Discussing Justice on the First Day of Class

I have written in other public fora that math is not apolitical, that the implicit messages in our silence on these issues is damaging to students, and that mathematics has particular bigoted elements in its history and present framing that we must engage actively. In light of the attention being drawn to white supremacy and the related terrorism in part due to last weekend’s events in Charlottesville, I am planning on opening the discussion of these themes on my first day of class next week. In this post, I will discuss 10 ideas for starting this conversation, explain 3 more detailed lesson plan case studies, and list resources shared with me by others. Readers are encouraged to comment with their own ideas, so the list of resources will grow.

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Posted in introduction, social justice | 15 Comments

i/e Spotlight: CIMPA, ICTP, IMU, EMALCA, et al.

by Adriana Salerno (from Beijing)

So far in this blog, we have focused mostly on issues of diversity and inclusion affecting mathematicians in the United States. But as an immigrant myself, I feel it is important to remember that we are part of a global community of mathematicians, and in particular that mathematicians in developing countries face many additional challenges to those we face here. There are some institutions that are doing great work to strengthen the mathematics and create networks of mathematicians in developing countries, and I thought I would briefly showcase some of their work here.

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Get Off The Road

Many reliable mathematical models of the environment say we are destroying this planet with $CO_2$ (carbon dioxide) or at least making it uninhabitable for human culture as we know it within a couple of generations. What responsibility do we, as mathematicians and people, have to act in response to these models? Wealthier people and cultures are contributing more to this problem than poorer people and cultures, but these poorer people are feeling the consequences more quickly and more severely than their wealthier counterparts. This must stop. As a field, we should make a significant shift in focus toward modeling the environment and teaching citizens to reason with models more carefully. As people, raising livestock for food contributes tremendously to the greenhouse gas problem, so it’s time to become vegan, but that’s simply not enough. We have to stop burning fossil fuels, so I’m asking you to give up your car. I know this sounds painful, but it’s nothing compared to the really radical ideas: have fewer children or simply breathe less to reduce your output of $CO_2$! Perhaps humanity should step aside, letting giant insects and the toxic forest take over, cleaning up our mess for a few thousand years.

I suspect you’ve realized that I’m not going to write an apocalyptic post about global warming or a synopsis of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Instead, I’m writing a post about how difficult it is to hear this kind of critique of the way we live our lives from activists of various feathers.

For the purpose of this post, I’m going to compare and contrast calls from activists in two different domains: the radical “environmentalist” in my cold open and an “anti-racist” who is critiquing the persistent under-representation and marginalization of groups of people in mathematics and the academy in general. I think the anti-racist’s ideas hit closer to home and therefore are a lot harder to hear, so this post uses the comparison to process the difficulty in a less threatening context. Explaining a joke can ruin the humor, but I’m an academic, so please forgive this exegesis! The second half of this post contains 5 take-away strategies for allies who want to try to do better.

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Posted in cultural pressure in academia, implicit bias, intersectionality, social justice | Leave a comment

Remembering Maryam Mirzakhani

Maryam Mirzakhani. (Photo credit: Stanford University.)

Nine days ago, we lost a bright star of mathematics: Maryam Mirzakhani. Ever since, it seems like the whole world has been in mourning. Many beautiful obituaries have been written in major publications, like Scientific American, the New York Times, and the New Yorker. She has been mourned in social media and blogs, by mathematicians and “civilians” alike. Mathematician-turned-politician Rep. James McNerney gave a tribute on the House floor. Iranian newspapers honored their national hero, some of them even showing her with her head uncovered, breaking long standing hijab rules.

Comic by Bozorgmehr Hosseinpour. Caption reads “In mourning of the passing of Maryam Mirzakhani (Mathematician).” (Translation credit: Shabnam Akhtari.)

I never met Maryam, and yet I feel a huge sense of loss. In trying to understand this feeling I realized that it’s because she changed mathematics for all the women and girls out there, including me — only two years younger than her. Not because I feel like I can accomplish what she did (I don’t!) but because she set the bar, or rather, moved it, for what women can do. We’ve had other math heroines (I know I have many), but in 2014 she achieved something no woman had before: she won the Fields medal. Not only that, she was also widely regarded as an incredibly generous and kind person. And now I find out that while she was achieving these important milestones, she was also in the middle of her quiet fight with an aggressive form of cancer.

I know it’s not fair to put people (real, vulnerable humans) on pedestals, but she did become a symbol of hope for women in math, and we are all feeling that loss together. She was ours. I have seen women in math emailing each other to share the news and their grief, an outpouring of support on the AWM’s facebook page, and math women friends have even reported receiving condolence emails from relatives. I thought about writing a longer piece myself, but honestly all the obituaries I linked to above are so wonderful I didn’t even think I should compete. Instead, I want to have a sort of gathering, a virtual wake, or rather a celebration of her life, and I asked a few friends to help. Below, I have collected some thoughts from women mathematicians expressing how Maryam Mirzakhani changed the mathematical world for them, how she influenced them, and how this influence will live on. Feel free to post your own thoughts, tributes, and anecdotes in the comments section below.

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The 23rd Conference for African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences (CAARMS) was held from June 21-24, 2017 at the University of Michigan.  This annual event features research talks by African Americans throughout the country.

This year’s CAARMS felt like a homecoming of sorts for me.  The last time CAARMS was held at the University of Michigan was 1999 — when I was a graduate student at Stanford University.  Some 18 years later, I am now a full professor of mathematics who is bringing his own students to attend CAARMS.

Back Row: Joseph Sauder, Edray Goins, Robert Dicks; Front Row: Chineze Christopher, Danika Van Niel, Gina Ferolito

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Love $\simeq$ love : A celebration of LGBT+ Mathematicians

Today is the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which are now known as the beginning of a new age of LGBT+ activism around the world. On June 28, 1970, the first gay pride parades took place, which have now become an international tradition in the month of June — known as “Pride month”.  In this post, to honor the spirit of this month, I want to highlight some LGBT+ mathematicians, and celebrate their lives, accomplishments, and contributions.  As an ally, I don’t feel like I can speak for this group, but I have selected a few blogs and interviews which caught my attention this past year as being particularly awesome. This way, you get to hear from super cool LGBT+ mathematicians, in their own words.

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Posted in intersectionality, LGBTQ+, pride, spectra | 3 Comments

Feminist Theory and Research Methodologies for More Socially Affirming Undergraduate Mathematics Education

Gender research in education explores, among other things, the possible reasons for women’s lower rates of achievement and retention than those of men across STEM fields including mathematics. However, much of this scholarship, particularly in mathematics education, limits its analyses of gender to binary comparisons (namely, female-male or women-men) with males’ and men’s achievement and participation often held as standards for success (Leyva, in press). In addition, the sampled populations in this empirical work were mostly White, thus leaving mathematics achievement and participation among historically marginalized students of color at intersections of gender, race, and other social identities underexplored.

Analyses of gender as non-binary and dynamically shaped by other social identities (e.g., race, class, sexuality) hold promise in illuminating how mathematics operates as a White, heteronormatively masculinized discipline to shape variation in students’ experiences and thus further inform more inclusive educational opportunities. With mathematics serving as a gatekeeper for access to undergraduate STEM majors such as engineering and physics, the adoption of such analyses in higher education is critical for the advancement of socially-affirming learning and student support opportunities toward inclusion and broadened STEM participation.

(Image from Emily Griffith’s blog on Rhetorical Criticism.)

Feminist theory and research methodologies can be used to explore and disrupt forms of gender inequities in different parts of society, including education. Intersectionality, a theoretical perspective and methodology from Black feminist thought, allows for detailing forms of oppression and privilege that marginalized individuals uniquely experience at different intersections of their social identities such as gender, race, and sexuality (Crenshaw, 1991). In this blog post, I highlight the findings of intersectional studies from three interdisciplinary scholars — Dr. Lance McCready, Dr. Mia Ong, and Dr. Terrell Strayhorn – who pursued feminist analyses using queer of color critique, theories of body and embodiment, and the concept of othermothering. This blog post also raises questions about conceptual and methodological implications from this intersectional research for the advancement of more socially affirming undergraduate STEM educational opportunities. Please share your thoughts about the review, posed questions, and suggested references for other feminist scholarship in the comments section below.

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Posted in feminist theory, gender research, intersectionality, math education | 4 Comments

i/e Spotlight: SACNAS

As mentioned in our first post, one of the many purposes of this blog is to write about organizations focusing on supporting underrepresented people in math. In that spirit, we are starting a series called i/e Spotlight, where we feature different organizations and the many opportunities provided by them. For the first post in this series, I wanted to write about SACNAS, a Society for Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science.

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Posted in conferences, equity, i/e Spotlight, leadership, mentoring, participation, SACNAS | 3 Comments

Get Out The Way

Update June 7, 2017: For a follow-up to this post, check out Piper Harron’s personal blog, The Liberated Mathematician.
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Posted in hiring, racism, sexism, women in math | 91 Comments


I’m going to say something political that some of you may not like. In the spirit of The Oatmeal, http://theoatmeal.com/comics/believeI’m going to ask you to read to the end before you decide that I cannot possibly have said what I think I said (paraphrasing Rebecca Goldstein, who is summarizing Wittgenstein on Gödel). Thanks, I appreciate it.

Here it is: mathematics is political. In this post I’m going to reflect on what this means, why I believe it, why I think it matters, and what we might do as a result.

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Posted in cultural pressure in academia, equity, implicit bias, intersectionality, introduction, math education, social justice | 10 Comments