As the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed I have moved about my house in quest of the ever perfect Zoom station. My husband and I are lucky enough to have a house large enough that we can reconfigure our work locations, and we have several times as the pandemic and seasons have evolved. Various rooms are comfortable in summer but cold in winter, or are seasonal in other ways. (We have a large wall of windows facing west that make the living room unlivable for several hours on summer evenings, but this is exactly the season we are on the back patio, on the other side of the house in the cool shade etc etc).

I have discovered four main Zoom stations in my house: My desk with its appropriate backdrop of academic books; My living room couch is less formal and the background is eclectic but tasteful; The TV where I play video games has a man-cave feel but I only use it rarely and only for informal meetings; and Finally, next to the router in my bedroom where it feels like my entire life is on display.

To be fair, the bedroom with the router is also the man-cave and where my desk is located, but as configured what can be seen by the casual Zoom observer is more controlled and professional in every station except next to the router. The location is obviously out of necessity, and is the one where mission-critical Zoom meetings take place. When I need to share my screen for a class, use a virtual whiteboard etc, it is helpful to tap my computer directly into the Ethernet and have my iPad right next to the wireless router.

The mission critical Zoom station is also the one with the messy bed, dirty clothes and all the knickknacks and all the brik-a-brak that comes with a marriage and years of mismatched interests and collections.

I make it sound much more unseemly than it actually is. The bedroom is large and a minute of quilt-smoothing and kicking dirty clothes out of sight gets the background professional enough for teaching and mission-critical meetings. However, there are still decorating decisions and personality-reveals aplenty for the not-too-casual observer. Things that, of themselves are not objectionable or unseemly, but that would not ordinarily reveal themselves in the usual classroom or conference room setting.

Things that may require context.

No, no, no. I don’t collect Nazi memorabilia. There are no confederate flags or anything of the like. Nor would there ever be. However, spanning almost an entire wall is a 12-foot long poster celebrating the Men of Modern Mathematics.

Men of Modern Mathematics is a printed version of the History Wall from the Eames exhibition Mathematica: A World of Numbers . . . and Beyond.  The Eames Office produced the 12-foot timeline for IBM, who, for decades, distributed the teaching tool to schools across the nation. Unrelated comment: one of the green lamps was Anne Heche’s.

This poster, an icon of mid-century design (an obvious interest of mine revealed from any of the Zoom stations) is also an icon of misogyny. The title alone belongs in the trash bin of history. Though, as it ignores the contributions of all but one woman (the inimitable Emmy Noether), it is an accurate reflection of the sexist history of the field and the sexist history of design-icon Charles Eames.

All this being said, mathematics as a field up to the 1960s (and ever since), when the poster was produced, was (and is) male dominated. Things are slowly changing, but progress in the field (as currently configured) was dominated by European men up through the 19th century, and dominated by European and American men in the 20th. Much of the sexism (and Euro-centrism) on display is a historical reflection of the field of mathematics. Especially as seen from the viewpoint of the mid 1960s.

Charles Eames, however, bears some responsibility as well. In the description of Emmy Noether, the poster compares her to a man, and describes her as “fat, rough and loud”. Such reflections on manner and appearance are absent from the descriptions of contributions from men and represent a crude and overt form of misogyny for such a public document.

So why keep it?

If it’s sexist, why do I keep it? I feel like a Confederate apologist here, but the poster really is a marvel of design. It is a wealth of information, both mathematical and cultural. The field of mathematics really was, and is sexist, but the poster for the most part focuses on the mathematical contributions of the contributors.

Moreover I have fond memories about how the poster came into my life (they are actually somewhat valuable because of the icon status of Charles Eames). My friend and co-postdoc Melissa and I stumbled upon a stack on a table in the hallway of the UBC math department. UBC still had mandatory retirement, and a stack had emerged from some dusty pile in the cleanup of an old-timer’s office. Melissa and I both took a couple (they were large even in folded form and we were both itinerant postdocs for which bulky items were a long-term inconvenience). Being adherents to the mid-century design aesthetic, we felt like we scored. From an investment perspective, we did.

So I have a sexist poster on the wall, which sucks. But I also have a remarkable piece of educational design and a reflection on the field of mathematics from the viewpoint of 1966, which is kind of cool.

It also looks really good in the room, he said sheepishly.


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