many experiences with discrimination based on marital status, X kept her personal and professional lives separate, and did not discuss her personal life in professional settings. Neither X nor Y had ever told the Program Officer about any personal relationship between them. Anything the Program Officer thought he knew came from gossip. The Program Officer's discussion, in front of the panel, of his assumptions about X's and Y's personal lives violated their privacy. 

The official Conflict of Interest policy did not state that being a relative of someone's co-author constituted a conflict of interest. Y pointed this out to the Program Officer, who still insisted on recusal.

Curiously, for a later panel, that same Program Officer decided not to recuse himself when he expressed support for a proposal submitted by the husband of his own collaborator.

The last people to realize they have a conflict of interest are the people who have a conflict of interest. That's why it's important to have a clear, unambiguous algorithm for recusal, rather than letting people decide for themselves.

Similarly, the last people to realize that it's not OK to deviate from the official policy or make ad hoc decisions on a case-by-case basis are the enforcers of the policy. Many cases I saw personally where someone was held to a more stringent Conflict of Interest policy than the official one involved a woman, and the attitude of the male enforcers was, "This doesn't smell right to me. It feels like she's trying to get away with something."

Don't change the policy in midstream, and especially, don't change it in midstream based on a particular case; it's easy for the enforcers' prejudices to override fairness. When something doesn't technically violate the policy but "just doesn't smell right" to you, that doesn't justify making new rules on the fly. If it's not right, your Conflict of Interest policy should have covered it. If an objective party determines that the policy needs changing, change it after the current round; don't enforce a different policy than the one that's in place at the time.

Conflict of Interest policies often include personal, financial, professional, and other types of conflicts. Some policies require giving out much more information than is necessary, and sometimes that information gets circulated to co-PIs or others who don't need to know it. It should suffice to recuse oneself and say that one has a conflict of interest that falls under the policy, without being forced to divulge details about the conflict (e.g., one's marital status, or who one is married to).

To summarize, conflict of Interest policies should:
    (1) be clear, unambiguous, and sensible;
    (2) not require people to divulge irrelevant or unnecessary information;
    (3) be sent to everyone who needs to abide by it, early enough to give them a chance to refuse to take part in the activity to which it applies.

Monday, October 9, 2023

A one-to-one correspondence

"The proportion of female mathematicians who are married to male mathematicians is much higher than the proportion of male mathematicians who are married to female mathematicians. So women must be going into mathematics to find a husband, while men do math because they're interested in it," male mathematicians have told me over the years, in all seriousness. 

Nowadays, some might call this "boy math". Whenever I hear this logic I reply, "Do you agree that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the set of female mathematicians married to male mathematicians and the set of male mathematicians married to female mathematicians?" 

They agree. 

I continue, "So the number of female mathematicians married to male mathematicians is exactly the same as the number of male mathematicians married to female mathematicians. The large difference in percentages is simply because mathematics is a male-dominated field."

They're astonished to realize that the numbers are exactly the same. There's something counterintuitive about it and it takes awhile to sink in, even for mathematicians.

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Flirting with students

Lolita (probably not her real name) waltzed into the last class of the semester, just as the class was ending. Her blouse was so low-cut that it would now be called a wardrobe malfunction, her skirt was short and tight, and she twirled her hair and smiled seductively as she spoke to the professor in a soft, husky voice.

Professor Q smiled broadly. He was totally smitten. It wasn't just her hair that she was wrapping around her little finger.

As she continued to twirl her hair, smile, and bat her eyelashes at him, Lolita asked Professor Q for course notes so she could study for the final exam. Professor Q flirted back at Lolita, and then turned to me and asked me to lend Lolita my notes. He knew I was a good student, and had (strangely) complimented me on my handwriting---he knew that I would have good notes.

I had never seen Lolita before. She hadn't come to a single class. I didn't know her name. 

I had worked hard in the course and taken good notes. I wrote them in a three-subject notebook, so when I gave Lolita my notes, I gave her all my notes for three math courses I was taking that semester. Notes that I needed myself to study for the final exams. While I didn't think that Professor Q's request was reasonable, I didn't think I could say no to him.

Another student told me later that Lolita was a senior who had already submitted her applications to med school. Lolita majored in math since it was a major with very few requirements. For this course, she just needed to get by. She didn't bother going to class since she could use her sex appeal to get what she wanted.

I did somehow manage to get her to give back my notes before my final exams---late enough to make me anxious, but early enough that Lolita was miffed.

Why do I remember this story? Because it was one of several episodes that taught me how women were viewed at some of the top universities. These stories had an impact on how I view Harvard, the mathematics community, and academia. The faculty gave the female students incentive to flirt with them. But it was the job of the faculty to treat students fairly and equitably, and not be influenced by flirting or by how the students dressed. If the faculty were showing favoritism to students who flirted with them, they weren't doing their jobs.

Years later I tried to talk to Professor Q about discrimination at Harvard and some of his unfair or problematic treatment of women, including his more recent behavior towards young female mathematicians. I felt that I was in a better position to talk to him about it than were more junior colleagues or students, and I hoped that by talking with him I could help them. Professor Q treated it like a joke and exclaimed, "but Alice, I LOVE women!" as he pretended to leer at me. 

Whenever I try to talk to him about it, he evades, dodges, or acts uncomfortable. The information is not welcome.

Sometimes, it's more than cluelessness.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Advice on Advice

She generally gave herself very good advice (though she very seldom followed it)
                                        —Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll

I've given advice elsewhere. Here, I'll give some advice about advice.

My most important advice on advice is to value advice from those who have experience and expertise more than advice from those who don't.

When I arrived at the University of California at Irvine as a professor, I was told that the math department had a program where math majors could request a mentor to advise them on applying to grad school, and faculty could volunteer to mentor students. 

Over the years, students and colleagues had sought my advice and seemed to value it. So I volunteered to be a mentor, and was assigned a senior.

The senior wanted to get a PhD in mathematics, but insisted on only applying to Masters degree programs. She thought that a Masters degree was a prerequisite for applying to a PhD program.

I advised her to apply to PhD programs, for several reasons. Such programs would provide funding, while Masters programs were more likely to make students pay. At my previous university, Ohio State, the bar was higher for students who already had Masters degrees than for those who didn't, so a Masters degree could be a disadvantage when applying for a PhD program. If she got a Masters degree and then decided to go elsewhere for the PhD, she could still do so. Plus, graduate admissions committees that felt she wasn't ready for the PhD program could decide to admit her to the Masters program.

The senior told me I was wrong. Why? Because some first year grad students told her that one doesn't get into a PhD program without having a Masters degree. She believed that they knew more than I did about getting into grad school, even though I had served on graduate admissions committees and the students hadn't.

Other professors gave the senior the same advice that I had. I hoped that by getting the same advice from other faculty, she'd learn to trust me and find my mentoring more useful. But the senior only applied to Masters programs, and didn't come to see me again.

Sometimes the right people to ask for advice are the people who know you well. (Knowing you well also counts as experience or expertise.) I occasionally get emails from students I don't know, in various parts of the world, asking me for advice specific to their situations. While I can sometimes give them very general advice, I emphasize that for specific advice, much more valuable is the advice they should get from professors who know them well and the people from whom they've taken courses. 

My advice to advisors is to make clear the limits of your relevant expertise and experience, and state your best guess as to how much confidence the advisee should or shouldn't have in your advice. If appropriate, suggest who else might be able to give more reliable advice.

I'll end by emphasizing the limits of my experience and expertise to advise on advice. Don't just listen to me. Be open to advice from anyone, paying special attention to those with expertise and experience, and to those who know you or your situation well.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

An All-Star Cast

The first mathematics talk I ever gave was a job talk at Brown University on February 1, 1984, and my second talk was in the Harvard Number Theory seminar exactly a week later. It had an all-star cast, including Harvard Professors Barry Mazur and John Tate and Yale Professor Serge Lang.

Right before the talk, I noticed that some of my friends, who were sitting in the front row, were giggling. It was a bit disconcerting when they refused to tell me what they were giggling about; they said they'd tell me afterwards.

I began my talk, and started to write on the blackboard. 

Serge Lang screamed, "Stop! Stop! I can't stand it any more!" 

I stopped. I had barely said anything. Could I have already said something wrong? What could I have said that would upset Serge Lang so terribly?

"The chalk is screeching on the blackboard!" he explained. 

Tate told me to break the chalk in half so it wouldn't screech. I pointed out that all the chalk was tiny---too small to break in two.

We all waited while Barry Mazur ran out of the room, and ran up and down the fifth floor hallway, looking for an open office with chalk. 

Eventually, Barry came back with the report "No chalk". What was I to do? 

Tate handed me a chalk holder into which I could insert the tiny chalk and use it in a way that wouldn't screech. 

Serge calmed down. (He probably went to sleep; I didn't hear from him again.) My talk proceeded uneventfully. But I learned how many Harvard professors it takes to calm down Serge Lang.

What were my friends in the front row giggling about? They were trying to decide whether to tell me that the newly-famous mathematician Gerd Faltings was in my audience. I hadn't yet met or seen him, so I didn't know he was there. That's just as well. There were enough stars to worry about.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

How I got John Nash to stop smoking in the Princeton math department

Russell Crowe, who played John Nash in the 2001 film "A Beautiful Mind", said that Nash claimed he never smoked. But Crowe and I knew otherwise; Crowe had seen photos of Nash with a cigarette, and I saw and smelled the smoke when I was a Princeton grad student in the early 1980s. 

I shared an office that was across the hall from the Fine Hall Common Room, where tea and cookies were served on weekday afternoons. Nash often paced up and down the hallway in front of my office, chain smoking cigarettes and flicking ashes into the ashtrays that were bolted to the walls. 

While I was there, local laws changed and the university was forced to come up with a no smoking policy. After that, smoking was allowed only in the Common Room, but Nash continued to smoke in the hallway. 

I phoned the officer in charge of smoking, and asked that either a "No Smoking" sign be posted or the ashtrays removed. After all, who would believe there was a no smoking rule, if there were still ashtrays affixed to the walls? 

"There's a sign at the building entrance," she coughed back at me. 

I, Nash, and the rest of the world hadn't noticed the small "SMOKING PERMITTED only in designated areas" sign hidden in an unlit alcove near one of the many entrances to Fine Hall. 

"But people continue to smoke."  

"That's not my problem," she rasped, hanging up. I suspected she was a smoker. 

It must have been in one of my last years, after I'd been there long enough to know how to beat Princeton at its own game. By hook or by crook, I was going to stop John Nash from smoking outside my office.

I had overheard a faculty member mention that the department stationery was kept in the faculty mailroom --- the room behind the graduate secretary's desk, with a "FACULTY ONLY" sign at the entrance. When no one was looking I snuck in and stole one sheet of department letterhead. I was afraid that taking two sheets might double the penalty for my crime. At home, I cut the sheet in half, and on both the top and bottom halves typed: 

The next day I Scotch-taped a sign to each of the two sets of doors that led from the hallway to the Common Room. The top half with letterhead, the bottom half without. Pretty amateurish. Would it fool anyone? Or would I be expelled for improperly posting stolen paper?

With my office door ajar, I watched and waited. Nash, cigarette in hand, walked up to one of the notes. His eyes were so close to it that he had to move his head from side to side to read the words. Then he walked over to one of the ashtrays that was bolted to the wall. To drop his ashes? No, to put out his cigarette. I never again saw Nash smoke in the hallway.

Saturday, August 5, 2023

"No One's here"

During my later, more assertive stage of trying to create a community of friends who care about me in Orange County, I asked nearly everyone I met for advice. Sometimes I would tell my sad story about how no one would bring me casseroles because I had no one to tell about my cancer diagnosis.

Taking pity on me, one kind soul said to another, "Should we tell Alice about the lunch and Starbucks groups?"

That's how I ended up joining one group that met at a campus cafeteria for lunch, and another group that met one morning a week at Starbucks.

These were on-again, off-again relationships. I never did figure out the power dynamics. 

One morning at Starbucks, B told the group something that I thought might be incorrect. Since it was a medical fact for which misinformation could be harmful, I looked it up on my phone and learned that B had told us something that wasn't true. I let the group know what I had found. I expected B to thank me, but he was furious and told me I was rude. He claimed the group had a rule not to use electronic gadgets while we met.

Sometime within the next half hour, C showed up. The group wondered about something, so C pulled out his iPad, looked it up, and shared the information. B's face lit up in a wide smile. He profusely praised C for being so helpful and having the useful iPad handy. I looked at B in amazement, but the irony went completely past everyone who had heard B rebuke me.

For both the lunch and Starbucks groups, I think that almost everyone was individually a nice person. Put them together, and something went wrong.

Whenever I was shut down, or elicited an angry reaction, I promised myself to hold my tongue and take the opportunity to observe and study the social interactions, and learn from my colleagues about the university and how it operated. That would last a few weeks, until something factually incorrect was said that seemed sufficiently harmful that I felt an ethical obligation to speak up, only to be shut down again.

One day, one of the nicer guys in the lunch group walked past me while I was paying at the cash register and, without breaking stride, said "no one's here" to explain why he was leaving with take-out. Startled, I merely agreed with him. Only after I carried my tray to a table where I ate alone did I think to myself, "since when is my name No One?"

I think of myself as a problem-solver. Here were smart, good people who sometimes behaved poorly (by most reasonable standards). Surely this was a problem that could be solved. At a lunch with some of the people who had been nicer to me, I expressed my concern about the group dynamics, ready to give suggestions for improvement. They said they liked it as it is, and anyone who didn't could stop going. 

Like others who felt the groups were dysfunctional, I eventually stopped attending the lunch and Starbucks groups. In my last visit to Starbucks, a retired professor claimed he wanted to understand one particular aspect of the #metoo movement. When I tried to explain it by giving an example of something that happened to me, he blew up, said I might be lying, and left the table.

I occasionally run into B and other people from one group or the other, who kindly encourage me to rejoin. I thank them and remind them that while I'm very happy when people challenge my ideas, I left because I felt unwelcome; the personal hostility towards me by some people at some times eventually reached an unacceptable level.

Never once is their reaction, "I'd like to understand. Could you explain what you mean or give an example?" 

B was surprised and shocked that his own behavior was among the reasons I left, and he seemed quite offended. I was prepared to remind him of the stark contrast between how he treated C and his angry outburst at me, but he never gave me an opening.

What I find most striking in Orange County is a lack of curiosity. (I've learned the hard way that saying "be curious, not furious" doesn't help people who are already angry.)

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

The Silent Undergrad and The Reluctant Student

The Undergrad walked into my office during office hours and sat on a chair in the corner, rather than one of the chairs at my desk. I said "hello," and waited.

I looked at the Undergrad expectingly, while the Undergrad looked down at the floor in silence. We sat like that for awhile. 

Eventually I asked, "what can I do for you?"

This confused the Undergrad, who didn't know how to answer. 

Trying to be helpful, I said "there must be some reason you came to see me. What was it?"

"The counselors told me to go to office hours and get to know my professors."

"Why did they want you to do that?"

"So the professors will write me letters of recommendation for grad school."

I asked some gentle questions that eventually led the Undergrad to realize that sitting silently in a professor's office with nothing to say might not be a good use of either the student's or the professor's time, and might not make the best impression or lead to a helpful letter of recommendation.

Perhaps the counselors should have given clearer advice, or the Undergrad should have thought about the consequences.

A different student came to my office to discuss doing a reading course with me, having gotten the advice to take reading courses as a way to get letters of recommendation for grad school. 

It turned out that the Student had only taken one or two of the standard algebra and number theory courses. I advised the Student to take more of the basic courses, before taking a specialized reading course in number theory or algebra. 

The Student wanted to know about other things students could do to impress professors. I explained about Research Experiences for Undergraduates at various sites throughout the country. Upon hearing that these took place over the summer, the Student exclaimed in disgust, "Why would I want to do math over the summer?"

I was surprised and amused. "If you don't love math enough to want to do it over the summer, why do you want to get a math PhD?" I asked. "That's a big commitment."

The Student's desire to go to grad school wasn't from a love of math; it was from a lack of anything better to do. 

We discussed career possibilities and courses to consider. I pointed out that mathematics opens doors in many fields of endeavor. I hope the Reluctant Student and The Silent Undergrad eventually found fulfilling paths.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Nickel and Dime

When I was a little kid, I had a lemonade stand for a day. An early brush with capitalism. My mother made the lemonade, we put a table and chair at the sidewalk, and placed the pitcher and a small sign on the table. 

I set the price at two cents a cup. 

My brother was my first customer. He handed me a dime and asked for his change. I wasn't sure what to do. My brother looked at the change I had, and picked up a nickel and three pennies.

I knew that wasn't right. He's giving me one very small lightweight coin and taking away four larger heavier ones? I told him I wasn't born yesterday, and I knew that wasn't fair.

My brother was quite amused. He explained the arithmetic, but I wasn't buying it. He was clearly trying to cheat me. No one would create a currency in which a small coin was worth ten times as much as a heavier larger coin. That doesn't make sense.

Perhaps that's why my brother is a physicist-turned-economist and I'm a (too logical) mathematician.

When I ran the above story past my brother, he replied (bemusedly, according to him, which led to a bemusing discussion about what "bemused" actually means):

Logically, though, the conclusion should be the other way around. Your little kid self argued in terms of size, i.e., in physical terms, while my teenage self argued in symbolic, i.e., mathematical terms. And I didn't try to cheat you, which my present economist self finds surprising.

Monday, January 2, 2023

Diversity Theater

Call me cynical, but as someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about issues of discrimination, prejudice, fairness, and community, I am no longer amused by performative acts of diversity theater.

After the Hiring Committee began to review the applications, the department Chair sent the faculty "Selection Criteria". It turned out to be an algorithm for choosing a long list and then a short list of candidates. It was newly created by the Hiring Committee, in a rush because they weren't allowed to look at the applications until they formulated an algorithm. I was told that the purpose of the criteria was to create a fair and uniform process and prevent disadvantaging underrepresented minorities. The Selection Criteria weren't made available to the applicants.

While the people who wrote the Selection Criteria were well-intentioned, I've found that non-public hiring criteria often give an unfair advantage to applicants in the in-group, who are more likely to know what's expected. Any lack of transparency in hiring criteria generally disadvantages marginalized communities. As I've said elsewhere: The ad should give the true criteria on which you'll base your decision. Make the criteria and hiring procedures public and clear, and stick to them. 

The algorithm's first filter was the Diversity Statement:

I. Diversity statements will be evaluated according to the following criteria:
(a) Does the applicant demonstrate an understanding of the problem?
(b) What has the applicant done for diversity?
(c) What are the candidates [sic] plans to promote diversity?
Only include candidates whose diversity statements demonstrate awareness of inequities and challenges, a specific plan to contribute to inclusive excellence activities, and/or a track record and measures of success.

I spent three years on a campus committee that during that time scutinized the hiring, promotion, tenure, or "merit review" files of nearly everyone on campus, so I had a lot of experience reviewing personnel files.

When I looked at the applications, it was a matter of only a couple of minutes before I found a blatantly plagiarized Diversity Statement. It was cobbled together nearly verbatim from Diversity Statements other people had posted on their websites, sample Diversity Statements posted by UC Berkeley and UC San Diego, and canned sentences on websites whose stated purpose was to create Diversity Statements.

I might have been tipped off by the non-Latino applicant's reference to "fellow Latino faculty" (the sentence was the same as one in Example 3 of this UCSD sample), but the essay had plenty of evidence that didn't pass the smell test.

Nonetheless, it did pass the diversity filter of members of the Hiring Committee, who claimed that the applicant's diversity statement addressed all the questions and passed the test (until I pointed out the plagiarism; of course the applicant's only penalty was not being offered that one job). Chatbots now make it even easier to fake Diversity Statements and harder to catch plagiarism.

How many applicants are getting positions using plagiarized Diversity Statements? How many with legitimate statements are passed over in favor of applicants with more impressive-looking plagiarized Diversity Statements? We seem to have created a system that rewards dishonesty.

I think that plagiarized Diversity Statements are not rare, and are usually not caught. The people who evaluate the statements are often untrained and unqualified to do so. In some cases, they themselves engage in discrimination, inequity, or unfairness, and are completely the wrong people to evaluate Diversity Statements.

Some of the Diversity Statements that are positively evaluated do more harm than good, by reinforcing the stereotype that women and minorities are underrepresented because they're not good enough to succeed without additional help. 

One could argue that allowing only a small hiring committee to have any say in determining the Selection Criteria and hiring rubric violated the university's commitment to the principle of shared governance.

Based on my experience reading files, I think that hiring and promotion decisions should not rely on self-reporting by the candidate that is not independently verifiable. Doing so encourages not only BS, but also outright lying. We shouldn't reward people for bad behavior, and punish those who do the right thing.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

"Next Time" or: The Free Lunch

When I first met Z, she and I immediately hit it off. Eager to make a new friend, I emailed her afterwards with some information I knew she would want, and suggested we get together for lunch sometime. She replied, "I really enjoyed meeting you as well. I would love to get together for lunch." But her schedule turned out to be too busy, and she couldn't find the time. 

Two and a half years later I tried again, we found a day and time, and met for lunch.

Lunch was lovely. We had a lot in common. When I complained about the self-absorbed people in Orange County, she was quick to agree. She felt strongly about it.

When the check arrived, I reached over and took it.

My friend seemed surprised. "What are you doing?" she asked.

"I'll pay," I said, as I got out my credit card.

"Why would you do that?" she asked.

"I'll pay this time, and you'll pay next time. That way I know there'll be a next time."

Z thought that was so clever. She liked the idea of ensuring that there'd be a next time. She wanted me to meet her husband, who got a PhD in my field before leaving mathematics.

Nearly a year later, having heard nothing from Z, I asked my friend K whether I should remind Z that she owed me a lunch. He told me not to; doing so would be terribly rude. So I emailed Z, "How time flies! I remember how much we enjoyed our lunch together in January, and was thinking we should do it again. Do you have time over the break?" and I added some info that I thought her ex-mathematician husband would be interested in. A few weeks later I wished her a happy New Year, asked if she had gotten my message, and said I hoped that everything was OK with her. 

She replied that she'd love for us to get together. She invited me to dinner at her home, for a date a couple of months in the future.

In the interim I invited F, a mathematician in my field, to give a seminar talk at UCI. He wanted to fly in on the evening of Z's upcoming dinner. I thought to myself, "What are the chances that the dinner with Z will really happen? Should I tell F that I can't pick him up at the airport or go to dinner with him because I committed to something else? Or should I reschedule with Z? After all, this is Orange County, the land of ghosting and bailing. Z will undoubtedly cancel at the last minute."

I decided that if I cancelled on Z to accommodate F, I'd be succumbing to unwarranted cynicism, in addition to being a bad person. So I told my colleague F that I couldn't meet him that evening.

Sure enough, a few days before the planned dinner, Z "postponed" it.

When Z emailed a month later and made a vague suggestion that we meet in two or three months for dinner at a restaurant, I again asked K whether I could remind Z that she owed me a lunch. He told me to let it go. Knowing that I didn't have the self-discipline to go to a restaurant with Z and not mention our "next time" discussion, I didn't reply to her email.

Years later my colleague G, who was a patient of Z's, told me that my name came up when she saw Z. Z told G the basics of our story (but not the part about her free lunch), and wondered whether it was too late to get in touch with me. G told her it was. I wish she hadn't. It's stories like this that make me think of Orange County as the land of missed opportunities.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Casseroles and Dinner Parties

Soon after I moved to Irvine, California, I became "friends" with X, who was always happy to take a beach walk with me when I invited her, but never asked me to do something with her. 

"I don't understand the `friends' who are happy to do things with me when I initiate it, but never initiate contact with me. What's going on there?" I asked X during one such beach walk.

"I know! I really hate that! What's wrong with those people?" exclaimed X animatedly. She clearly felt strongly about this, but didn't seem to realize that she was one of those people.

I decided to perform an experiment. I stopped inviting X, and waited to see if she would contact me. Of course, she didn't (or else I wouldn't have a story). For good measure, I tried the same experiment on Y, the one other "friend" I had made when I moved to Irvine, with the same result.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer about a year later. 

"The only nice part is that when you have your surgery, everyone will bring you casseroles," said an East Coast friend who had earlier gotten a similar diagnosis.

"No one will bring me casseroles," I replied, "because no one will know I have cancer."  I was in the middle of my experiment to see what would happen if I didn't initiate interaction with my two "friends" X and Y. And I didn't feel comfortable telling my work colleagues because I had heard that some of them use that sort of information against their colleagues in the "merit reviews" that determine our salaries.

After going through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance of the evidence that my concept of friendship didn't exist in Orange County, I decided to get more assertive about obtaining human contact, if not real friendship.

I started to accost people I met and ask them, "I'm going through culture shock from moving to the OC. People seem to have a different concept of friendship than I'm used to. What do I need to know, to help me survive here?"

The answers ranged (not very widely) from  "everyone is self-absorbed" to "there's a lot of narcissism and bipolar disorder in the OC. It's from being too close to Hollywood" to "When I want to talk to a friend, I pick up the phone. When I want to be with a friend, I get on a plane."

Someone told me, "you can't have a dinner party here."

"Why not?" I asked. "Is it because too many invited guests say no?"

"Not just that. The main problem is that they don't respond."

"Doesn't that mean they're not coming?"

"Not necessarily."

"They'd just show up, without telling you in advance? Why would anyone do that?"

"They're waiting to see if something better comes along."

The woman I had this discussion with was so impressed with our similar views about friendship that she enthusiastically added, "I like you. I'm going to invite you to a dinner party."

My first thought was "How nice!" My next thought was, "Oh, no. If she does that, I'll have to reciprocate. What a burden. I don't want to throw a dinner party." I had been living in the OC long enough to have absorbed its laziness.

I never got that dinner invitation, perhaps because she and I didn't exchange names. Maybe she too didn't want the hassle.

When the "fighting for my life" stage of my medical adventure wound down, I realized that I should swallow my pride and end the experiment with the two "friends" I actually had. I went on a beach walk with X, and clothes shopping with Y, where I told them about my diagnosis. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but their fear about whether I'd expect something from them seemed more palpable than their empathy. They certainly didn't offer to bring me casseroles. Nor, I'm sorry to say, did I bring Y any casseroles when she was diagosed with breast cancer a few years later, though I did express my sympathy.

If I had to do it again, I'd have kept inviting X and Y when I wanted company, and not worried about whether they reciprocated. "Friendship" in Orange County is often transactional. If you want something, you ask for it. I'm surprised by how generously my neighbors respond to pleas for help from total strangers on the neighborhood listserv, from supplying crutches to giving rides to the hospital. Here, friends can be people who do things for you or with you, rather than people who care about you.

Thursday, December 1, 2022


"I have a friend who's a mathematician," people have said to me in Orange County, when I tell them I'm a mathematician.

"Oh, what's their name? Maybe I know them," I reply.

They give me a "deer in the headlights" look. They struggle to speak, but nothing coherent comes out.

"Do they not trust me enough to tell me their friend's name?" I wonder to myself. "Or have they forgotten the name of their friend?"

I prod. Eventually, it turns out that they don't know the name. Their "friend" is someone they met once at a party. If they were even told the name, they promptly forgot it.

That wasn't what I considered to be a friend. I knew the names of my friends.

I promised myself that I'd never become so Orange County as to declare that someone was my friend when I didn't know their name.

I've broken that promise. I've now lived in the OC long enough that I've become the deer in the headlights, when I realize that I don't know the name of someone I just referred to as my friend (and saw every day for the past month at the boathouse).

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Medical Mystery Tour

When I arrived in Irvine in the summer of 2004 to start my new job, I chose a primary care doctor and went for a routine checkup. Late on a Friday afternoon, a nurse phoned me to tell me that my doctor was worried about one of my blood test results and I need to come in that day to get retested.

"What's the problem?" I asked.

"It's your pancreas."

"Is my doctor worried that I might have pancreatic cancer?"


I remembered that a friend who had a terminally ill relative told me, "in case you don't know what pancreatic cancer is, it's a death sentence."

I immediately phoned the lab (which was down the hall from the nurse who phoned me). The recording said it was closed until Monday.

I spent that weekend sitting on the beach, watching the waves roll in and feeling sorry for myself as I tried to hold back the tears and not think about my new scare, pancreatic cancer, or my other current scare, breast cancer, which had killed my mother, and for which a recent mammogram was concerning enough that the radiologist insisted I enroll in an MRI clinical trial (under the assumption that my insurance wouldn't pay for a real MRI).

Blood was drawn when the lab opened on Monday. When I phoned a few days later to ask for the result, I was told I needed to wait until my doctor returned from vacation in a couple of weeks. I pushed back, and then changed my primary care doctor so I could learn the blood test result sooner.

Thus began a Kafkaesque nightmare with the health care system, as I was sent to one specialist after another, and for one test after another. 

One of the doctors made me walk down a hall in an open gown in front of a group of construction workers, to wait in a dark closet. 

Another time, my breasts were poked and prodded by a group of elderly male UCI doctors (i.e., colleagues of mine) who stood around discussing my breasts and alternately ignoring and getting angry at my questions. It wasn't how a doctor (let alone a colleague) should treat a human being.

The testing led to a concern that I might have ovarian cancer. Pancreatic, breast, and ovarian cancer scares were my welcome to UCI.

I was sent to a specialist who insisted on performing a procedure. The "informed consent" form said I understood that I was volunteering for a research study and the procedure would in no way benefit me. When I questioned this, the specialist yelled at me, said that what the form stated wasn't true, but I absolutely must sign it and not cross anything out. The procedure turned out to be not only unnecessary and unhelpful, but also left me doubled over in pain.

A recurring conversation with specialists was:

I ask: "What do you advise?"

The reply: "What's your insurance?"

"Does it matter?"

"It might!"

"I'd like your best medical advice. What would you recommend if cost weren't an issue?"

The specialists would give me a confused look. They had no idea how to give the best medical advice. They gave advice based on what the insurance company would be most willing to approve.

As time went by, I switched my question to, "If your mother were in this situation, what treatment would you recommend?" That seemed to elicit more useful information. But then I realized that some people in SoCal are either self-absorbed or hate their mothers, so I changed it to, "What would you do if you were the patient?" Eventually, I changed insurance plans to be on a plan that made the doctors' lives easier. 

After some truly shocking experiences with doctors (some too lurid to tell here), I switched back and forth several times between UCI and other medical groups.

Luckily, those initial scares eventually turned out to be false alarms. But four years later I got a real diagnosis of breast cancer (that probably should have been caught sooner). The stakes suddenly got much higher. 

Since I was on an HMO (Health Maintenance Organization), I needed the approval of my primary care doctor before anything could be done. She was on a long vacation in Maui. When she came back and learned I had cancer, her attitude toward me changed sharply from pleasant to hostile. I wondered whether her practice lost money on patients with cancer, and she was trying to get rid of me.

A friend who was an oncologist in another country thought that my oncologist was making major mistakes. I was told that I couldn't change oncologists unless I sent the HMO a letter of complaint, so I did. My request to change doctors was still denied, but my "grievance" was forwarded to my oncologist. The furious oncologist phoned me, yelled at me hysterically, refused to treat me, and hung up on me.

I suppose it's no wonder that I have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder whenever I go to a doctor.

A long battle with my medical group and insurance company eventually led me to a series of oncologists. One had been on probation for "gross negligence". Another told me he didn't want to see patients---his top priority was his own research. Weeks after I should have gotten the result of a test for circulating tumor cells (a particularly scary wait), I contacted his nurse. She was angry that I had called, and told me not to contact them again---the result hadn't come in and she'd let me know when it did. I eventually phoned the lab to learn that the lab had faxed the doctor the result just a few days after the blood was drawn.

The arrogance and anger of some of the specialists were disturbing and unpleasant, but what I found most scary were the mistakes, the downright dishonesty, and the lack of critical thinking skills, since my life depended on their getting it right.

I was glad that my surgeries were all bilateral, since the chances that a medical report stated the correct side of the body seemed to be around 50%.

I gave up trying to correct the false statements in my medical reports that were knowingly put there to cover the doctor's ass. No one was willing to change them, and it's not smart to alienate someone who holds a scalpel while you're unconscious.

As for their critical thinking skills, here's a subtle but mathematically interesting one. The doctor's argument for recommending that I do something was, "if you don't do it, then your chances of a recurrence are 2% each year. So there's a 40% chance it'll recur within 20 years." I knew that wasn't right. If it were really 2% a year (which it wasn't---it was considerably less), the probability would have been 33% after 20 years. I was too startled to reply, but as a math teacher I should have asked "so what would be the chances after 51 years?"

Then there were the blatant privacy violations. Like the vintage convertible in the hospital's public parking garage with its top down, with a list of private patient data (names, medical diagnoses, what looked like Social Security numbers) on the seat, fully visible to everyone who walked by. Or similar documents at the top of an open waste basket in the examining room, in full view of patients freezing in skimpy medical gowns as they waited an hour for the doctor to show up.

One specialist boasted to me that his patients waited an average of 5 hours after their appointment time before they saw him. He thought that proved what a popular doctor he was. (I thought it showed how poor he was at scheduling.)

I was more impressed by the chutzpah of the surgeon who scheduled my appointment for 11 am but didn't take me until after 12:30. It's not that he was seeing other patients all that time. Around 11:30 he walked through the waiting room and left the office. From the window I could see him walking down the street. He returned half an hour later with a sandwich. When he finally met with me his primary concern wasn't my health, it was making sure I signed his arbitration agreement.

Perhaps most disappointing was the heartlessness of some of the UCI specialists, who were my colleagues and neighbors. I had thought that doctors chose the medical profession because they care about people and want to help them. At UCI, I didn't feel I was being welcomed into a community of people who cared about each other.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022


I didn't know how much I could trust the Boston transit system, so I played it safe and arrived at the hotel an hour and a half early. The instructions emphasized that the interviewers work on a very tight schedule, so get there early and phone the interviewer 5 to 10 minutes before your scheduled interview time. At 10:20 am I picked up the hotel phone and asked to be connected to the interviewer's hotel room.

He checked out yesterday, I was told.

That can't be. He's supposed to meet me now. Could you please connect me to his room? 

No, someone else has already taken that room.

I began to panic. I was a 20-year-old college senior who had been nominated by Harvard for a graduate fellowship for people who wanted to become college educators. I had made it to the final round, which consisted of the interview. Even though I had arrived absurdly early, I was going to either miss the interview completely, or at best show up late and flustered.

Suddenly, I remembered that a friend had told me about his interview with the same interviewer a day or so earlier. He helpfully described the experience in detail, down to the actual four digit hotel room where his interview took place. It was an odd piece of data to include in his report. Even odder was that I remembered it.

Hoping my memory was correct, but strongly doubting it, I hopped on an elevator, took it the appropriate floor, knocked on the door of the hotel room, and held my breath as I waited for a response.

Eventually, a man opened the door. He was surprised to see me there. All the other interviewees had called on the hotel phone. I explained what had happened when I tried to phone, and how I knew his room number. He phoned the front desk, and learned that they had confused him with another guest who had checked out.

His hotel room was taken up by two large beds that were perhaps a foot apart. He sat down on one of them, and motioned for me to sit across from him on the other bed. Our knees were almost touching.

What I remember most about the interview, more than 40 years later, was the interviewer constantly rubbing his thighs up and down with his hands. 

The only thing I remember about our discussion was that we had different ideas about the meaning of the ethical part of the fellowship criteria. Since it was a fellowship for future educators, I tried to steer the discussion to my views on ethics in pedagogy and education. My recollection is that the interviewer equated ethics with religion, and pressed me for my religious views. That's something I consider completely private, and not something I share with strangers. The New York City public schools had impressed on me the separation of church and state, which I had subconsciously extrapolated to a wall between religion on the one hand, and one's schooling and career on the other. The interviewer wanted to breach that wall. Further, I remembered my parents' belief that someone we knew didn't get into Harvard/Radcliffe because of her answer to a question her interviewer asked about her ancestry (my parents interpreted it as anti-semitism), so I was wary of interview questions about religion.

Sitting close together on beds while the interviewer rubbed his thighs didn't feel right to me. When I was asked afterwards to send feedback on my interview, I wanted to tell them that. But I didn't want to hurt my chances of getting a fellowship, and it felt too creepy and embarrassing to tell them about the beds. Instead, I briefly told them about the hotel room mixup and made suggestions to prevent that from happening to future applicants. I also praised the interviewer for being well prepared and well organized, but added that I thought that the interviewer's definition of moral and ethical values was more "political" than mine, so we didn't communicate well on that subject. Religion and sex felt like hot potatoes that I didn't want to touch in my comments.

I didn't get the fellowship. We were told that no information would be given to us about the reasons, so I don't know which parts of the interview I failed. As best I can tell, the winners were all at least as well qualified as I was, so I don't have a complaint about the decision.

But whenever anyone says that a woman who goes to a man's hotel room, especially a stranger's, is "asking for it", I think of that interview.

I was glad to see that Harvard now tells alumni interviewers to meet prospective students in neutral places such as coffee shops, rather than in their homes (or on beds in hotel rooms).

I remember my interview for an Ivy League college I'll call Ivory Tower, when I was a 16-year-old high school senior. It was in the New York City apartment of an alumnus I'll call Prince Charming, since he was quite handsome. Mr. Charming very kindly made me a cup of tea with honey, since I arrived on his doorstep with a very bad cold. Who goes to an interview with a cold? If an interviewee did that to me now, I'd recommend rejection based on atrocious judgment.

After I got accepted to Ivory Tower (have they no standards?), I went to the party that was intended to convince accepted students to enroll. Another student (let's call her Jane) and I had great fun playing ping pong with Mr. Charming. Jane's interview with Charming had been at his office. She teased me about having had my interview at his home, and claimed he was flirting with me. That seemed like total nonsense. In any case, Charming was way too old to be interested in us. Only later did I wonder whether Charming did something at Jane's interview that led her to think he was interested in her.

Jane and I turned down Ivory Tower and went to Harvard. In our first week, Jane told me that Charming was now the boyfriend of someone in Jane's dorm, whom I'll call Snow White. I never found out whether they met at an interview or some other way. But Jane was right that Charming was interested in dating someone our age. Snow and Prince married right after she graduated, and lived happily ever after (according to her reports in the alumni news).

Monday, October 17, 2022

Some things I've learned about how to hire

The below will appear in the Early Career section of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society.

The editor of the Early Career section of the AMS Notices has asked me to give advice for more senior mathematicians on the theme "How to hire a mathematician". I've told stories about hiring (interspersed with some advice) at https://numberlandadventures.blogspot.com, often of what went wrong, but sometimes of what went right. I recently read some of these stories while asking myself "what can we learn from this?" I've collected below some of what I've learned. I hope it will be useful for those who hire. 

1. Write job ads that say what they mean and mean what they say. 

I'm frequently contacted by people who ask me for advice about how or whom to hire, or want me to help them spread the word about their job search. They tell me what they're looking for in applicants. 

Before responding, I look up the job ad and compare it to what I was told they're looking for. It's surprising how different those two can be.

My first recommendation is that job ads should say what they mean and mean what they say. The ad should give the true criteria on which you'll base your decision.

Make the criteria and hiring procedures public and clear, and stick to them. 

It's not good when an "inner circle" of applicants has access to information, or to the "unwritten rules", that the rest of the applicants don’t have. The inner circle knows the real rules, and knows which rules and deadlines they can ignore and get away with. People who know people in your department or on the hiring committee, or whose advisors have friends on the faculty, shouldn't have an unfair advantage.

The "rules of the game" should also be reasonable and make sense. Sometimes, job ads are so specific that it's clear that the people who wrote it already know whom they want to hire. They're just going through the motions, following the letter of the rules but not the spirit. If you have already decided whom you want to hire, don't waste the time of other applicants by posting a job ad.

If a goal is to hire good people, try to write a job ad that gives you maximum flexibility, and doesn't needlessly tie your hands. That helps you avoid a situation where the applicant you want to hire doesn't satisfy the criteria in the job ad.

Here's a story that illustrates some of the above:

2. Advertise widely.

Don't rely on an "old boy network" of people you know (even if that's a diverse group). 

3. Put together a diverse hiring committee. 

There's a natural tendency (which we should all be fighting) to hire people who remind us of ourselves. We all have blind spots. While we can and should work hard to overcome our own subconscious biases, a diverse hiring committee makes it easier to hire the best people and not overlook them.

Here's a (hopefully amusing) story where a diverse hiring committee might have been helpful:

4. Choose the best applicants for the job.

When you decide to whom to make an offer, choose the best applicants, taking into account what the ad says you're looking for. This might seem obvious. But the below list includes some stories where that didn't happen, with various rationalizations that I didn't think were reasonable. (I do understand that "best" is subjective, and perhaps impossible or unreasonable to pin down. That's why it's helpful to think in advance about what your goals are, and to write an ad that helps you achieve them.) In particular, resist the temptation to base hiring decisions on guesses about the candidates' personal lives, and whether or not a candidate will take a job, or will stay.

5. Follow best practices. 

Train faculty and staff in best practices for hiring. Best practices include not asking irrelevant personal questions during job interviews. And being prepared to intervene if others who haven't been trained (such as faculty spouses) ask those questions, or say or do something they shouldn't. Here are some stories that illustrate this:

6. Behave professionally, ethically and legally, and hold people accountable.

Behave professionally, not just to the applicants during their job interviews, but all through the process, to the applicants, to other faculty and staff who are involved in hiring, etc. This isn't your personal life, it's your job. Do your job professionally.

Put in place good practices and policies that make it easy for people to do the right thing, and hold people accountable when they break the rules. 

At many times in our professional lives, but especially in hiring, it can be helpful to ask ourselves “Is this professional? Is this ethical? Is this legal?”

Here are some relevant stories, which could just as well have been included in the above section on choosing the best applicants:

7. Be honest.

Be honest, not just in job ads, though that too. 

Most importantly, don't mislead job candidates. For example, if they are promised something during the hiring process, they have a right (possibly a legal one) to expect such promises to be honored. 

Further, don't bring an applicant to your campus under false pretenses. I know of cases where applicants were told they were being invited for a job interview, and didn't learn until half-way through the visit that it wasn't actually a job interview. To get the job, they would have needed to visit again. This isn't fair to applicants who are traveling a lot for job interviews, and need to decide which trips are worth taking. I know of other cases where candidates were told at the interview that they weren't really being considered for the job they had been told they were interviewing for.

Honesty needs to extend further than just the job candidates. The people doing the hiring also need to be given accurate information, so they can deal honestly with the candidates. 

Two stories:

8. Be kind.

Well, obviously we should be kind to job applicants. Early career applicants are at a vulnerable moment in their lives, and we should make them feel welcome and wanted. Going the extra distance to do or say something nice, even if it's small, can make a tremendous difference and be remembered for a long time. Negative interactions will also be remembered for a long time, possibly longer! 

Perhaps less obviously, we should also be kind to our colleagues (including staff) who are involved in hiring. Some of the nastiest interactions I've seen have involved hiring. We can disagree, and disagreeing is often necessary in order for us to do our jobs well. But it's easier to do our jobs well, and our communities are better and happier places, when we argue respectfully.

These stories of welcoming and unwelcoming experiences during the hiring process might help to illustrate what I mean:

To summarize:

1. Write job ads that say what they mean and mean what they say. 
2. Advertise widely.
3. Put together a diverse hiring committee. 
4. Choose the best applicants for the job.
5. Follow best practices. 
6. Behave professionally, ethically and legally, and hold people accountable.
7. Be honest.
8. Be kind.

I hope that keeping these goals in mind will help our community behave professionally, fairly, legally, and kindly.

Acknowledgment: I thank David Pollack for helpful feedback.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

California Time

"My wife and I will pick you up at your hotel at 6 and take you to dinner," said the department chair during my job interview.

He had already picked me up at my hotel several times during my visit, and he always arrived a half hour after the appointed time. Each time, I patiently waited at the curb for him to swing by.

This time, out of curiousity, I asked him how long it takes to drive from his home to my hotel. "Fifteen minutes," he replied. Then why was he always a half hour late? I decided not to ask, it being a job interview and all.

After dinner that last evening, he dropped his wife at home before taking me to my hotel. I timed the drive. The hotel was about 25 minutes from his house, if there's no traffic.

Now that I've lived in southern California where people are self-absorbed, I think I understand what was going on. "I'll pick you up at 6 o'clock" means that at 6 o'clock he starts getting ready to pick me up. 

It's like when people know they'll have a Zoom call at 6 pm. That means that at 6 pm they look at their watches, walk over to their computers, open their email, and start looking for the Zoom link. They don't show up on the call until 5 or 10 after.

Perhaps my question should have been "what time do you need to leave home, in order to pick me up at 6?" But that might have confused him. And it might look as if it's all about me.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Stalker

"The course is full, so I need you to sign this form so I can enroll," said the student at the end of class. He was showing up to class for the first time a week or two into the quarter, after the first quiz.

"I can't do that. The Math Department office knows when people have dropped the class, and they can enroll you when there's an opening. You need to talk to them." If the course was full, that meant that the number of students was the same as the number of seats. I had learned in past years that if both the Math Department office and I signed students in, that caused havoc.

The student got very angry. He shouted at me and threatened me. He seemed unhinged, and I was afraid of what he might do to me. I hoped he didn't have a gun.

I thought to myself, "alienating the person who will give you a grade (if you're lucky enough to get into the course) isn't very wise." But then again, if I felt sufficiently cowed, perhaps his strategy was sound.

He demanded to know my name. My name was on the course list that he must have looked at to find out where my class met. If he wasn't smart enough to figure out my name, I wasn't going to enlighten him. I told him I felt threatened and didn't feel comfortable giving him my name.

I left the room. He followed me. My name was on my office door, and I didn't want him to know my name or where to find me, so I didn't want to go to my office until I threw him off my tail.

I walked down a hallway and up a flight of stairs, as I plotted my route. Then I sped up, ran down a flight of stairs, quickly rounded a corner, and ducked into the women's room. If he had good critical thinking skills (which seemed doubtful), he might have figured out that the only place I could have disappeared to was the women's room. If he dared to enter, I'd be trapped.

I locked myself in a stall, and waited for 15 minutes. I hoped that was long enough. When I left, he was nowhere in sight. From there, I took a circuitous route to my office, just to be sure that I'd lost him.

It would have been easy for him to have found out my name and and office number. I avoided my office for the next few weeks, and I never saw him again.

This took place at Ohio State. Something similar happened to me when I taught (while a grad student) at Princeton. I've heard similar stories from colleagues at UC Irvine. We aren't trained to deal with angry students, and our universities don't seem to have good ways to help us.