the value of an old lesson

When I a young in the ways of being a grad student (postgrad to the British), my advisor Bernie Maskit gave me some advice that I’ve always carried with me.  To be a successful mathematician, he said, you need to have two things.  One is a good noise generator, the (figurative) voice in the back your head that spits out possible things to do, ideas to try, directions of mathematical travel.

The other is a robust filter.  After all, most of the ideas that come out of the dark nooks and crannies of your mind will be crazy (in the best possible way, perhaps), or unworkable, or wrong, or already done (as has happened a few times), or things to save for later, or things that are beyond what you know or even what can be done.  That’s not to say, don’t write them down, and so I got into the habit of writing things down.  But rather, not for now.

This is the first piece of advice I give to grad students when they start with me, and other grad students over an afternoon beer, or to anyone who will listen, to be honest.  And people who’ve known me for a while will have heard the bones of this story more times than I can count.

But lately I’ve been thinking about this basic structure of the idea generator and the filter, and the more I think about it, the more robust it gets.  In thinking about my teaching, for instance, I have lots of ideas that to be fair are crazy or unworkable or to be done later.  And both having the ideas, things to try, and the filter, the thing to try next which might be the one that works best, have stood me in good stead.

But the area where I think this basic structure has perhaps the most value is the administrative work I do.  Higher education in the UK is entering a period of turmoil, with the Teaching Excellence Framework and Brexit and just the general uncertainty now in the world, but also because the fundamental model underlying higher education everywhere is changing.

And here, we are always looking for new ideas, new ways of doing things, new things to try to address the problems that no one has yet been able to solve, and it is here that I think that we need better filters.

It’s easy to come up with an idea and launch into a new scheme.  But the question I’ve started to ask myself is, if in my research there are ideas that need some time to develop or a quiet place to be laid to rest, then why isn’t this true in the other areas of my work.  And I think it is.  There is great pressure to change, to do things differently, and we are all a-changing.  But perhaps we also need to engage our filters, to make sure that the change we’re enacting is change that will do us good in the long run.  Just a thought.

~ by Jim Anderson on 24 May 2017.

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