The Joint Meetings: talks, mathematical beauty, and scarce wifi

January 18, 2014, 9:10 am

Greetings from Baltimore, where I am currently at the American Mathematical Society/Mathematical Association of America Joint Meetings. As noted in my last post, this is the Big Annual Meeting for mathematicians. It’s not as juicy as the MLA meetings and I will not be giving  detailed analysis like Tenured Radical gave of the AHA meetings. Mostly this is because somehow I managed to sign up to give four presentations at the Joint Meetings and do another presentation on a Project NExT panel. (What can I say? I have poor impulse control.) So I’ll keep my observations confined to this one post.

What I’ve seen and noticed at the Joint Meetings:

1. Giving five 15-minute presentations at the same conference does not seem like that much work after having done a 90-minute plenary talk and a couple of 6-hour workshops. But it’s too much, because I really haven’t been able to focus on what other people have been doing. Hard to go to talks when you are giving so many of your own. So next time I’ll keep it down to, say, three talks.

2. The most impressive thing I have seen here are the MAA sessions on Flipping the Classroom. A couple of years ago, the last time I was at the Joint Meetings, there were no such sessions, and talks about the flipped or inverted classroom were few. This year there are four sessions on the flipped classroom, averaging about 8 talks in each session, and the one session I attended in full was packed with at least 50 people in every talk. I attribute this in great part to the great job that Krista Maxson and Zsuzsanna Szaniszlo did in organizing these sessions. But there would be nothing to organize if there weren’t some serious groundswell of interest among college and university professors in the inverted classroom to start with. You get the sense that the flipped classroom might just be getting past its own hype.

3. The second most impressive thing I saw was a talk by MIT legend Gil Strang in the MAA Session on teaching linear algebra. He spoke about some simple proofs involving the “four fundamental subspaces” in linear algebra. Gil Strang has been teaching linear algebra, and talking about the four fundamental subspaces, since forever — probably to thousands of students. And yet, here in an MAA session he presented these proofs with a sense of genuine astonishment and appreciation for the beauty of this approach, and with such verve that you couldn’t help but smile through the entire talk. I hope that when I am at a similar stage in my career as Gil is in his, that I am still as taken with the beauty of mathematics as he is.

4. Baltimore has amazing food. And you get what you pay for.

5. Conference centers and hotels that operate on the scarcity model of technology need to be avoided by conference organizers. Why are there not electrical outlets every ten feet in the Baltimore Convention Center? Why is there not free wifi, or at least cheap wifi, or for that matter any wifi?

6. Check out this great writeup by the Baltimore Sun about the joint meetings. Rarely do you get “layperson” reporters reporting on mathematicians who really get it right. Kudos.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go give a talk.

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