Sunday, March 02, 2008

CS/Math Blogging and Social Skills

A very recent post by David Eppstein discusses the risks untenured academics may run into when blogging. David mentions the following typical quote: “pretenured professors should be aware of the risks of blogging and develop strategies to avoid or mitigate the pitfalls of blogging without a tenure net.”

I have the feeling, however, that at times what is needed is not the development of strategies for "safe blogging", but rather an appreciation of the fact that academics live in a society of peers, and that social skills and tact are needed for most of us to thrive in the scientific community. When supervising budding academics, we focus a lot on their scientific development, and rightly so. I am starting to believe, however, that at the same time we should pay more attention to the development of their "social skills". Being able to maintain a good working relationship with one's colleagues is a definite plus at work. Being perceived as an arrogant oddball typically isn't. Spurting gratuitous vitriolic remarks may be even funny in the very short term, but I believe that it soon becomes tiring.

We are part of a community, and a certain amount of respect for the work of our peers is healthy, if not altogether necessary, for the proper working of our society. I do not think that it is a proper thing to do to refer to one's colleagues as "losers" or to conferences as "worthless". We are all in this business to try and offer our modest contributions to (theoretical) computer science. Some of us are definitely more successful than others, but we (and most of our scientific conferences and journals) all have a role, no matter how tiny, to play. When a conference or workshop is not playing a useful role for the community it addresses, either it stops running or it redefines its scope.

Sheer arrogance serves neither the community as a whole nor the individuals who exhibit it. It will lead us nowhere. We should teach our students to exercise their freedom in judging their future colleagues with care, and make them aware of the dangers of considering themselves geniuses who are not bound by the minimal social conventions that apply to most common mortals. In fact, reading the blogs of, or talking to, scientists whose work I admire, I have always been struck by their courtesy and professionalism. We should all learn from their good example.

As an aside, Timothy Gowers, in his lovely little book "Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction", writes:

It is my impression, and I am not alone in thinking this, that, among those [the mathematicians] who do survive the various culls, there is usually a smaller proportion of oddballs than in the initial student population.

While the negative portrayal of mathematicians may be damaging, ...., the damage done by the word 'genius' is more insidious and possibly greater.....

The last quality [exceptional strategic ability] is, ultimately, more important than freakish mental speed: the most profound contributions to mathematics are often made by tortoises rather than hares.

I strongly recommend the book. It is really well written.


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Suresh Venkatasubramanian said...

well put !

Anonymous said...

You have excellently expressed the feelings of many people.

Magnús said...

Well said.

I have always found it impressive how the very best are often also the least self-centered, and the most open-minded and generous. Meeting Noga Alon, when very junior, often comes to mind. Modesty and the encouragement of the also-rans are important, not only for personal character-building, but also to contribute positively to the development of science.

Anonymous said...

very well put, Luca. and, i second what Magnus says about Noga .. in fact, many other such friendly giants come to mind as i think about this. let me just add that one such friendly giant will have his 60th celebrated in Budapest this august. coincidentally, a friend of mine was independently saying yesterday that our mentoring of students should be broad. thanks again for the post!

aravind srinivasan

bm3719 said...

It'd be a shame to see any professional have to self-censor their off-the-clock activities just in case someone's feelings might get hurt. We're talking about blogs here, not gun running or drug smuggling. I'd rather work in an environment where I was free to criticize work or procedure I honestly felt was wrong. Sadly, this kind of expectation of a submission to groupthink is the norm.

Anonymous said...

I'd rather work in an environment where I was free to criticize work or procedure I honestly felt was wrong.

You are reading this wrong. We as a field welcome criticism, just read the many threads where people complain about STOC/FOCS vs SODA. The issue is whether a given person can issue such criticism in a constructive, respectful form.

One could say to use a current example "FOCS is showing a bias towards non algorithmic contributions" or "FOCS is a complexity mafia, an utterly worthless conference". The first statement can be argued about, the second leads nowhere; it is not criticism, it's just an insult.

Anonymous said...

I find the paper quoted by Luca rather sad, with its clear distinction between pretenured and tenured academics. It would seem that tenured professors can enjoy the "academic freedom" of insulting whoever they like. It also seems that integrity, honesty and plain good manners are only important as long as they help the blogger's career plan.

Frankly, it is embarrasing to see someone say "do not say that X is rubbish, because you never know who will decide on your future job". This kind of reason should not even cross our minds.