Promoting Diversity and Respect in the Classroom

For a lot of us, the new school year is just around the corner. We’re getting ready for new classes and a new group of students. We have plenty of learning goals for our students and subject-specific material to think about, but we also need the classroom to be a place where all our students are welcome and are treated fairly.

A mosaic of pictures from people using the #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag on Twitter. Image: Emma Pierson. Click to go to high-resolution, zoom-able version.

A mosaic of pictures from people using the #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag on Twitter to combat sexist and racist assumptions in engineering. Image: Emma Pierson. Click to go to high-resolution, zoom-able version.

David Kung, math professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and director of Project NExT, gave an inspiring keynote address at the Legacy of RL Moore Conference in July. It’s a must-watch. I’ll wait.

In the talk, Kung calls on us to be honest about the current state of affairs, which is not good when it comes to representation of women and some minority groups in most STEM fields, and reminds us that math classes are sometimes gatekeepers for the rest of STEM. Our actions in the classroom can affect whether people become physicists, doctors, or engineers.

Kung’s talk is just one of the things I’ve seen recently about the intersection of math, teaching, and bias. Adriana Salerno of Bates College, in one of her last posts for PhD+Epsilon, writes about her desire for the classroom to be “structured in a way that empowers students or that makes them capable of resisting oppression and changing power structures.” Like her, I am tempted to think math is neutral and pure, not sullied by society’s prejudices, and I appreciate reading her ruminations on how to shake that idea off.

Both Kung and Salerno are critical of the way organizations that promote IBL use R. L. Moore in their branding. I was until recently unaware of his appalling treatment of black students. Raymond Johnson, the first African American to earn a degree from my grad school alma mater, Rice, writes about his undergraduate experience with Moore at UT:

Moore, his method and his work are highly thought of in the mathematical world. When he died, there was a laudatory article in the Math Monthly, a publication of the Mathematical Association of America. There is also a major MAA project on the legacy of R. L. Moore. The image of R. L. Moore in my eyes, however, is that of a mathematician who went to a topology lecture given by a student of R. H. Bing. Bing was a student of Moore. The speaker was what we refer to as Moore’s mathematical grandson. When Moore discovered that the student was black, he walked out of the lecture.

One person’s shortcomings in one area do not erase good things they do in another, but the pain and bitterness in Johnson’s writing made me think about the fact that attaching this person’s name to a pedagogy can be one of those little things that makes people feel unwelcome. Moore was not racist in some abstract way; he clearly and deliberately made it harder for some individuals to succeed than others, and those individuals have faces, names, and stories. They remember their treatment by this person others hold in such esteem.

Darryl Yong, mathematician at Harvey Mudd and the school’s associate dean for diversity, has re-launched his blog with a post about radical inclusivity. He writes, “My message to all educators: not attending to diversity and inclusion concerns in the classroom is the same as allowing your classroom to continue propagating the discrimination and bias that exists in our society. We have to actively combat discrimination and bias in our work as educators.”

None of us want to feel like we’re racist, sexist or anything else-ist, but we all have implicit biases. It hurts to be told or to admit to ourselves that we have these biases, but it hurts more to have your education and progress impeded as a result of these biases. These biases often don’t manifest themselves in overt racist or sexist actions, but small differences in how we treat different groups of students can accumulate into a force that pushes some students forward in math and some students out. And being a member of an underrepresented group does not mean you can’t be biased against that group. Last year, a story about sexism in hiring made a big splash. “John” got hired more often and with a higher salary than “Jennifer” did, even though they had the same resumés. One of the takeaways of the study was that both men and women on hiring committees were biased against Jennifer. That is a bit demoralizing, but it has a silver lining. No one needs to feel like they’re being singled out when we call on people to examine their biases. We can all fall prey to them, and we should all think about how we can do better.

If you’re reading this, I’m sure you would never tell a woman she shouldn’t be majoring in math because she’s a woman. (If you would, hi, nice to meet you, now stop saying that crap.) But you probably have some implicit biases that cause you to treat women a little differently from men and black people a little differently from white people. I don’t know how to stop doing that, but I honestly believe that being aware of our cognitive biases instead of soothing ourselves with the comfortable reassurance that we aren’t racist or sexist is a huge first step. Whether I am grading, having a class discussion, or writing a recommendation letter, I try to ask myself fairly frequently whether I would act or feel the same way if the student were a different gender or race. I hope that the small step of asking the question keeps me from unthinkingly slipping into biased behavior.

It’s all well and good for me to think about my actions in the classroom, but I also want my students to think about diversity and respect. Yong’s post about being welcoming on day 1 has gotten me thinking about how I should address the issue of diversity in my syllabus and on the first day of class. The fact is, in some ways this discussion is purely academic for me. I teach in Utah, and the demographics of my classroom reflect the (very white) demographics of the state. I can’t make my school more racially diverse, but in addition to striving to treat the few underrepresented minority students I do have equally, I can explicitly encourage my students to think about diversity and respect in my classroom and other aspects of their lives.

How are you promoting diversity and respect in your classroom?

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3 Responses to Promoting Diversity and Respect in the Classroom

  1. Kelly says:

    Excellently written! I wholeheartedly agree and I shall mention this in training our incoming TA grad students. Thank you.

  2. Mike Bertrand says:

    Robert E. Lee Moore is a disgrace, but more telling is the reaction of the mathematics community to him (present company excepted), which is one of acceptance, respect, and sanctification. Moore was not a rank-and-file racist; he was someone who went out of his way to deprecate and injure black people, and that needs to be shouted from the rooftops. More thoughts here:

    — Mike Bertrand

    Madison, WI

  3. Danielle says:

    “Being a member of an underrepresented group does not mean you can’t be biased against that group.” I think that’s fascinating. I always in the back of my head assumed that by simply being a woman teaching math it was showing girls that it was possible, but this article is right. Unless everyone makes a conscious effort, we are adding to the problem. This made me reevaluate how I include diversity, and that I need to be more conscious of how I treat everyone.

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