Opinion 59: The Rutgers Math Department's Executive Committee's Decision to Forbid Sleeping and Other Improper Behavior in Seminar and Colloquium Talks Should Be Adopted by All Mathematics Departments

By Doron Zeilberger

Written: April 1(!), 2004.

Mathematicians, as a whole, are a conservative bunch. They really cherish their traditions, and are very reluctant to change them, even when they are clearly objectionable. Sure enough, some traditions are harmless, like scribbling math on a napkin, even when real paper or laptop are readily available. Another tradition, that may be harmful to the individual, but does not affect other people, is excessive coffee drinking, that is considered `cool', ever since Erdos quipped: ` A mathematician is a machine that turns coffee into theorems'.

We mathematicians always get annoyed when a non-mathematician friend exclaims, not without pride, `I am terrible at math', implying that it is `cool' to be bad at math, and implicitly insinuating that those who are good at math are boring nerds. But much worse, in my opinion, is the tradition, amongst mathematicians, to sleep at Colloquium and Seminar talks, often flagrantly, and later coyly, `apologize', and sometimes not even.

We all know, and many worship, some great mathematicians who were or are, famous sleepers. For example, the great Hans Rademacher, who was never awake for a whole talk, and among those who are still with us, we have celebrities like Peter Lax (`who just can't help it', interestingly, only math has a soporific effect on him, I once saw him wide awake at an AMS Business meeting), Dick Askey (who always says: `I trust the speaker not to make any mistakes', on the other hand he never sleeps at math-ed talks, because he does not trust them a bit, especially calculus-reform advocates), and David Kazhdan, who always sits at the front row, fast asleep for the first 49 minutes (occasionally waking up for a minute here and there, only to go back to sleep) and then wakes up, and to everyone's amazement asks a `very good question'. I am not impressed, since it is much easier to ask `good' questions if you are only exposed to a tiny part of the talk, and do not get distracted by all the details.

Perhaps because of the fame and brilliance of these chronic sleepers, it is considered socially acceptable, and even chic, to sleep during conference, colloquium, and seminar talks. The only tabu is snoring, in which case the neighbor is allowed to wake the sleeper up, and the latter usually goes back to sleep, this time quietly.

With all due respect to tradition, I believe that this rude and impolite habit, of sleeping in talks, should be forbidden. That's why I proposed, to the Rutgers Executive Committee, to add to the departmental bylaws a clause that explicitly discourages sleeping, by punishing such objectionable behavior.

I am thrilled that my motion has just been approved (albeit with a very narrow vote: Five in favor, Four against). Anyone caught sleeping (by the seminar organizer or by the speaker, or by any colleague who is awake), will be first issued a warning. Subsequent offenses would be punished, first mildly, by assigning undesirable courses, like a 200-student Calculus lecture, or `Introduction to Mathematical Reasoning' (to a class of students, who will not and would not reason (mathematically) to save their lives). If that still does not help, then there is always the `no-merit-raise' stick, that would ensure that the offender's family will see to it that the chronic sleeper does not repeat his or her transgressions. Similar measures apply to other rude behavior, like the reading of newspapers (or even the Amer. Math. Monthly), grading, or doing one's own work.

The Rutgers Math Dept.'s Executive Committee's laudable decision is a landmark case, and I hope that many other US (and other countries!) Math (and other areas!) Departments will follow suit.

I know that this decision would be unpopular with the small but vociferous minority of constant or occasional sleepers, but it is about time that the silent majority of mathematicians, who get annoyed and distracted when they see (and hear) sleepers (especially in their own talk, I often lose my concentration and mess up at the first sight of sleep), will be accommodated.

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