“You’re not a mathematician – you’re a wizard!”
This was the verdict delivered yesterday by a group of Dungeons & Dragons fans who had come to ICMS for Doors Open Day, after being treated to some maths busking by me. I also think they went away convinced that I was a geomancer instead of a geometer – I really must work on my enunciation…
[An interesting aside, geomancy is apparently one of the seven "forbidden arts," along with necromancy, hydromancy, aeromancy, pyromancy, chiromancy (palmistry), and spatulamancy. Ah, I love Wikipedia.]
It’s been a stressful week for me, but culminated in a totally wonderful day of maths communication yesterday. In the morning I gave the first Edinburgh masterclass of the season to a group of 82 enthusiastic 13-year-olds, and some equally enthusiastic student helpers. When I commiserated with them on having to get up early on a Saturday morning, the response was “We’d always get up early for lectures if they were as interesting as this!”. Which is lovely and flattering for me, but really makes me sad that we aren’t doing enough in university to bring our subject alive. Of course not every lecture can be as fun as a masterclass, but there are far too many researchers for whom lecturing is a chore and who never make an effort to bring enthusiasm or interest to their subject.
I digress, but there was an interesting blog post on a related theme by Peter Rowlett this week. He asked whether it was possible to pursue a career in university teaching and lecturing whilst not being a researcher – a question I have full sympathy with as someone in exactly that position. For me the story has a happy ending: after a year and a half of trying to persuade the university that a full time outreach/teaching position was a Good Thing, I have finally got my contract extended to 3 years. It is great to know that the department and university value the things I do, but I would despair of being able to find a similar position were I ever to change universities. While good teaching and public engagement are listed as promotion criteria in many places, in practice they are rarely rewarded when compared with research output.
Another side of the story is that there are many people who do public engagement in their spare time who are not recognised for it. A job title such as mine (Mathematics Engagement Officer) can count for a lot, as my friend and collaborator Madeleine Shepherd has found many times. Although we’ve worked on many projects together, with her often the brains behind the ideas, emails proposing new engagement opportunities are often sent to me and rarely to her.
It was wonderful to see ICMS, where Madeleine works, being open to the public yesterday for Doors Open Day. The building, on South College Street, is a converted church and still has an original stained glass window, among other interesting features.
This was the first year it had opened as part of Doors Open Day and we had no idea how many visitors would turn up. In the end I think the count was at 229, most of whom were lured in by the promise of maths puzzles rather than an interest in the building itself. I was only able to attend in the afternoon (due to the masterclass in the morning) and had a huge amount of fun showing people my favourite topological tricks, card tricks and mathematical puzzles. Even those of the public who proclaimed they were bad at maths went away enthused by what they had learnt and wanting to share their new knowledge with friends and family. I hope that we can run such events more frequently instead of waiting for Doors Open Day every year!
This hope is not a forlorn one, as I have big plans brewing… I am currently recruiting undergraduates and postgraduates to be on my new Maths Outreach Team (with unfortunate acronym MOT), and hope to have a team of 10 people trained up and ready to engage by the middle of October. Once they are unleashed on the unsuspecting city of Edinburgh, there will be no end to the school workshops, festival exhibitions, website articles and puzzles, public lectures and impromptu maths busking. At least, that is the plan. If you know of any maths undergrads who would be interested in this, please spread the word!
On that note, it is time for me to head off and hatch more nefarious outreach plans. Please do leave a comment if you were at Doors Open Day, my masterclass, or if you have comments on the difficulties of being rewarded for good outreach and lecturing. Until next time…