Two Days with a Chicano Mathematician: Bill Velez visits Purdue

When I was in graduate school in mathematics at Stanford University, I was very politically active on campus.  Not only was I an officer for the Black Graduate Students Association (BGSA), but I was an officer for the Chicano Latino Graduate Students Association (CGSA) as well.  I am not Latino, but the passion and political savvy of the Chicano culture piqued my interest into becoming part of this organization.

Nearly twenty years later, I was able to bring “Chicanismo” to Purdue University by bringing William Yslas Velez to Indiana for a couple of days.

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Posted in cultural pressure in academia, mathematics experiences, participation, racism, social justice | 2 Comments

Math education in the Berkeley Hills: CIME 2017

(Guest post by Dagan Karp.)

I want to tell you about CIME, a super awesome workshop, even though it’s problematic in some of the ways that academic research-focused workshops tend to be, in my experience. What the *#&% is CIME you ask? For the past 14 years, MSRI has hosted an annual workshop on Critical Issues in Mathematics Education. I just returned from CIME 2017: Observing for Access, Power and Participation in Mathematics Classrooms as a Strategy to Improve Mathematics Teaching and Learning. (This was my third CIME.) Although there were insightful sessions centered on observation, the long subtitle didn’t do this year’s workshop justice. The workshop was demanding, situating math education within white supremacy and focusing attention on women of color. It was useful, with participants walking away with action items and a new community of collaborators. And it was fascinating, with brilliant ideas presented across a host of settings. In this post, I’ll talk about what stood out to me, including some of the challenges I saw.

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Posted in conferences, equity, intersectionality, math education, retention, social justice | Leave a comment

Profiles in Invisibility

When people ask me “who is your favorite superhero?”, I usually say Invisible Boy (played by the awesome Kel Mitchell) from the 90’s movie Mystery Men. Invisible Boy’s superpower is, you guessed it, invisibility, but there’s a catch: he can only become invisible when no one is looking. He says this is a power he developed after many years of being ignored. For a woman in math, it’s really not that hard to identify with this. (Also, it’s not a coincidence that he is also the only substantial black character in the movie.)

This feeling of invisibility is a feeling that I find hard to describe to people without triggering defensiveness or sounding like I am “whiny”. I have been on both sides of this (the defensive and the “whiny” sides), and I have had to do a LOT of work to try to listen instead of defending my actions/inactions. One of the things I have tried to do seems really simple, but really isn’t: if you have not experienced something, don’t assume that the person telling you about it somehow is wrong or “exaggerating” in their response. I was once riding in a cab in Ghana, and the driver was asking me about my home country, Venezuela. He found it hard to believe, at first, that I would feel safer traveling by myself in Ghana than in Venezuela; he didn’t know how dangerous Venezuela had become, especially for women. But he listened, and in the end he said: “Well, if a fish tells you that there are sharks in the water, you believe it.” Of course, the “fish” could be wrong, confused, etc., but why would you, the person outside of the water, automatically assume that you know better? This is called the “benefit of the doubt” for a reason. When we can’t be sure who’s right, let’s default to the person who has more experience.

Revenge of the invisible woman.

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Posted in implicit bias, racism, sexism, women in math | 6 Comments

A different kind of problem

Sometimes I think that what makes me successful in math makes me kind of terrible in some aspects of “real life.” A few years ago, I wrote a post for PhD+epsilon about how close I came to having a car accident for putting off car maintenance from being “too busy.”  In a way, my “success” (which we all have to admit, is an obnoxious word that just means “success as the successful people have defined it”) was related to my dedication to my job, and could have led to a terrible (or at least scary) accident. More recently, I discovered a new, more insidious problem: I was dealing with depression.

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Posted in ableism, cultural pressure in academia, mental health | 7 Comments

Equity in Review: Reflections on Equity Research Perspectives at the 2017 RUME Conference


The Special Interest Group of the Mathematical Association of America on Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education (SIGMAA on RUME) was established for the advancement of quality research in undergraduate mathematics education (RUME) and its implications for teaching practices. One of the annual SIGMAA on RUME initiatives is the RUME Conference. The conference is intended to serve as an exchange of research findings from projects addressing issues related to the learning and teaching of undergraduate mathematics through plenary addresses, contributed and preliminary research paper sessions, and poster presentations. This year’s RUME Conference, jointly hosted by San Diego State University and the University of California – San Diego, was held at the Kona Kai Resort in San Diego, CA from Thursday, February 23 through Saturday, February 25 with a record-high attendance of over 350 registered conference participants.

Discussions about issues of diversity, equity, and social justice have certainly been gaining momentum in the SIGMAA on RUME community, including the 2017 RUME Conference. It has been both an honor and pleasure to participate in these important conversations over the past year. This was my second year attending the RUME Conference and serving as a co-facilitator for the Equity in Undergraduate Mathematics Education pre-conference working group with Aditya (Adi) Adiredja (The University of Arizona). I also had the honor to serve as a plenary speaker on equity research perspectives during the RUME with a View working conference funded by the National Science Foundation (Division of Undergraduate Education Grant No. 1646996) and organized by Milos Savic (The University of Oklahoma) and Gulden Karakok (University of Northern Colorado). Held on October 2016 in The University of Oklahoma, RUME with a View was a two-day working conference that focused on offering opportunities for faculty and graduate students to develop research agendas in undergraduate mathematics education. Topics spanned student learning, pre-calculus and calculus courses, proofs and problem solving, equity, and statistics and quantitative literacy.

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Posted in conferences, equity, mathematics experiences, participation, retention | 2 Comments

Inquiry and Equity

Education is, at its heart, about justice. It is the institution that empowers individuals to improve the conditions around them, to be intentional and involved citizens, to live meaningful and fulfilling lives. Or at least it should.

Cultural institutions like education can also be the mechanisms through which individuals are indoctrinated into a system that has power over them, in other words, school can be a tool of oppression. We, the community of mathematicians and mathematics educators, have been complicit in this oppression for years. We have taught students that experts are the source of mathematical knowledge/understanding/skill and that their mathematical thinking is valid only to the extent that it mimics our own. Our classrooms teach them that mathematical competence is rare, that this competence is a good proxy for intelligence, that this intelligence is determined at birth (and rarer by demographics), and that general power in our society comes from this intelligence and the financial compensation it can command. Our culture validates this rarity by suggesting that power should be concentrated in the hands of a few, that abdicating this power is normal and happier than the alternative.

In short, our discipline has denied almost every member of our society access to mathematical inquiry. In the words of Paulo Freire, “any situation in which some [people] prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence;… to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed). I design my courses from a perspective of inquiry-based learning (IBL) because I think it offers a chance for students to take back this power, to stop and reverse some of this violence (see AMS T&LM and DAoM). Friends and colleagues, including Aditya Adiredja, Jess Ellis, and Christine Andrews-Larson, have articulated important critiques and qualifications on this sweeping claim that I will think, read, and write about soon.

Instead, I would like to turn the lens of equity onto the community of educators who teach with inquiry. Continue reading

Posted in inquiry, racism, sexism | Leave a comment

Hands Off My Confidence

I will be honest with you. I am so over people referring to women or black people or black women as if we are mysterious creatures, suffering from mysterious ailments, the causes of which can never possibly be understood. This is the white cis male narrative that surveys humanity with a detached fake-objectivity that erases all of our context and history and then scratches its head in genuine and judgmental wonder. The thing with dominant narratives is they are everywhere, infecting us all.

Right now I want to talk about the women-lack-confidence narrative. I can be at a panel on women in math, listening to important statistics and first-hand accounts, with each speaker quite on point about the situation we face. Then inevitably someone will bring up how they’ve noticed their female students don’t have the same confidence as their male students. Everyone nods, wearing their empathy faces. At this point anyone eavesdropping on my brain would notice that all my thoughts are on fire while my body goes into fight or flight mode and I vaguely consider interrupting with raging incredulity.

I haven’t interrupted (yet). I just sit there and watch all the young women in the audience receive the burden of confidence. Hey ladies, why don’t you just try being more confident. Oh, and smile more. You’d look confident if you smiled more.

Fascinating, isn’t it? How women are just never good enough to overcome sexism. Same for people of color and racism. Double for women of color. I WONDER WHY THAT IS.

I want us to rethink confidence for a bit. In my own life, people’s opinions of my confidence have been entirely based on whether I was willing to risk negative judgment. If I avoid the situation I think might go poorly, I don’t have enough confidence. If I do the thing of my own accord without cowering, even if I declare my intense discomfort and general pessimism, I am confident. Young children are naturally confident, maybe even too confident (I’m looking at you, naked toddler climbing over the couch). What causes children to lose their confidence?

I don’t have a great story about losing my confidence. I don’t have a story about mean children or uncaring adults. I did skip second grade which put me in a new situation with a lot of new people, but I don’t remember feeling unsafe or anything. It just happened that one day I finally understood all the messages all consumers of US media receive on a continual basis. I lost my confidence when I realized that, through no fault of my own, I was a wrong type of person. My thighs were too big, my stomach too round, my voice too soft. For that matter, my words were too infrequent. People categorized me. I got older and realized that my non-European face wasn’t feminine enough. My hair wasn’t well-behaved enough. My thighs were a persistent problem. My lack of small-talk required constant justification. It’s really important for people to know just what exactly is wrong with you, so that they can stop thinking about you, and get back to their normal lives with their normal people.

Keep in mind that not once growing up did I ever question my intelligence. One of the labels I was given early on was “smart” (which was also called “good at math”), and I knew it was true. Even in graduate school, where for the first time I felt intellectually worthless, I knew that I was still as smart as I’d ever been. I just happened to be surrounded by even smarter people (or…). I had all the confidence in the world in my brain, but I knew it was my body that determined my worth. I knew it was my body that I would be judged on, that I had to protect the world from, that would determine who would ever love me. I knew this because that’s what I was told every day of my life from magazines and television and movies and my classmates.

I can only know about myself, but I hypothesize that many people who lack confidence are people who make the rational assumption that individuals carry with them the same beliefs as mainstream society. I think you don’t want to see my face or my body because my face and my body are never shown (favorably) on TV. I think it’s not safe to make mistakes because I have had to justify everything I’ve ever done, even things that were beyond my control. Yet you look at me with compassionate eyes and think it’s a shame I won’t just take more risks. Don’t you see what I’ve risked already?

People who are confident are people who feel certain that they will not regret their actions. Is it any wonder that white cis gender heterosexual men seem to have more confidence? They have been rewarded their whole lives just for existing, while the rest of us are questioned and scrutinized completely unjustifiably. A black woman never acts alone. I have to contend with representing my whole race or gender. If I am wrong it has much bigger consequences for me than it would otherwise, because opportunities for me are always possibly just a favor, ready to be rescinded.

I’ll be honest. I am full of dread typing this post. I prefer to know, before I speak, how my words will be received. I prefer to have some control over the labels I receive. I dread finding out that everyone misunderstood the same paragraph. I dread having to respond (or not) to objections that completely miss the point. I also struggled to write this because it is my inclination to make declarative statements, but I’d hate for my point to be lost because I accidentally said something about human psychology that was verifiably untrue. (For instance, I don’t actually know whether women are less confident, or are just perceived to be, or if it’s just women in STEM, or women in STEM at a certain level, etc.) In fact, this whole endeavor of being a co-editor for a legit blog terrifies me. I don’t know what will be required of me, and I’m afraid I will end up “not pulling my weight” because I won’t “take initiative” or offer enough “input” if any decisions need to be made.

It may sound like I could stand to be more confident, but my concerns are founded because I’ve already lived through these things. Sometimes “not confident” is “thinks fielding oppressive crap is a waste of time.” Sometimes “not confident” is “has accepted the mainstream values which are supported everywhere she goes.”

I want us all to stop worrying about whether women are confident enough. You should know that I perceive the charge as a criticism. I understand, as I’m supposed to, that confidence correlates with success and that lacking confidence creates missed opportunities which often makes success more difficult. I understand, as I’m supposed to, that confidence is a personal trait and therefore lack of confidence is a personal flaw. When I hear women’s lack of confidence listed as a reason for under-representation, I feel scrutinized.

I do have confidence now. I no longer care about society’s views or how many people agree with them. I can be the first and only person on a dance floor; I can fly across the country to be the center of attention while I open up about my insecurities and answer personal questions; I can tell well-meaning white women I don’t accept their apologies as long as they’re standing by their belief that my experiences are invalid. I can survive being asked if I’m pregnant when I’m not. Each of these would have produced seemingly insurmountable levels of fear and shame several years ago, and I would have moved mountains to avoid them.

Before you declare the happy ending to my confidence journey, you should know that I still align myself with those students who aren’t confident, because my feelings about myself actually haven’t changed. I am still infected with society’s values, I just don’t respect them anymore. I no longer make decisions based on those values. I no longer sacrifice myself in the name of those beliefs, because I came to the realization that I could follow all those rules and still be blamed for my own rape or murder. When I give my “Liberated Mathematician” talk and students are impressed by my confidence, that is what they see in me now. Someone who does what she wants, what she thinks is right, without apologizing or asking permission first, because she realizes nothing will ever make her truly safe.

Women deserve to have confidence. They deserve to move freely, to act without undue scrutiny. Women should not have to justify every thought, passion, or choice. They deserve to expect to move freely, to expect to be able to act without undue scrutiny. Women should not expect to have to justify every thought, passion, or choice. When you think about women who lack confidence, think about the society that trained them to live up to higher standards than men. This goes for other marginalized groups and especially people of color who are also marginalized by gender and/or sexuality.

Stop telling women they need to be more confident. Stop telling us we aren’t (confident) enough. Start telling men to stop being sexist. Start telling society that you don’t agree with its objectification of women and its dehumanization of women of color. Let your marginalized students know that they have been more scrutinized than the white cis men they are in competition with. Let them know that the standards they hold themselves to are keeping them from certain opportunities, but that also these double standards are still real. Students who are afraid to make mistakes have learned from experience that it’s not safe to make mistakes. Let them know you hear them, and you support them. Let them know you are working to make it safe for them to make mistakes.

In the end, what we want is not women who stand taller in the face of sexism. We want sexism to go away.

Remember that the reason I act so confidently these days is because I know nothing will spare my body or my life in the face of racism or sexism. That’s what I carry with me, while I make bold choices, and subject myself to other people’s opinions. Sometimes “not confident” is “not ready to know how terrible the world is.”

I ask, always, that we support all marginalized and excluded groups. I ask that we create environments where mistakes and diverse perspectives are encouraged. I offer no concrete solutions. And now I’m going to send this to a few people, including my co-editors, before it goes live, because that is what I want to do.

Posted in racism, sexism, victim-blaming, women in math | 13 Comments

Hidden Figures: How and Why We Brought it to the 2017 JMM


from Wikipedia

By now, you’re heard of Hidden Figures, a 20th Century Fox biographical drama which follows three African-American women who worked for NASA in the early 1960’s. The movie is based on a book written by Margot Lee Shetterly.  With a complete title of Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, this incredibly-well researched book spans nearly half a century to chronicle the lives of African-Americans in Hampton, Virginia as the United States entered the Space Race.

But the main question I pose today is not “how did they overcome obvious adversity and discrimination to succeed?” but rather “why haven’t I heard about this until now?”

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Inclusion/Exclusion Principle

What do you think of when someone is described as “professorial”? I was recently reading an article that used this adjective to describe a film director. Immediately, I thought that they were speaking about a bearded white male, probably straight, and on the older side. I looked this person up on Google images, and I was mostly correct (except the person was slightly younger than I imagined, and did NOT have a beard, but I digress). I was struck by how easy it was for the writer of the article to evoke an image of the person they were writing about, but by using a term that is not even remotely reserved for white cisgender heterosexual males. For example, I’m a professor, and so are all the editors of this blog! But we are not the people one thinks of when someone says “professorial”, unless it comes with other adjectives or descriptors. The same could be said about someone being described as a “mathematician” – who do you picture when you hear this word?

And in a sort of roundabout way (which you will soon realize is very much my style) this brings me to the point of this blog. The main mission of inclusion/exclusion (yes, in lowercase) is to bring attention to issues of diversity and inclusion in mathematics. The Inclusion/Exclusion Principle is a strategy from combinatorics used to count things in different sets, without over-counting things in the overlap. It’s a little bit of a stretch, but that is in essence what we intend to do: highlight and elevate the differences, the diversity of our field, and not just more of the same. We want to change what it means to be “professorial” or a “mathematician”.   Topics you can expect are:

  • Posts about people who are doing good things for diversity and inclusion in mathematics.
  • Tips and strategies for creating more inclusive classrooms and departments, research on pedagogy.
  • Articles and reports on diversity and representation in math and STEM.
  • Posts about and interviews with mathematicians from marginalized or under-represented groups, highlighting their achievements and work.
  • Reviews on math meetings we attend.
  • Reviews on websites and organizations focusing on supporting underrepresented people in math.
  • Posts with personal perspectives.
  • Posts about mentoring colleagues and students from underrepresented groups.

The idea for this blog was conceived more than a year ago. I had recently “retired” from the Ph.D. + epsilon blog and was looking for something else to write about. I realize that many people write about diversity and inclusion already – for example you can find great posts in my former blogging grounds, the AMS blog on teaching, the AMS mentoring blog, and the blog on math blogs. Beautiful writing from many others, like Francis Su, has been getting a lot of deserved attention. But I wanted a place where we talk about these things exclusively (see what I did there?), and intentionally. I also wanted a diverse team of writers to help (a blog about diversity and inclusion should not be written by just one person with just one point of view!). You will see that we have different styles, different voices, different interests, and in some cases I’m sure different opinions, but that is what I’m most excited about – true diversity! We will also have guest writers every once in a while, writing on topics that are their area of expertise, and not ours.

Finally, I want to point out that since the blog was conceived, the world has changed quite a bit. As group of editors that includes women, people of color, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community, we are particularly aware of the fact that having a place for our voices is not just a good thing – it is critical. We hope that everyone gets something out of this conversation, and we welcome all of our readers to share their own voices by participating in the comments. We look forward to sharing our posts, and ourselves, with you.

The editing team left to right: Piper, Adriana, Brian, and Edray. Not pictured: Luis.

Redefining “professorial”. The editing team left to right: Piper, Adriana, Brian, and Edray. Not pictured: Luis.

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