A slighty modified version of this post was later published in the AMS Blog on Teaching and Learning mathematics
Being one of the few women in the men’s world of mathematics and computer science has lead me to look around and spot our flaws when inclusivity is concerned. Let’s not fool ourselves, even though we think of us as being pure objective minds beyond bias, the maths world is not an inclusive paradise. I can see it with my own eyes. The academic world I live in is made of mostly white folks (… men), mostly from western countries (Europe, US, Canada, and just a little bit of Asia), and if you look even closer, you’ll see that most of us come from well-off educated families. Except from the fact that I am a woman, I check all the other boxes myself and I am well aware of it. So the question remains: considering the multiple causes of this situation, the very unfair world we live in, what can be done? What can I do as a single individual in this world, when I’m busy fighting my very own fights earning my right to stay around? Well, I’m not going to answer that just right now, but I will share a very good experience I just had. I went to a maths conference that was different. For the first time, I felt it was indeed inclusive in a very very good way. And, it was very good maths too, so I was really happy. This conference was actually a CIMPA summer school in Colombia: ECCO 2016. Let me tell you how great it was.
First, a little bit of context. It was a summer school. As oppose to a classical conference where most presentations are short ones to announce new results, a summer school is usually made of mini-courses on a certain topic. It also means that the main audience is often made of students (master students, PhD students, even undergrads) but it is quite common to also see some postdocs and even professors as we are always keen on learning new things. It was in Colombia and the topic was combinatorics which happens to be my field. Actually, it is a recurrent event. From the website, you can read that it was the 5th time that it was happening (every other year). It started as a small event under the impulsion of Federico Ardila. He is a Colombian mathematician based in the US and we (the academic world) owe him many great researchers in combinatorics. I had noticed before that the number of Colombian people among researchers in combinatorics was astonishingly high, but before I met Federico I had no idea why. Most of this very active Colombian community is now organizing the conference. Over the years, ECCO has become quite a big event in combinatorics with a very good, well earned, reputation. This time, for the first time, it was a CIMPA school and there were over 100 participants.
Why was I there? That is a good question because I am not a student and I am not Colombian so there would have been reasons for me to just miss that this was happening. But I do Sage, and I even have a grant to basically go around and spread Sage to the mathematical world (see the OpenDreamKit). Also, I happened to know the French organiser who was required so that the school could benefit from the CIMPA funding from Europe (yes, Europe does some very great things sometimes). He suggested that I should go and organise some Sage sessions during the school. And so I did, and that was great both for me, for Sage, and for the students who benefited from the Sage lecture.
So why was this conference so good?
One thing that I found very surprising is that the students came from very different knowledge backgrounds: some of them were undergrads, some were master students, some were PhD students, some had experience with combinatorics, some did not. And of course, there were also postdocs and professors as I mentioned. Honestly, I didn’t think it was possible to make a conference that was interesting for so many different people with such a variety of knowledge bases. And still, they did it. I will give some of the good ideas they had, but I think the main thing was: they intended from the beginning their conference to be accessible and interesting for the entire audience instead of just a narrow selection. I am pretty sure they gave detailed instructions to the teachers. The class themselves were very high level mathematics, as you would expect from any summer school. So, of course, not everyone understood everything (that never happens): you cannot expect an undergrad to just perfectly follow a condensed high level course on a subject he / she has never heard of. But it was done in a way that everyone could get something out of it. I learned very interesting subjects which gave me new ideas for my research and undergrads could get direct insight of what combinatorics was about, often understanding much more than I would have expected.
That was probably one of the nicest aspect of the conference. Being in academia and travelling a lot, I get to meet people from a bunch of countries, but I don’t think I had ever seen that many nationalities! Of course Colombians and other South Americans, but also North Americans, and Europeans, and more. I counted 23 nationalities. Most of them were students who got to spend 2 weeks together, going out, dancing, exploring, and doing maths. Academia is a lot about network, but it is a very difficult network to enter when you come from the wrong country and such events can really change the way things are. Also, I liked that it broke the old colonialist structure of “western teachers” spreading the knowledge to poor little students from left out countries. It was an international crowd listening to teachers from an international background. It was European and North American students coming to Colombia to get maths knowledge along with the Colombian students.
Let’s stick to numbers: I counted about 25% of women among participants, and 2 classes over 4 were taught by women. Believe me, these are quite good numbers. On the first day, all speakers were women and I’m not even sure it was intended!
Code of conduct
The first time I heard about the notion of a Code of Conduct was when I started attending programming conferences, especially PyCon. The very idea appeared quite odd to me. To a French person, the idea of a list of rules often strikes as prudery especially when it comes from America. It is also very far from the spirit of maths conferences where the idea is, basically, that you only care about the maths stuff and the rest is mostly irrelevant. I do believe we should find a way to bring the idea of the code of conduct to the maths world but I have no idea how. It looks like such an exhausting lost cause and I have no time or energy for it. And so, I was very surprised to see that ECCO had a community agreement which was basically the same thing! I thought it was really well written, far from prudery, emphasising the diversity of the conference and the way to make it a comfortable place for everyone. I believe it was well enforced even though, I cannot know first hand. But what I could see is that the organisers made some time up for us to read it and also, later in the week, to come back to it and discuss it. My academic colleagues were a bit taken aback as they had never even heard of such a thing. But I will conclude this paragraph with a word from a female participant: “I was first very surprised and looked at it as an oddity. Then I remembered what it was being a grad student at conferences and of all the weird guys I had to avoid. So I figured, yeah, why not.”
The conference was in English as it is the common language in academia nowadays. But a special effort was made towards Spanish speakers, especially Colombian students so that they wouldn’t feel left out by the language. Many of the short talks given by students were done in Spanish. All the announcements were made in both languages. All the class material was translated in Spanish. I had prepared some Sage tutorials for my sessions, they were in English as I don’t speak Spanish. Well, they were translated by some of the organisers, sometimes overnight, so that the non-English speakers could benefit from them. Two of the teachers were native Spanish speakers. The number of non-Spanish speakers was too high for them to do the class in Spanish but, they made special efforts, sometimes explaining things in both languages. Also, I felt that the mathematical language was made accessible all throughout the conference by using clear simple definitions without prerequired knowledge.
It is quite usual to have exercises sessions in a summer school but here, they were special. The organisers had a very simple and great idea: each day, we would get a random number that would determine the 3 to 5 persons group we would be working with. Sometimes, the randomness was a bit modified to allow a uniform distribution of the professors among the groups. The result was great: I got to work with different people everyday, it gave me a good reason to participate and work on those exercises, I got to meet most of the students, I felt useful as I could use my knowledge to help the students understand the course material. It was a great time for the students, especially undergrads, to review the class material in a casual atmosphere where they had people around to answer their questions. Also, the exercises themselves were really well thought: they included very basic questions so that everyone could familiarise themselves with the class content but also advanced problems for those who already knew a bit and could go faster. At the end of the session, some students would go on the board and do the exercises. It was a good occasion for everyone (undergrads, master students and beyond) to show what they had understood, to make them confident that they were able to solve problems even though the course looked hard and they might have not understood a word when they first heard it.
This is a little detail but that quite summarises the spirit of this conference. After a few days, the organisers noticed that questions were coming mostly from the most experienced participants (postdocs, professors). It is indeed very hard to ask a question after a talk: you have to speak up in front of everybody, you feel like you didn’t understand much, that your question is just going to sound stupid, that you will sound stupid in front of everyone… So at some point, the organisers decided that the first question after each talk should come from an undergrad or a master student. It meant we had to wait a bit until one of them would feel strong enough (and pushed by the awkward silence) to speak up. And they were not stupid questions. I am not sure we stuck to this rule up to the end but it definitely helped “breaking the ice” for the younger students and make them feel like their questions were welcomed.
As I said, in most maths conference, everything that is not maths content is often thought as irrelevant. It was not the case here. Proof is they organized a panel where participants could ask questions to people at different points in their career: an undergrad, a grad student, a postdoc and a professor. I wasn’t there myself (I was visiting the great city of Medellin as you can read here in French) but I think it is a great idea. Most students have no idea what it’s like to work as an academic, they are entering the unknown. For many Colombian students, it often means applying to foreign programs when they have never left their home country. Getting a little feedback from people who are already out there is quite helpful!
The last thing I want to mention is how this conference was more than just a scientific event. All the Colombian organisers I talked to had the same desire to share their knowledge with their country, to make it better. That is why they were putting so much effort into this event. During the week, a public lecture was organised at Parque Explora, some kind of Science centre in the city. The speaker was Federico Ardila and it was advertised everywhere: in the street, in the metro! Actually, the room was big and full (a few hundreds) and most people were not mathematician. The lecture was great, you can look at it here, it is in Spanish but quite easy to follow. It was a great pleasure for me to see so many people being curious about mathematics, about knowledge. And I really liked the fact that it was connected to the summer school, that it was part of it. Also, I know that during the summer school, a week event was organised in the local high schools. I wasn’t part of it so I’m not sure what it was but the idea is great.
It worked. It was a great event! I believe everybody left with the feeling that they learned a lot and lived a great experience. Most people were staying in the same hotel and we would go out together, having dinner, going dancing (salsa!). At 3AM on the last day, after a great evening of salsa dancing, the students would not leave the bar that was trying to close down. They would say goodbye for ever, exchanging vows to stay in touch like young teenagers after a summer camp.
Not all conferences are like this. Actually, none of them are. I can understand that every conference has a different purpose, we cannot just apply everything everywhere. But, we could take this event as an example: I know I will. For me, this is how maths should look like most of the time, not 2 weeks every other years…