I refer to this question by André Henriques. It is nonstandard, and prima facie there is a clear case for closing it, and at the time of writing there is one vote to do that. However, I personally feel that this is an interesting and valuable question where the MathOverflow community can provide insight that would not be readily available elsewhere. So I thought I would open this space for discussion.

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    $\begingroup$ I think it is a good question, and I'd be glad if it remains open. $\endgroup$
    – Stefan Kohl Mod
    Commented May 28, 2021 at 9:35
  • $\begingroup$ I am conflicted - I instinctively find myself quibbling over the various contributions, and finding fault when I engage my "proving maths" brain; yet on the other hand I appreciate that perfectionism is the enemy of getting things done, and the various answers might raise awareness among people in one system of issues/ideas arising in another one $\endgroup$
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented May 30, 2021 at 14:40
  • $\begingroup$ Why so many down-votes to Neil's question? $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2021 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ @AndréHenriques Downvotes in meta generally mean disagreeing with the proposal. They do not carry a negative meaning towards the asker or the question like downvotes in main, and they are often given more liberally. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2021 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ @FedericoPoloni Thanks for the explanation. I didn't know. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2021 at 16:40
  • $\begingroup$ This post might be more appropriate, and get better responses, by asking a question rather than calling for discussion. It could be retitled: "Should we close 'Changes Forced by the Pandemic'?" $\endgroup$
    – user44143
    Commented May 31, 2021 at 1:40
  • $\begingroup$ @MattF. How ironic, I wanted to suggest the same thing for the original post 'Changes Forced by the Pandemic': it would get better responses if the title included a question. :) $\endgroup$ Commented May 31, 2021 at 8:38
  • $\begingroup$ @FedericoPoloni. I agree with you that the title was not very well worded (I tried to minimise the number of words in the title)... Now, it's of course a bit late to change the title, but what alternative wording for the title would you have liked to see? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2021 at 22:24
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    $\begingroup$ @AndréHenriques Why late? :) Anyhow, it is difficult for me to suggest a good title in my position. Maybe "How did the pandemic change a mathematician's job?", but I don't find it ideal either. That's why I didn't edit it myself or make this remark until someone else brought up the issue of titles. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 6:26
  • $\begingroup$ @FedericoPoloni I quite like "How did the pandemic change a mathematician's job?" and wouldn't mind if you changed the title to that. When I said that it's a bit late, I was just referring to the fact that the question is past its activity peak, so I see no real purpose anymore. Also it might make it more difficult for people X years into the future who want to go back and find the question (eg would it break the link from old.reddit.com/r/math/comments/nnc1v3/… ?) But please, do go ahead and change the title if you think that would be an improvement. :-) $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 6:49
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    $\begingroup$ @AndréHenriques Changing the title doesn't break links. Actually, everything after the last bar is ignored: mathoverflow.net/questions/393957/… . $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 15:56

3 Answers 3


In my view, the value of this question lies in the fact that, whereas each one of us is aware of the changes which our own institution has made, it is very likely that each person/institution did things slightly differently. So there's a lot to be gained by exchanging information.

For example, how does one deal with undergrad exams under pandemic circumstances?...
I'm sure that there's more than one way of running undergrad exams, but I'm only aware of what my own institution has done.

Here's another example: because of the pandemic, I decided to build a lightboard at home in order to give my classes (this was inspired by Ivo Vekemans - here's an example of him lecturing). Some people might not have been aware of lightboards...

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    $\begingroup$ I also made a lightboard (neil-strickland.staff.shef.ac.uk/lightboard.html) but did not end up using it very much. Instead, I mostly wrote on paper with a visualiser and recorded it with OBS or similar tools. I found the workflow for that quite painless, whereas the lightboard required multiple processing steps and was very awkward. Did you have more success than me? $\endgroup$ Commented May 28, 2021 at 10:02
  • $\begingroup$ @NeilStrickland My lightboard worked really well. I recorded three whole classes so far on it. One of them is publicly available here: andreghenriques.com/Teaching/CFT2020.html (Note that the image quality of the first few videos is less good than that or the later ones). I also recorded a bunch of seminar talks e.g.: andreghenriques.com/OSUseminar2020.mp4 $\endgroup$ Commented May 28, 2021 at 14:26
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, that's interesting, your results are very good. Can you say something about your camera and software setup? Were you recording through a mirror or did you do the reflection in software? $\endgroup$ Commented May 28, 2021 at 15:07
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    $\begingroup$ The reflection is in the software. The camera I used is a Canon Legria. I used OBS Studio for recordings, and OpenShot video editor for editing. But really, all the credit goes to my wife Ana: she's my IT support :-) $\endgroup$ Commented May 28, 2021 at 15:21
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    $\begingroup$ Hi André, I think you should consider adding this as an answer to your question. At least I hadn't seen it before, and think the videos that I saw look very nice indeed. $\endgroup$ Commented May 28, 2021 at 23:53
  • $\begingroup$ @JulesLamers I thought about it. The question is now unfortunately closed, so this is no longer an option. $\endgroup$ Commented May 29, 2021 at 8:12
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    $\begingroup$ @AndréHenriques There is a discussion on your same question on reddit old.reddit.com/r/math/comments/nnc1v3/… , mind the userbase, tone and rules might be different than MathOverflow's. $\endgroup$
    – AT0
    Commented May 29, 2021 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ Undergrad exams are generally off-topic here; they would be on-topic at matheducators.stackexchange.com $\endgroup$
    – user44143
    Commented May 29, 2021 at 12:30
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    $\begingroup$ @MattF. I agree with you that a question which asks specifically about undergrad exams would be inappropriate on MO. But my question is open-ended, and is intended to exchange knowledge and experiences. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2021 at 16:22

However, I personally feel that this is an interesting and valuable question where the MathOverflow community can provide insight that would not be readily available elsewhere.

That argument could apply to lots of off-topic questions, so I don't find it convincing. I suggest that we stop considering "but I want to reach mathematicians, and this is the largest community of them" as a valid argument at all. This criterion is too prone to abuse, and could apply to just about anything, for instance to an advertisement for office chairs.

You should not argue why it's good for this question to be seen by mathematicians; it's about why it's good for mathematicians to read it. And why it is on-topic on a Q&A site about mathematical questions, rather than on a blog, a news site, or another SE. If you cannot find more compelling reasons why MO is the right site for this question, in my view this is a red flag.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree with you that a similar question could be asked for other areas of academia. But mathematics does not work in the same way as other science disciplines. (I suspect that the ways in which the pandemic has disrupted the life of a chemist are rather different from the way it has disrupted the lives of research mathematicians.) Also, research conferences in math are structured very differently from research conferences in other areas. I'm interested about what mathematicians, specifically, have to say about this. $\endgroup$ Commented May 28, 2021 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ @AndréHenriques, how are research conferences in math structured differently from research conferences in other areas? $\endgroup$
    – user44143
    Commented May 29, 2021 at 12:31
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    $\begingroup$ @MattF. Math conferences have longer talks (60min), often delivered on blackboards, where the authors not only present their results, but also explain some of their proofs. By contrast, non-math conferences have much shorter presentations (20min), always powerpoint, which often happen in parallel: so the people presenting are competing for the attention of the audience. Most importantly, the time between talks is a time when new math can be created. This is very different from other disciplines, where the creation of new scientific knowledge is dependent on running an experiment in a lab. $\endgroup$ Commented May 29, 2021 at 14:00

I think these close/open fights are very unproductive. Personally I feel like this wasn't a great fit for MO and wouldn't have asked it myself, but I respect André's opinion a lot and if he thinks it's a good question then maybe I'm wrong, and I don't see what the point is having a big fight over it which is never going to resolve (in particular, because SE has such useless tools for this situation).

In my perfect world we'd have some system to allow some of these open-ended questions but at a rate that doesn't cause a problem. A reasonable open-ended question every few weeks is totally fine, and it seems like there should be some way to get to that without having an ugly fight every time.

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    $\begingroup$ I very much agree with this general sentiment, but to play devil's advocate: arguably the lack of hard-and-fast rules about the acceptability of these kinds of questions promotes the debates about them which happen every time they are posted. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 5, 2021 at 13:00
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, I could imagine some rules, but I’m not sure if they’re good ideas and they’re hard to make work technically. (Monthly meta thread where the highest voted soft question is posted to the site. Mods hard closing any second soft question posted while another is active. Asking a soft question requires spending 5k rep.) $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 5, 2021 at 13:17

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