Manager and Proud: Interview with Ekaterina Volzhenina
What defines a good university? Is it students’ achievements, cutting-edge research, or exciting projects? The success of the university depends on many different things – that’s why international university rankings use complex methods and take many criteria into account. A university's administration, however, is often overlooked—despite being responsible for the smooth functioning of a university's finances, programmes, and daily life. To correct this injustice, we are starting a series on the invisible heroes of academe. Our first is Ekaterina Volzhenina, manager of the Centre of Deep Learning and Bayesian Methods, who also teaches history at HSE University. She told us about how her work changed during quarantine, discussed how our ancestors fought the Pechenegs, and tried to answer the eternal question of who will save the world — poets or scientists?
Can you tell us about your background and how you came to work at the Faculty?
I am a historian with expertise in genealogy (telling beautiful and true stories about someone’s ancestors). I taught at a school, now I am here. Working at a school was interesting but hard. I think attending Russian school is like being in the army. And one month there should count as at least two.
Why the Faculty of Computer Science? For a variety of reasons. I wanted to learn something new and more, let’s say, practical than narrative historical research. School teaching is a pleasure only for people who are very passionate about it. Managing greatly enhances communicative skills (whereas working at a school comes with its own communicative style), and I needed that.
I have learned quite a lot and never regret my choice.
What does a manager of a laboratory do?
First, try to avoid turning researchers’ lives into a bureaucratic nightmare every time they need to solve an administrative problem. Basically, you're a living safety cushion for researchers.
Second, the manager is a communication channel between the laboratory and the university in general and a translator from the administrative language and back.
These two things are essential, while other things are applied tasks.
What is harder, teaching or managing?
Well… Managing is kind of harder because the tasks are diverse and sometimes urgent. But this is only applicable to the teaching of history in general as it was last year.
How did your work change during the pandemic?
Working from home is not a burden for me, that’s for sure. Some processes are slower, but it’s tolerable (I am talking about managing). I always liked Telegram chatting and often communicated with my colleagues this way.
This complicated and unpleasant situation forces one to find pros (to not become disheartened) wherever one can. The fact that many employers and employees now understand that working online can be productive is a pro, in my view.
As for teaching, it has only become better. Some students don’t enjoy talking. Not everyone likes essays and tests when they're in a general course for non-historians. Asking questions and writing comments in chat turned out to be a fine way to work. Those who did not shine offline improved and got grades that they deserved.
At universities, ther main focus is on the achievements of professors and students. Do you think that the work of a university's administrators is just as important?
It is definitely important. I think that it is vital to educate good university administrators. This is not my private opinion – HSE University has developed an Administrative Skill Pool project for this very purpose, and I'm gladly participating. It is necessary to develop university management of different levels precisely in order to increase the university's research and educational capacities—not for its own sake.
What will save the world, the humanities or the sciences? What happens more often, researchers make mistakes in historical dates or you mess up technical terms?
Our laboratory would be quite a lab if we all sat down and discussed historical dates!
I can picture it: 'Forget the NeurIPS deadline; let’s remember how our ancestors fought the Pechenegs in 1036!'
To be serious, my colleagues who specialize in mathematics know the humanities much better than I know technology. It’s not about me or them, it’s about Russian education (especially at school) and about the type of intellectual that persists for centuries. For a very long time an educated person has been one who speaks languages, knows history, perhaps law, political science of their time, is well-read (in the 20th century of cinema, well-versed in film, too), able to distinguish if not iambic verse from trochaic verse, than Gaugin from Van Gogh. This is a portrait of a classical scholar. Take the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If you want to succeed with your mind, enrol at the classical gymnasium, not a technical school.
The 20th century is slowly changing the situation, the great argument between physicists and poets ensues, the Soviet Union presents a new intellectual type, the engineer (which persists in Russian culture to this day), but it is still very slow.
Throughout the 20th century is was possible (less and less possible now!) to be known as a decent person without much scientific knowledge. The fashion for a non-humanitarian intellectual is so rare that one can only recall Einstein (even Tesla, in my view, became famous posthumously).
Naturally, all these years have determined the classical direction of general education. I and all my colleagues at the lab are the products of the post-Soviet education system, which has invented no new approach in creating a 'normal person'.
Being a part of this system and a bona fide humanities person (me here), one gets some knowledge of the humanities (a vast one, if the student was not lazy and had good teachers) and learns some laws of physics, the term “valency”, and how to solve basic equations. If one was a straight-A student, they might have learned some science, but it was easy to avoid these subjects. Being a techie, one gets a knowledge of mathematics, physics, chemistry, etc., but one isn't allowed to avoid the humanities. It’s all that simple, thanks to the combination of planning, traditions, and stereotypes (“You don’t know Euler’s formula – who cares? No one does. You don’t know the plot of Anna Karenina – shame on you!”)
Now the world is changing fast. A classical scholar is being replaced by a digitally literate person. The new world order has not reached everyone everywhere yet. Our schools, I’m afraid, will be slow to catch on. However, this is the current situation. HSE University gets it; its Data Culture project attests to this.
These changes do not devalue the humanities, not a bit. But, honestly, scholars (purely humanitarian) often have troubles with proofs. I, as a historian, can easily distinguish good and bad research, but it is hard to demonstrate this to a non-historian. I am not alone, believe me. Arm a scholar with digital literacy – and we’ll have another go at this.
Summing up, the world will be saved not by scholars or scientists alone, rather, by their more perfect union for the benefit of humanity. And the beauty… of the pure demonstrative knowledge, of course.