18.730 dubious conferences and what we do about the problem

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 23 Apr 2005 09:01:13 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 730.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

   [1] From: Norman Hinton <hinton_at_springnet1.com> (7)
         Subject: Re: 18.725 more on dubious conferences

   [2] From: Vika Zafrin <amarena_at_gmail.com> (38)
         Subject: Re: 18.725 more on dubious conferences

   [3] From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk> (61)
         Subject: an example of what I was calling for

         Date: Sat, 23 Apr 2005 08:23:22 +0100
         From: Norman Hinton <hinton_at_springnet1.com>
         Subject: Re: 18.725 more on dubious conferences

The random-generated paper (which, by the way, was probably done at a site
mentioned here a couple of weeks ago) reminds me that in the old PLATO days
(70's and 80's, for those who came in late), there was a "Chomsky
generator". You went there and pressed a key and hey presto! you got some
20-30 lines of pseudo-linguistics made up of phrases from Chomsky and/or
phrases that were rather like Chomsky. Sometimes the passage seemed to make
a kind of sense (I'd say "but then, so did Chomsky" had he not been canonized).

         Date: Sat, 23 Apr 2005 08:24:01 +0100
         From: Vika Zafrin <amarena_at_gmail.com>
         Subject: Re: 18.725 more on dubious conferences


> The key, I think, is to communicate what we know in such a fashion that we
> will be understood far outside our domains of specialization.

It seems that you've provided the key to answering your question
regarding how to deal with events (and individuals) that propagate a
negative view of academe. The ivory-tower image is certainly aided by
excessive use of jargon. Add to this the human and non-human elements
of the system that encourage pursuit of CV padding at the expense of
actual research, and the academy doesn't seem like a nice place to be.

For many, it isn't. I'm sure all of us have encountered people who
are trudging miserably through teaching and research, unwilling or
afraid to get out. One common reason for this unwillingness (and it
often starts before the doctoral defense) is the belief that they
aren't employable anywhere else. That may be true in individual
cases, but in general it's a damaging self-image to have, damaging
both to the individual and to the profession.

(I'm surely generalizing. Please take with a grain of salt; although
from what I've read and heard, the generalizations about self-doubt
among academics are mostly true.)

Communicating clearly outside of our domains of specialization,
coupled with excitement and love for what we do (the same stuff we
periodically dig up to remind ourselves why we're still here), would
be great. It would benefit not only interdisciplinary conversation,
but conversation among... people. Up to a certain point of
complexity, a physicist could explain to me what she's working on, and
it will be interesting, although physics is far outside of my sphere
of competency.

Perhaps wording ourselves in a way that invites conversation with
non-academics might be precisely the magic TNT that will blow up the
ivory tower itself, but not the cultural goldmine inside it?


Vika Zafrin
Director, Virtual Humanities Lab
Brown University Box 1942
Providence, RI 02912 USA
         Date: Sat, 23 Apr 2005 08:49:19 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: an example of what I was calling for
Co-incidentally, or perhaps not, a book arrived in the post yesterday that
perfectly illustrates the sort of intelligent outreach that I was calling
for: David Hilbert and S. Cohn-Vossen, Geometry and the Imagination,
transl. from the original Anschauliche Geometrie (1932) by P. Nemenyi.Those
of you who know a bit about the history of mathematics will recognize the
name of the first author as one of the greatest mathematicians of the late
19th and early 20th Centuries and one of the mathematical grandfathers of
computing. It is truly a beautiful, luminous book. Allow me to quote from
Hilbert's preface:
>In this book, it is our purpose to give a presentation of geometry, as
>it stands today, in its visual, intuitive aspects. With the aid of
>visual imagination we can illuminate the manifold facts and problems of
>geometry, and beyond this, it is possible in many cases to depict the
>geometric outline of the methods of investigation and proof, without
>necessarily entering into the details connected with the strict
>definitions of concepts and with the actual calculations
>In this manner, geometry being as many-faceted as it is and being
>related to the most diverse branches of mathematics, we may even obtain
>a summarizing survey of mathematics as a whole, and a valid idea of
>the variety of its problems and the wealth of ideas it contains. Thus
>a presentation of geometry in large brushstrokes, so to speak, and based
>on the approach through visual intuition, should contribute to a more
>just appreciation of mathematics by a wider range of people than just
>the specialists. For it is true, generally speaking, that mathematics is
>not a popular subject, even though its importance may be generally
>conceded. The reason for this is to be found in the common superstition
>that mathematics is but a continuation, a further development, of the
>fine art of arithmetic, of juggling with numbers. Our book aims to
>combat that superstition, by offering, instead of formulas, figures that
>may be looked at and that may easily be supplemented by models which the
>reader can construct. This book was written to bring about a greater
>enjoyment of mathematics, by making it easier for the reader to
>penetrate to the essence of mathematics without having to weight himself
>down under a laborious course of studies. (pp. iii-iv)
My particular interest in the book is, perhaps, not what Hilbert
andCohn-Vossen intended -- rather to come to a direct appreciation, if
possible, of how the mathematical imagination works, so as to get some
purchase on how an imagination of computing might work. If it is correct to
say that mathematics is the imaginative language of the natural sciences,
then this should be an especially fruitful place to begin.
Other examples would be most welcome.
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Received on Sat Apr 23 2005 - 04:24:08 EDT

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