Skip to main content

The MathLAN Web servers

Topics/tags: rants, broken record, the Web

With Communications and ITS having abandoned their responsibility to provide a public resource for students, faculty, and staff to publish Web pages [1], the MathLAN web servers, and, remain the primary resources the College provides. Hence, I reacted with some concern when I heard that someone in ITS let slip that the Web Governance Committee might be setting policies that limited our use of those Web servers [2]. I worried, particularly given that the rumor mill suggests that both last year and this year, the proposed meeting times of the Web Governance Committee would not permit all three faculty members on the committee to attend [3,4,5]. So I dropped a polite note to my faculty reps [6]. After providing some context for my question, I asked the following.

How small or large is the possibility that the Web governance committee may decide that we may not be able to keep the MathLAN Web server? Or is the plan to limit what’s on it? I’ll note that (well, is the oldest Web server on campus and many of us have been putting our materials on the server for more than twenty years. Can you share any more backstory?

Our faculty reps are both thoughtful and tolerant, so they asked me to write a bit more about what I value and what aspects of those servers were appropriate to preserve. Here’s my initial response [7].

The most important thing to preserve is a venue for freedom of public expression by College faculty, staff, and students. That should be a core institutional value, and our Web policies should reflect it.

Even if Grinnell decides to compromise on that issue, we should continue to have a place for public course Web sites. Such sites serve as a form of Open Educational Resources, and the faculty voted to support Open initiatives. Course sites also serve as a resource for other faculty at this institution; I can’t think of a time that I taught a course that I didn’t look at a colleague’s Web site for ideas.

Personally, I would prefer that we have a way to maintain the current URLs. First, URLs are supposed to be stable; links from elsewhere on the Web should continue to work [8]. In addition, many MathLAN pages have clearly developed a positive reputation in Google’s PageRank algorithm and it would be a shame to lose that.

I also use the MathLAN Web server as a resource for teaching students to develop Web pages directly in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript (rather than using a fancy UI). That doesn’t have to be part of MathLAN (although it’s convenient to have it as such), but such a resource needs to continue to exist. I know some colleagues use the MathLAN Web server to teach students to write database-backed sites; that’s also an important characteristic, but it does not have to be on MathLAN.

That’s a remarkably concise note from me.

Looking back, are there other things I seem to have missed? I didn’t write a long diatribe or predictive statement on each issue [9]. That’s okay; my colleagues don’t need another diatribe [10]. I didn’t write about accessibility, even though I consider accessibility an important Web issue [11]. Accessibility isn’t a MathLAN issue; it’s a broader issue. I didn’t write about my regular use of the Web for live class notes [12]. While that’s almost certainly a feature that’s specific to MathLAN, it’s a feature that only I use. I’m assuming that I’ll need to find an alternative at some point in the near future [14]. Nope, I can’t think of anything I’ve missed [15].

Maybe I should ask the other question. Did I write too much? I needed to cover freedom of speech. That’s a core issue here. It was worthwhile looking at the specific issue of course webs. Fixed URLs are useful, but not as important as the other two. Nonetheless, someone might use my note as a list of expected characteristics of a replacement, so I should include it. And the last topic is important as we remind folks that computer scientists interact with technology differently than others; we not only use it in our teaching and scholarship, we teach about it and develop it.

I haven’t heard anything recently. And no one is sure whether or not there is planned consideration of whether or not MathLAN the MathLAN Web server will continue to serve its current role. But ITS is developing a reputation for making decisions about technology without discussing them with affected parties [16]. So, while I’m generally feeling okay about the status of our server, there’s still part of me that worries.

[1] Yes, it’s a real responsibility. Grinnell’s Academic Computer Use Policies clearly state that

Grinnell College supports the free expression and exchange of ideas and opinions and hopes that users of its computer systems will actively explore the possibilities of electronic publication on the World Wide Web. The College encourages students, faculty, and staff to develop and publish WWW pages through its servers ( and

[2] More precisely, it was reported that there’s some small possibility that the web governance committee may have a say as to whether we can keep the department and personal pages.

[3] Amazingly enough, faculty members have classes to teach. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect people who schedule meetings that are supposed to include faculty members to avoid times those faculty members are teaching.

[4] It is just a rumor. However, I heard it from multiple people, all of whom should reasonably have been in the know.

[5] I’ve also heard that the committee rarely meets, which is also of concern.

[6] Polite is contextual. I think it was a reasonably polite note for someone who has dealt with five years of stonewalling by ITS and Communications about Web policies.

[7] Well, a slightly edited version of my initial response.

[8] The College regularly moves or removes pages. I’m sad to report that some of my departmental colleagues do, too. But I’ve done my best to maintain as many of my URLs as I can. I’ll revisit this issue in a future musing on the history of CSC 151.

[9] For example,

I know that some folks feel like it’s easy enough to set up a personal Web site elsewhere. However, Grinnell benefits reputationally from us having our professional sites on a domain. I also prefer that everyone be able to use for personal sites; I know that a wide variety of people did so before the giant takedown, not all of whom have the resources to set up their site elsewhere.

[10] Arguably, no one does.

[11] Do I worry that some of my archival pages are not as accessible as more recent pages? Yes, particularly since many were generated by software that may no longer work the same. But each of those pages has a newer version that is accessible. I just can’t bear to throw things away.

[12] Most of my students have encountered my eboards. I know that some read them on their computers during class, refreshing every few minutes.

[14] Right now, our Web server uses our Linux file system. Modern security measures would suggest that our Web server should have a separate file system. Making that switch may affect my current in-class workflow. But it’s worth it for the security benefit.

[15] I’m sure that something will come to mind soon after I post this musing.

[16] Most recently, deciding to kick a faculty member out of their research lab during Winter break without discussing it with them or even notifying them directly.

Version 1.0 of 2018-11-29.