Monday, August 17, 2009

Recommendation Letters

A few years ago I read a NY Times article that has stuck in my mind. I'm not sure if I found the same article, but I did find two that had similar points to make. Here are the relevant sections:


Women in Science: The Battle Moves to the Trenches

Dr. Steitz cited a study of letters of recommendation written for men and women seeking academic appointments. Though all the applicants were successful, she said, and though the letters were written by men and women, the study found that the applicant’s personal life was mentioned six times more often if the letter was about a woman.

Also, Dr. Steitz said, “For women, the things that were talked about more frequently were how well they were trained, what good teachers they were and how well their applications were put together.” When the subject of the letter was male, she said, the big topics were research skills and success in the lab.


For Women in Sciences, Slow Progress in Academia

Mel Hochster, a mathematics professor at Michigan, belongs to a committee of senior science professors that gives workshops for heads of departments and search committees highlighting the findings of numerous studies on sex bias in hiring. For example, men are given longer letters of recommendation than women, and their letters are more focused on relevant credentials. Men and women are more likely to vote to hire a male job applicant than a woman with an identical record. Women applying for a postdoctoral fellowship had to be 2.5 times as productive to receive the same competence score as the average male applicant. When orchestras hold blind auditions, in which they cannot see the musician, 30 percent to 55 percent more women are hired.


It's the letter writing bias that I'm interested in here. I haven't found any research to back this up, but I believe that letter writing also shows unconscious racial bias as well as gender bias. For example, letters for my Latino friends emphasize that they're "laid-back" and easy to get along with instead of emphasizing their intelligence, research success, etc. While being easy to get along with is certainly a good trait, perhaps even one that belongs in one paragraph at the end of a letter, it should never be the focus of a recommendation letter - it should not be emphasized over the research accomplishments of the applicant. Letter writers often hold back women and minority applicants by their, often unintentional, lack of emphasis of the skills necessary for the job.

Yet it's so easy to fix! After all, a recommendation letter need not be subject to societal biases - there are many chances to read it over to correct for these, and the writer may try anew for each new letter. And so, as I prepare to enter the job market, I encourage all of you who may be writing letters (for me or anyone else) to examine your letters through this lens, and make sure you're expressing an appropriate evaluation.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Numb3rs Algorithm Clips

One of the things I've been enjoying doing while teaching Algorithms during this summer session is including algorithm explanations from Numb3rs whenever possible. Unfortunately, due to copyright constraints, I can't share the actual clips with all of you, but I can at least tell you where to find them. (My limited understanding of the copyright law is that since I bought the episode - $2 from iTunes - I can show short clips for educational use in my classroom. I could be wrong, so proceed based on your own understanding.) Here are the clips by algorithm/problem, episode, title, and approximate time within the episode.

  • Art Gallery Problem - Season 2, Episode 3, Obsession. 9:05 - 9:20. This is unfortunately a very short clip that doesn't really give a statement of the problem.
  • Dijkstra's Shortest Path Algorithm - Season 3, Episode 23, Money for Nothing. 9:20 - 10:10. This gives a nice description of greedy algorithms in general (via the change algorithm, though without David E's more detailed comments) and an overview of Dijkstra's algorithm.
  • Knapsack Problem - Season 3, Episode 24, The Janus List. 18:30 - 19:00. This clip gives a nice and mostly compete description of the problem in the context of "things you would bring on a hiking trip" based on weight and their importance.
  • P vs. NP - Season 1, Episode 2, Uncertainty Principle. 18:30 - 19:00. The P =? NP problem is a theme running throughout this episode... but unfortunately there's no nice clip that summarizes the problem, just lots of shots of Charlie working hard and a mention of the Minesweeper Consistency Problem. The specific times I mention are as close as I could find to a useful clip for teaching purposes.
  • Monty Hall Problem - This is a clip that's actually on YouTube, so I'll let whoever posted it take the blame for the copyright issues and just give a link.
  • The Seven Bridges of Konigsberg - Season 2, Episode 9, Toxin. 24:30 - 25:20. If you imagine that this problem would look beautiful if well-animated and described, you're right.
  • Voronoi Diagrams - Season 2, Episode 10, Bones of Contention. 29:45 - 30:25. A description of Voronoi diagrams in terms of "the closest place to find a cheeseburger."


I've been thoroughly enjoying watching these clips in class, and I think my students have too. Perhaps this will become a running series as/if I find more. If you know of any additional clips, from Numb3rs or elsewhere, please leave them in the comments.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Purple With Glee


The (Maryland portion of the) purple line, the mythical creature of DC, much spoken of and never seen, took a step towards reality today. Maryland governor O'Malley announced his support for the light-rail version of the line (much preferable to the bus rapid transit version) and his intent to apply for federal funding. Getting to this seemingly insignificant step has taken forever since there's been a lot of resistance from (rich, white) locals in Montgomery County (who don't ride public transit anyway) who are upset that the Metro will run through a local park (that wouldn't exist if it weren't for the existing right-of-way).

Any of you who attended STOC (held in Bethesda) and had some desire to visit U of Md at College Park may have noticed how exceedingly inconvenient that was by public transit. Now look at the proposed map and imagine my glee should this ever actually be built (long after I have already graduated).