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What defines a good university? Is it students’ achievements, cutting-edge research, or bright projects? The success of the university depends on many different things – that’s why international university rankings use complex methodologies and take many criteria into account. The administration is a thing often forgotten. They are often overlooked, despite being responsible for a lot of stuff. To correct this injustice, we are starting a series on the invisible heroes of the academe. Our first is Ekaterina Volzhenina, manager of the Centre of Deep Learning and Bayesian Methods, who is also teaching history at HSE University. She told us about the transformation of her work during the quarantine, how our ancestors fought the Pechenegs and tried to answer the main question: hard and soft science?
Can you tell us about your background and how did you get here, to the Faculty?
I am a historian with expertise in genealogy (telling beautiful and true stories about someone’s ancestors), I taught at school, now I am here. Working at school was interesting but hard, I think Russian school is an equivalent of the army where each month counts as two.
Why the Faculty of Computer Science? Things just got this way. I wanted to learn something new and more, let’s say, practical than narrative historical research. Teaching at school is a pleasure only for a certain type of people. Managing enhances communicative skills greatly (school doesn’t, it has its own communicative style), and I needed just that.
I did learn quite a lot and never regret the 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. Live safety net, for short.
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 are essential, others are applied tasks.
What is harder, teaching or managing?
Well… Managing is kind of harder because the tasks are diverse and sometimes sudden. 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?
I do not suffer because of distant work, 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. So the fact that many employers and employees now understand that the online can be productive, is a positive one, in my view.
As for teaching, it has only become better. Some students don’t enjoy talking. Not everyone admires essays and tests when 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 developed and got their deserved points.
University lends all attention to the academe. Do you think that administrative work is 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 gladly participate. It is necessary to develop university management of different levels, but only to multiply research and educational capacities of the university, not for its own sake.
Who will save the world, soft or hard sciences? What happens more often, researchers make mistakes in historical dates or you mess up technical terms?
Our laboratory would have been the top if only we all sat and discussed historical dates!
“Forget the NeurIPS deadline; let’s remember how our ancestors fought the Pechenegs in 1036.”
To be serious, my colleagues with mathematical background know humanities much better than I 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 is one who speaks languages, knows history, perhaps law, political science of their time, well-read (in the 20th century of cinema, well-watched too), able to distinguish if not iambic from trochee than Gaugin from Van Gogh. This is a portrait of a classical scholar. Take late 19th – early 20th century. If you want to succeed through your brains, enrol at the classical gymnasium, not a technical school.
20th century is slowly changing the situation, the great argument between physicists and poets ensues, the Soviet Union presents a new intellectual type, an 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 humanitarian (me here), one got some knowledge of humanities (a vast one, if the student was not lazy and had good teachers) and learned some laws of physics, term “valency”, and how to solve basic equations. If one was a persistent A-grader, they might have learned some science, but chances were good to escape it. Being a techie, one got the knowledge of mathematics, physics, chemistry, etc., but one was not allowed to stay away from the humanities. It’s all that simple, thanks to the combination of planning, traditions, and stereotypes (“You don’t know Euler’s formula – no-one does either. 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, Data Culture project being the proof.
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 the scholar with digital literacy – and we’ll have another go at this.
Summing it 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.