Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Women in late 19th/early 20th C Foundations of Mathematics

This post is essentially a scaffolding post for me to collect names and primary and secondary literature relating to women who worked in foundations of mathematics in the late 19th/early 20th C. The topic of today's post is actually something that came up in my 3rd year seminar last spring; I asked for input on the Foundations of Math mailing list, got a bunch of excellent replies, and never did anything with the material. I finally am now because I have the opportunity of soliciting some advanced undergraduate for short-term research projects, and would like to create at least one such project involving these women. Who are they, what did they do, what can we do to get their names better known?

  1. Alice Ambrose Lazerowitz wrote on logic and mathematical philosophy, and was a student of Wittgenstein.
  2. Marjorie Lee Browne wrote on set theory and logic.
  3. Izydora Dąmbska studied logic under Kazimierz Twardowski.
  4. Hilda Geiringer von Mises wrote on the geometrical foundations of mechanics.
  5. Olga Hahn-Neurath was a member of the Vienna Circle who worked in boolean algebras.
  6. Ellen Amanda Hayes taught logic.
  7. Grace Brewster Murray Hopper worked in the foundations of computation.
  8. Janina Hosiasson-Lindenbaum wrote on inductive logic and was the first person to publish on the ravens paradox.
  9. Sof'ja Aleksandrovna Janovskaja was Director of the Mathematical Logic Seminar at Moscow State University.
  10. Emily Elizabeth Constance Jones wrote defended Frege against Russell's criticisms in a reply to "On Denoting".
  11. Lyudmila Keldysh was a set theorist and topologist.
  12. Christine Ladd-Franklin was a student of Peirce's, and was originally denied a PhD by Johns Hopkins because she was a woman.
    • Russinoff, I.S., 1999, "The Syllogism's Final Solution", Bulletin of Symbolic Logic 5 (4): 451-469.
  13. Susanne Langer wrote a dissertation on Whitehead and published on type theory in the 1920s.
  14. Ruth Moufang wrote on foundations of geometry.
  15. Emmy Noether is responsible for a generalisation of mathematical induction known as Noetherian induction or well-founded induction.
  16. Eleanor Pairman worked in foundations of calculus, and also in early computing theory.
  17. Rózsa Péter wrote the first book in recursion theory and contributed to the field.
  18. Wanda Szmielew worked on the Axiom of Choice and proved the decidability of the first-order theory of abelian groups.
  19. Victoria Welby's significs, an analysis of communicative acts, was foundational to Brouwer's development of intuitionism.
    • Welby, V., 1896, "Sense, Meaning and Interpretation", Mind, N.S. 5(17): 24-37; (18): 186-202.
  20. Dorothy Maud Wrinch was a mathematician influenced by Russell's mathematical logic.
  21. Sofya Yanovskaya worked in the history and philosophy of mathematics, and was a host to Ludwig Wittgenstein when he visited Russia in the 1930.
  22. Grace Chisholm Young did research in set theory.

Not everyone on this list can be described as working in foundations, strictly speaking, but all of them were working logic and mathematics with a philosophical bent between roughly 1870 and 1940, and thus I'm happy to include them in the list.

Many thanks to Liam Kofi Bright, Gabriel Citron, Patrik Eklund, Richard Heck, Tatiana Levina, Alice ter Meulen, Aleksandra Samonek, Jeff Sarnat, Mate Szabo, and Rineke Verbrugge, who all contributed information in the list above.

Monday, November 13, 2017

A not-quite-review of The Intellectual Climate of the Early University, ed. Nancy Van Deusen

I have good friends. They know me well and care about my well-being. This is why when the most recent Oxbow Books catalogue showed up in many of our mailboxes, more than one of them sent me a like to this bargain: A collection of papers on The Intellectual Climate of the Early University, edited by Nancy Van Deusen and published by Kalamazoo in 1997. At 8GBP, I could hardly say no, and the book arrived yesterday.

Now, this isn't a review of it, because I make a point of reading the books I review cover to cover before writing said review, and I haven't had a chance to read any of this one yet. But even without having read it, there are a few things I can say about it.

It's a collection of papers in honor of Otto Gründler, which means the exact composition and subject coverage is subject to the whims of the contributors. Nevertheless, as I scanned the table of contents, I found the distribution of the papers over the possibilities quite telling.

The first three papers, by Marcia Colish, Nancy Spatz, and Gary Macy, are on theology. This is followed by one paper on arithmetic (by Barnabas Hughes), and two on music, one via theories of motion (by Nancy Van Deusen and Richard J. Wingell). Then there's a chapter on natural philosophy (by Richard C. Dales), and one on the condemnations of 1277 (by Leland Edward Wilshire), and then the book wraps up with a general discussion by Allan B. Wolter.

Anyone else notice what's missing?

That's right: The entire trivium. Now, maybe various aspects of trivial education are discussed throughout the chapters, but there is no index to the book, so there is no easy way to find out where these discussions are, other than by reading the entire book (which I do intend to do...eventually). (One could also note that there seems to be much more on the second half of the thirteenth century than on the first; perhaps it is because I am more of a thirteenth century person than a fourteenth century person, but 1250-1300 wasn't what I immediately thought of when I saw "early".)

This observation, regarding the lack of discussion of the trivium (and in particular, logic, my own pet topic), is not unique to this book, but is a part of a wider trend that I find quite perplexing. Part of the importance of the trivium stems from the fact that everyone who went to university would've studied it -- not every one went on to graduate school, and of those who did, not everyone went on to become a theologian, or a legal doctor, or a medical doctor. The trivium is what provides the foundation for all higher education in Europe from the early 13th century onwards, for clerics and non-clerics, for noblemen and non-noblemen. Given this, it always shocks me how little discussion there is of philosophical topics, and the trivium in particular, at medievalist conferences. The huge International Medieval Congress that Leeds puts on every year is an astonishing feat of organisation and medievalism, and I go every year that I can. But every year I go, I am astounded at how little there is that interacts with broadly philosophical concerns. Given how central the trivium was to the entire educated class in the High and Late Middle Ages, I don't see how one can read literature without knowing philosophy, or discuss politics without knowing philosophy, or investigate women's lives without knowing philosophy. These concerns intersect every other aspect of medieval life not only in subject matter but in the fact that the people who carried out that medieval life would have been educated in this fashion. It would be like medieval studies trying to conduct itself without a thorough grounding in the understanding of how the church influenced intellectual life not only among the clerics and monks and religious but also among the ordinary non-religious people. And yet, so often it feels like this is happening with respect to the fundamental philosophical education the movers and shakers were receiving.

This has something that has perplexed me from the very first IMC that I attended (in 2007, I think), where out of roughly 1300 papers there were precisely two on the topic of logic -- mine, and one scheduled exactly opposite mine (not just the same session slot, but the same paper slot within that session, so I couldn't even duck out of the session I was in and go to the other paper). It isn't quite so dire when broadened to philosophy as a whole, but even then the number of philosophical papers presented at conferences like these is a minuscule percentage. I have no idea where this isolation of medieval philosophy from much of the rest of the concerns of medieval studies comes from, and I'm doing my best to combat it, but it does sometimes feel like an uphill battle. (At Leeds 2017, it was a great victory that the session with three logic papers that I was a part of had nearly two audience members per speaker -- my personal bar for "successful logic session at Leeds" has always been "at least as many audience members as speakers", i.e., three speakers, and three nonspeakers. But this time we had 9-10 people! It was amazing! But also very sad that that should be a great victory.)

I'd love to hear thoughts from the more historically-oriented medievalists. How much do you know about medieval philosophy? About the curriculum of medieval education? Does it intersect with your own research? How so? If not, why not? Am I simply being egotistical, and ascribing to great a place of importance to the role of philosophy in the Middle Ages?

This has strayed rather far from my "not-review" of the book. But it is, after all, not a review. Hopefully after I have read the book, I can come back and do a proper review!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

October writing wrap-up

In September I started using a lovely little word-tracker website, WordKeeperAlpha, which allows you to track your daily words on different projects, as well as progress towards goals. I've found I haven't used the goals part of the website at all, but that's because of how I've divided up my projects. I have too many different projects for each to be its own category, so I've roughly divided up my writing into four categories:

  • Blog posts (yay, I get to count these words for my daily word count!)
  • Nonfiction (including words written on my textbook What Is Logic?, journal articles, book chapters, conference abstracts, etc., but NOT blog posts)
  • Fiction (self-explanatory)
  • Admin (referee reports, reports for committees, letters of recommendation, teaching prep like writing up homework assignments or answers to homework assignments)

The site keeps track of running totals per day, per month, and all time, and also gives you an average words/day for each month. There are also a couple of nice charts plotting out what percentage each project gets, both all time and per month.

September saw "blog posts" as receiving the biggest percentage of the words I wrote -- not surprising as I was gearing up for the launch of SFFReviews.com, a new review site for short sci-fi and fantasty stories. Now October has come to an end, and I can pause to reflect on my writing accomplishment that month.

In October, I wrote every day except for two; and of those 29 days, all of them except for two I wrote more than 400 words. In fact, my average over the course of the month was 1188 words/day, for a total of 36,855 words:

It's clear from the relative proportions of the four categories that the academic term started in October: My admin writing saw a huge jump compared to September, but also (very pleasingly) my nonfiction writing saw the same:

But what I find most pleasing is that my jump in admin and nonfiction writing did not occur at the expense of my fiction writing; slightly more than ~4500 words in September compared to ~6300 words in October. This is evidence for a claim that I've made before, which is that writing breeds writing: The more I write, the more I write. (It's hard to find a non-tautological way to express this sentiment. But it's not like I have X number of words in me to use up each month, and if I spend them all on nonfiction then I don't have any left over. No -- the more words I write, the more words I get to write.) Also pleasing is just how many days when I managed to write in three out of the four categories (I don't feel the need to strive for all four -- if I have a day when I don't have to do admin writing, I'm not going to count that as a loss). In fact, very few days did I write in only one category, and as the month went on, a clear correlation developed between making good progress on my nonfiction during the day setting me up well to work on my fiction during the evening (writing breeds writing).

I sometimes feel a bit guilty about writing fiction. One reason I like tracking my progress like this is that seeing these numbers and percentages makes it clear to me that I have no reason to feel guilty. I wrote over 17,000 words of nonfiction in October. If I had done nothing else, that would still have been a tremendous accomplishment. If I can maintain that, and write fiction along the way, I have absolutely nothing to feel guilty about.

November is going to be interesting. I'm participating in NaNoWriMo, so I hope to hit the 50,000 word count this month. But I'm not going to let that happen at the expense of my academic and other writing, which means my overall total for the month should hopefully be closer to 70,000 -- almost twice what I did this month. That's going to be quite the task, and I look forward to attempting it!

This post is a start. 747 words down, who knows how many left to go.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Information asymmetry and the "me too" meme

Since last night, my FB feed (but, strangely, given where it originated, not my twitter feed) has been filled with my friends posting "me too". The reason? (In case there is anyone who doesn't know):

If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote "Me too." as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

(Some people have changed it to "all the people", recognizing that not only women are sexually harassed and assaulted; some people have compared such a change to the shift from #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter. Which version you prefer matters not for the purposes of this post.) Friend after friend after friend of mine has posted it, to the point where there was a moment where all the feed visible on my phone was a litany of these posts, and many of these people have explicitly broken their "no meme participation" rules in order to do so.

So I've been thinking about this all day, because there is something about the final phrase about the explanation of the meme that bothers me, this idea that people by posting "me too" can indicate "the magnitude of the problem". I don't think that this is possible, or, at least, it depends on how you define magnitude, and this depends on the essential informational asymmetry about these types of memes.

With respect to memes of the "participate in this meme if you have had X happen" type, there are two types of people: Those who participate and those who do not. With respect to those who do participate, one can derive the consequence "if they participated in the meme, they had X happen to them" -- note that this is the converse of what the meme is actually saying! And that's where the problem arises. Participation in the meme can only get a greatest lower bound for an absolute number; that is, the sense of magnitude participation can convey any information about is the magnitude of "size". But this says nothing about proportion. This is because while every person who participates in the meme does so for the same reason, but not everyone who doesn't participates for the same reason. Some people are insular enough to never see it, and thus do not participate (this is probably a very low number of people, at least in some circles). Some people see it, but do not participate, for whatever reason -- perhaps they have a strict anti-meme participation rule. But some people will see it and not participate because doing so would falsify the "if they participated in the meme, they had X happen to them" consequence.

I've had reason to comment on a few of my friend's "me too" posts -- usually when someone else has said something to the effect "what's the point of this meme, we all know this has happened to EVERY woman". Well, no. I have never been sexually assaulted. I struggle to remember any incident which rises to the level of harassment. (Note that this latter fact is not entirely indicative; I've written before about my obliviousness about a lot of these things. However -- and this is best the topic of another post so I will not go into it in more detail here -- I also struggle with the possibility that one can be harassed without feeling that they are being harassed.) So the reason I have not posted "me too" is because I fall into that third category. Who knows how many other women are in my category? That isn't an idle rhetorical question: We don't know, and we can't, not with the way the meme is currently structured. This essential asymmetry between the participators and the non-participators mean that the magnitude that is being evidenced by the participators can only ever be one of strict cardinality, and not of proportion.

Maybe this isn't anything to be bothered by. Even (merely) demonstrating the magnitude of the cardinality is (perhaps) a worthy thing to do. But it does bother me, because it feels so imprecise. It feels like people are taking the data to say more than it really does -- that is, this is a bother to my scientific sensibilities more than anything else. But a bother is a bother and sometimes the best way to deal with the itch is to scratch it, hence this post.

But the bother isn't entirely a scientific one. It also bothers me on a more personal level. When I voiced my reasons for not participating in the meme, someone -- someone I don't know, a friend of a friend, and, more importantly, a woman -- questioned me on this. Someone whom I don't know did not believe me when reported my own experience (or lack thereof!) of sexual assault and harassment. As I commented in reply:

I'm rather curious that one issue that has given rise to this meme is women speaking out about harassment and assault and not being believed -- and yet, when I report on MY experience, people's response is to question. Trust me. Believe me. I have nothing to gain from lying in this context.

So, yeah, while I'm quite confident that speaking out about being assaulted or harassed and not being believed is way, way worse than speaking out about not being assaulted or harassed and not being believed, I do think that a misinterpretation of the "magnitude" being illustrated as one of proportion instead of cardinality contributed to my having to justify my own experiences to another person, whom I don't even know, but whose default position was to suspect my self-testimony.


EDIT: Thanks to the varied and thoughtful conversations of my friends on FB in response to linking to this post, I think I may have just discovered what bothers me. It certainly isn't the meme (other than the fact that so many of my friends have cause to participate in it -- that CERTAINLY bothers me), or people participating in the meme (ditto prev. parenthetical), but rather that one participates in the meme to show the magnitude of the problem.

THAT is what I think is the problem, because it doesn't do that, because of the information asymmetry.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

"I'm thinking of an animal...": Public Announcements and Gricean Implicatures

Yesterday walking home from school, G. and I mutually stumbled upon a new game. Neither of us had ever played it before (or even heard of it before), and yet it was one of those games where it was completely obvious what the right rules were. The game is "I'm thinking of an animal", and it goes something like this:

  1. Person 1: "I'm thinking of an animal that swims."
  2. Person 2: "A fish."
  3. Person 1: "I'm thinking of an animal that swims and flies."
  4. Person 2: "A flying fish."
  5. Person 1: "I'm thinking of an animal that swims and flies and bends its head underwater to eat."
  6. Person 2: "A swan?"
  7. Person 1: "I'm thinking of an animal that swims, flies, bends its head underwater to eat, and has many colors."
  8. Person 2: "A duck!"
  9. Person 1: "Yaaay!!!"

Or another version:

  1. Person 1: "I'm thinking of an animal that lives in the desert."
  2. Person 2: "A camel!"
  3. Person 1: "Oh, I thought that one would be harder."

Or this fun instance:

  1. Person 1: "I'm thinking of an animal that loves to fly."
  2. Person 2: "A bird."
  3. Person 1: "I'm thinking of an animal that loves to fly and has clear wings."
  4. Person 2: "A fly?"
  5. Person 1: "I'm thinking of an animal that loves to fly, has clear wings, and isn't true."
  6. Person 2: "Oh, a fairy!"
  7. Person 1: "Yaaaayyyy!!!"

(It's a great game).

Of course, #occupationalhazard, I started thinking about what sort of strategies are being used to play such a game, and what sort of properties make certain moves good or bad, and how one would go about modeling this. Clearly, Player 1 is making public announcements that successively carve pieces out of Player 2's epistemic space until Player 2 is left with either the right option (in which case Player 2 wins) or no option (in which case Player 2 loses). But winning and losing isn't merely a matter of guessing the right answer or not; if Player 2 gets the answer right after the first clue, then it's a victory but not a very satisfying one; Player 1 should've been more strategic.

This strategic aspect of Player 1's choice of clues to give is intimately tied up with Grice's conversational maxims, specifically the maxim of quantity:

The maxim of quantity: Be as informative as one possibly can, giving as much information as is needed, and no more.

If Player 1 played according to this maxim, she'd offer as a first clue something like "I'm thinking of an animal that moos" or "I'm think of an animal that is called 'cow' in English" -- and these entirely defeat the purpose of the game. The first clue does need to narrow down the possibility space somewhat ("I'm thinking of an animal" is of no use, nor even is "I'm thinking of an animal that is alive" -- though the complement of that, "I'm thinking of an animal that is extinct", is a good first clue!), but after that, the best way to play the game is for Player 1 with each successive clue to:

  • Make an announcement that clearly excludes the previous wrong guess of Player 2
  • Exclude as little else as possible.

Bonus points if you can give clues that misdirect, e.g. "lives in England" followed by "has two legs" and a few others before following up with "talks", at which point I finally realised the answer wasn't any kind of bird, but rather humans! Or when I did "goes very slow", "likes water", "has a shell", hoping to trick her into saying snail when I was aiming for tortoise.

Another dimension that makes the game interesting is the presence of common knowledge amongst the group of players that is unlikely to be shared by people outside that group. For instance "you cuddle with this animal at night" and "I have a pair of socks with them on" are unlikely to elicit "lemur" from many other pairs of players, whereas it was a dead give away for us.

So, what then is the best strategy? The first public announcement Player 1 makes needs to be understood to be carving away a large portion of the candidates, while still leaving a large enough set behind, and successive announcements should be made flouting the maxim of quantity as much as possible, that is, one should try to say as little as possible with every given announcement, all the while being sensitive to the group knowledge of the players.

It's a fun game (and easily extendible to "I'm thinking of an X" for pretty much any X), and because Player 1 (who knows the answer) controls the rate of reduction of the model, it is less open ended than similar games like "20 Questions", where it is Player 2 (who doesn't know the answer but asks the questions) who controls the rate of reduction. You should play it!

Edit: Just after I published this, Rineke Verbrugge over on FB mentioned an excellent paper touching on many of the aspects illustrated in "I'm thinking of an animal...": Rineke Verbrugge & Lisette Mol, "Learning to Apply Theory of Mind", Journal of Logic, Language and Information 17 (2008): 489-511.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Advice to master's students writing seminar papers

Recently I marked two seminar papers written by master's students in my department, and despite the two papers being quite different in both style and content, at the end of my detailed comments I found I had comments to offer to both students that were virtually identical: General advice on how to go about writing a paper for a graduate seminar. This is advice that I never really got as a student, and I suspect many other philosophy graduate students haven't/didn't/won't get it either, because as a discipline philosophy seems remarkably bad at teaching people how to write. Given that in the span of a week I had cause to write up slightly different versions of this advice for similar contexts, I figured I'd write it up (with bits specific to the two papers I marked redacted because that content will vary from paper to paper) and post it here and then I can simply point students to the post. (Of course, this advice isn't only applicable to writing graduate seminar papers -- I'm sure some of it can be applied elsewhere!)

I'd like to make a few general comments about the structure of the paper and about the paper-writing process in general, that will hopefully be helpful for future essays.

A first draft is rarely (almost never) a final draft. The present paper is the sort of draft you need to write in order to figure out exactly what you want to say, but once you've figured that out, most papers then need to be almost completely overhauled. Once you've produced a draft like this, ask yourself:

1. What is it that I want to be able to claim?

This should already be articulated in the conclusion of the draft. Here, it seems that your primary conclusion is [conclusion redacted], which is quite an interesting conclusion, integrating a number of disparate topics and fields, one mark of good original and independent thinking.

Once you have this, then ask yourself:

2. What do I need in order to be able to make this claim?

This is a nuts and bolts questions: What are the tools and concepts you need/will use? A number of needs are immediately present from that conclusion: (a) a definition of [redacted], (b) information about [redacted], (c) definition of [redacted]; as well as the other pieces that you use in your argument along the way, such as the notions of [redacted], [redacted], [redacted], etc. Make a list of these, and make sure that every single one is clearly defined/articulated at some point in your final paper.

Once you have the list of things you know need to be defined at some point, then ask yourself:

3. How do all these pieces fit together into an argument for the conclusion I want?

The process of writing the first draft will help make it clear how you need to put the pieces together and structure your arguments; to find out if you've done it the way you need to in the draft, try reverse outlining: Construct an outline of the argument on the basis of what you've already written. Does it make sense? Are all the pieces in order? Are the parts defined before they are used? Is there a clear thread?

Once you have this, then you're in a position to write an introduction which clearly articulates your starting points, your conclusion, and how you will get from the one to the other, and from there, rewriting the paper should be straightforward.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Conferencing with a kid: An experiment

Last week I conducted an experiment.

When I contemplated the path of academic motherhood, I had starry-eyed dreams of traveling to exotic places and bringing my child with me, of giving her the opportunity to go to countries she wouldn't otherwise go to, and to build up some special mother-daughter experiences of a lifetime with me.

In slightly more rational moments, I knew that such dreams don't just come true on a whim, but need to be worked towards. G. has been integrated into my research activities from the start; her first academic event was Latin reading group when she was 11 days old, and her first conference was when she was a few days shy of one month. While I usually leave her behind when I travel, I have accepted some invitations to speak on the condition that accommodations for her be included in the accommodations for me. I've hired childcare on the other end, with the help of local friends. I've flown my mom over from the US to meet us in Portugal so she could watch G. for me; I've brought my husband with a couple of times; I once replied to an invitation to speak with the suggestion that if the budget covered it, they also invite him because we both worked on the same project and we could both speak on different aspects of it. But since she stopped being a sleeping babe in arms, I'd never brought her to a conference without any childcare provisions.

She's 5.5 now, and just finished up her first year of school, meaning she has a full year's worth of understanding of sitting still, being quiet, listening to others, and asking questions -- which is basically what a conference is. I'd already been away for three conferences since the beginning of June, so when I was making plans to go to the Time and Modality workshop in Bonn last week, it occurred to me that I should bring her with.

This seemed like a good venue for experimenting, a relatively short workshop with a smallish group of people, many of them I have known for a long time. If worse came to worst, I could skip a few talks and wander the city with G., but what I hoped was that she would be able to sit with me and learn how to be a conference participant. We had a long talk about proper conference behavior, and I asked her if she still wanted to come with, and she said she did. In exchange, I went armed with everything I thought would help make things go smoothly. We brought plenty of books, three brand-new new coloring books, as many stuffed toys as she could fit in her suitcase, and I promised that in the afternoons, she could watch a movie or two on my laptop.

And she did brilliantly. I'm not sure I have ever been so proud of my daughter. Our plane was delayed so we didn't get to Bonn until the end of the first day of talks, but we joined the group for supper, and she sat and colored and didn't complain even though it was long past her usual supper time, and we didn't get back to the hotel until long past bedtime. (Repeat this refrain for the next two evenings!). The next day, she spent the entire morning sitting quietly next to me, or under the table, coloring, and during the coffee breaks she gave out colored pictures to each of the participants. In the afternoon, she sat in the anteroom of where we were, and watched movies, and then came and sat on my lap while we played pen and paper games that didn't involve any talking. Rarely did she interrupt me (e.g., for the bathroom), and she always slipped into the room and came to me as quietly as possible. The next morning, my talk was the second one of the day. It was an hour-long talk (including discussion), and she was an absolute star, sitting and coloring near the front of the room (and then eventually sitting next to one of the participants who kindly started coloring and making paper rabbits with her), once or twice come over for a hug. (I've long learned how to continue lecturing on logic in the midst of hug interruptions.). In the afternoon we settled her in the office of one of the organizers -- rather far away from where the workshop actually was, but because it was a weekend the building was empty, and we practised the trip back and forth so she knew how to come find me if needed -- and the quiet time (in a much cooler place than the actual venue!) was really useful as it perked her up enough to be able to survive another late night.

Some observations drawn from this experiment:

  • Having lots of conversations in advance with G. about what conferences are, what would happen at them, what proper conference behavior is, and what my expectations of her was really useful. She rose to the occasion admirably because she knew what was going on and what she needed to do.
  • If you miss the talks on the first day of a conference, and then show up to join the group for dinner with a child in tow, someone will assume that you're someone else's +1 (or +2 in our case!); I'm sure the fact that I was a woman contributed to this.
  • 5 year olds are very good at spotting gender disparities at conferences. That first dinner, there was ~15 of us, and G. loudly announced at one point, "Mummy, there's only THREE girls! You, me, and that lady!"
  • Things were a bit better during the days, with more women in the audience, but I had a startling realisation on the last day of the conference that I -- 35 years old, on the cusp of getting of the UK equivalent of tenure -- was the senior woman at the conference. That is the topic for another post, but when I realised this, I realised how much more significant it was that I was there with my child.
  • If you take a child to a conference, no matter perfectly well behaved they are, you will never be able to do enough to feel entirely comfortable. There is only so far you can go, and the other conference participants have to go the rest of the way in order to make things work. Luckily, people here did.
  • So, you're at a conference where someone else has brought their child. What can you do do go the rest of the way? Plenty:
    1. If you've ever brought your child to a conference, tell the parent this. It's amazingly reassuring to hear retired senior men recount stories of when they brought their child to conferences with them.
    2. Volunteer to read to the child during, e.g., lunch. Not only will the child love having someone read to her, the parent will appreciate the change to have an uninterrupted conversation with fellow participants!
    3. If the child is well behaved, tell the parent this. Though G. was always quiet as a mouse when she would interrupt me, it was hard not to feel like I was a distraction when I'd slip out to take her to the bathroom. Having someone say "My kids are her age, I don't think they would have done anywhere near as well as she's done" means a lot.

There were a couple of "above and beyond" encounters that also contributed to this being such a positive experience. One fellow parent happily colored with G. during my talk (he was also the one who then read to her during lunch; after this, G. announced to him, "I want to stay with you FOREVER!"), and he also said "next time you see my name on the programme of a conference you're going to with G., tell me, and I'll bring my kids." THAT is one of the best things that can be done, to help normalize such situations. Not everyone has the luxury of bringing their children with you; sometimes, it's a necessity (it wasn't a necessity for me, this time, but there have been other times). If you do have that luxury, exercise it. This helps make it more accepted for those who have to do it. Here's a place where using your privilege can actually benefit those with less privilege.

All in all, the experiment was a rousing success. I'm glad we did it, and look forward to when we get to do it again (because it will only get easier).