09 January 2007

Xanga, cleaning, and reputations in academia

Julia:

I wonder why so many asian people use xanga. I guess a lot of people on xanga post personal photos and links to friends, so it's sort of more like using facebook or asian avenue or something. But still, lots of asian people use xanga, and I dunno why.

Just finished a cleaning marathon for the day. Now that I'm not in high school anymore, with my mom telling me to make my bed and sisters making their beds first and then looking at me disapprovingly, cleaning, cooking and washing dishes have become really fun and fulfilling. You can read and write forever and still not be done with your work. But once you're done cleaning, things are clean and look good. Since I spend most of my time sitting at my computer working at home, washing dishes is really fun. Soap suds and hot water everywhere, then shininess.

I just read this article in the New Yorker from half a year ago about the Russian mathematician who solved Poincare's conjecture, then turned down the Fields medal and left the math profession because he could no longer do math for the love of the game. Then, there was this very famous Chinese mathematician who had made his name early in his career with another theorem, then continued prolifically publishing smaller papers of lesser substance. Right after the Russian guy came out with his Poincare proof, the Chinese guy published another paper on Poincare, claiming the Russian guy's proof was unclear, and furthermore had a substantial hole in it (there wasn't), then reworked it with an alternative version of the original proof.

A friend of mine told me he thought that story pretty accurately mirrored the kinds of politicking that went on in his own department. A lot of my friends not in academia tell me they think it's strange that reputation counts for so much in academia. I read this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education a long time ago, once, which described the mentoring system in academia as a pyramid scheme. You're always looking to impress superiors so they'll write you recommendations and spread your reputation, and you pay back your debts later by writing a tons of recommendations and trying to talk up your own students. Reputation becomes this thing with a will of its own, sometimes so disconnected to your actual work that it's totally determined by the people who know you. But still, everyone's reasonable and smart, and I still think if you read someone's work and it doesn't match their reputation, you'll come to your own conclusions.

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