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Dr Esther MacCallum-Stewart is Associate Professor of Games Studies at Staffordshire University and runs national and international science fiction conventions.
How would you characterise your current work?
I have one job during the day and another by night. By day I am an Associate Professor of Games Studies at Staffordshire University, where I head up the research team and manage the PhD cohort. By night, and at the weekend, I’m an organiser of science fiction and fantasy conventions, or “conrunner”. I am currently the division head for Facilitation for the Dublin 2019 Worldcon, the Deputy Division Head for Facilities for CoNZealand (2020 Worldcon), and the Bid Chair for a group hoping to host a Worldcon in the UK in 2024.
How do you feel about maths?
Better than I used to. I'm dyscalculic so have struggled with numbers for most of my life. However, once I realised that my issues were with NUMBERS, not maths itself, I've managed to evolve a lot of strategies to overcome this. Most recently, calculation, albeit fairly simple, has become a major part of my work process.
What is it about your work that is mathematical?
For teaching, we emphasise how important balancing odds and statistics are in our board game design classes. A badly balanced game is a bad game, period. However for convention running, it's a lot more comprehensive. I'm juggling budgets on a daily basis, often for large amounts of money. I'm currently involved in working out the subscriber and attendance models for 2024 (if we win), so that we can start to appeal for members and 'pre-supporters' of the bid. These people give small amounts of money to fund our campaign, or join in the hope of attending. Too little, and we won't be able to run a good pre-event campaign and will look weak/miserly. Too much, and people will be deterred by high prices. Similarly, we are currently negotiating contracts with the venues. This involves two things – projected costings, and space usage, which I think of in terms of sizes and shapes, rather than dimensions on a page.
How do you use maths, calculation or numeracy in your work? What tools do you use to help you?
With convention running, we have experts on our team who help model projections and then facilitate the event and its budget. Running estimations on how many members we have vs. how much we can spend on lovely things for them (like hosting award ceremonies or inviting additional people or hanging X-Wings from the ceiling of the venue) forms a crucial part of this. As head of Facilitation I have also written and costed bids for funding – this is also part of my academic work – and as a Deputy for Facilities I've just finished looking over a contract for a large venue.
I use some fairly traditional tools; spreadsheets, software, and my colleagues. All of the grading and assessment of students comes down to numbers. The university system is highly automated, but that also allows us flexibility in marking different types of work. Because it's common for me to switch numbers by accident, all of my work is double checked by someone both visually and verbally
Do you think maths is creative? If so, how?
Yes, it's like every other discipline. Passion for a topic makes us creative. And, just because it's one that I struggle with, that doesn't mean other people aren't able to absolutely shine in it. Maths is a very fundamental part of our lives – that’s why I've tried so hard to overcome my dyscalculia however I can.
Do you use or rely on any maths that you learnt in school?
Other than the basics, which obviously I need and use regularly, I honestly don't know. When I was at school, we were pushed to take maths GCSE a year early, which I did and scored well in, but a lot of it was 'rote' learning – I felt I tricked the system a little by memorising things. However, we were immediately then required to do an AS level in our last year. I was also doing 10 other GCSEs and it became immediately apparent that I simply didn't understand the work, and the problem that I'd had with numbers 'dancing' when I looked at them got a lot worse. I was failing very badly – and being accused of being lazy at the same time because I was so far ahead in all my other classes – so I asked to be removed from the course so that I could concentrate on the rest of my work. However, my school refused, despite the fact that the AS level was meant to be an 'option'.
Since I am not good at taking no for an answer, I sat in class and read Ian Fleming novels until they threw me out, at which point I revised for all my other GCSEs in empty classrooms for the rest of the year. It was absolutely worth doing it as I aced all of them, apart from chemistry, which I worked very hard at, but needed a lot of on-the-spot maths in the exams. However, I got an A in Physics, which was virtually all mathematical. I'd like to thank my teacher Mr Andrews for that. He worked impossibly hard with me and the rest of the class – I remember one day he came in with a bucket he'd found on the South Downs and cut holes into in order to demonstrate the flow rate and relative pressure imposed on liquids.
How would you change the school curriculum, if you had the chance? Why?
I'm not up-to-date enough on the current teaching to comment but I would highly recommend not forcing opinionated teenagers to take qualifications they don't want! However, as part of Game Studies at Staffordshire, students have to write a funding bid, with detailed costings. The ones who do well appreciate that detail is very important, and research carefully to find out what things like venue hire and estates cost. They seem to find it a fun exercise, even if I do get incredibly detailed on things like how many rubbish bins they need to use per square metre...
You can find Dr Esther MacCallum-Stewart on Twitter @neveahfs, and on Instagram @neveahfs.
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