Genius Revisited

Three years ago, I wrote two posts (post 1, post 2) about math, the media, and the genius myth, the idea that in order to be successful in math, you have to be born with some particular talent. They’re good posts, if I do say so myself, and as math hasn’t rid itself of the genius narrative in the intervening years, they’re still relevant.

“The Inspiration of Genius” by Jules-Clément Chaplain. Credit: Public domain, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I have been thinking about the genius myth recently because of some posts I’ve read about genius and identity in the math blogosphere. Most recently, Jim Propp’s post “Genius Box” talks about the complicated relationship he has had with the concept of genius in mathematics. Another post I’ve been thinking about this this one from Piper Harron about her objections to being labeled as a genius.

Something I have been seeing more and more in writing about the idea of genius and in neighboring discussions such as #MeToo is an acknowledgment that it’s easy to focus on the art, math, or science created by those who were able to thrive in an environment and worry that changing practices would deprive us of those things, but it’s impossible to see the art, math, or science that would have been created by the people who were pushed out of the field. That is something that I wrestle with when I read about early women and members of other groups that are underrepresented in math and which I tried to flesh out in a post last year about Sophie Germain. And of course, our loss of the products people would have created is not the chief wrong in this situation, and thinking that way risks commodifying other people. People who wanted to be mathematicians but were pushed out were deprived of the opportunity to do activities they wanted to do and thrive in a way that they were interested in thriving.

Along with the genius myth, I have been thinking about the idea of identity in math and identities as mathematicians. Last fall, UK math(s) teacher Ed Southall, author of the blog Solve My Maths, wrote about his struggle labeling himself as a mathematician. The word has baggage related to genius, speed, and tricks that made him hesitant about whether he should call himself a mathematician. I have seen this same question come up on Twitter, recently from Kate Owens.

In departmental orientation in graduate school, the then chair of the department (who later became my advisor) told us all, “You are mathematicians.” We were paid to think about and tell people about math; therefore, we were mathematicians. Today I would probably not center the role of money; the facts that we were choosing to spend our time thinking about math and had been accepted into a program where we would be trained as mathematicians and teach math to others were the salient points. Regardless, my advisor’s framing of me, a naive first-year graduate student, as a mathematician helped me view myself that way. I won’t claim I never struggled to see myself in academic math research (and I eventually stopped doing academic math research), but I did not worry that I was misusing the word mathematician by calling myself one.

Another interesting post about mathematical identity from Piper Harron asks whether we can improve the way we tell undergraduates what it is their math professors really do. Too many students don’t consider a math major because they don’t want to be primarily calculus teachers. Can we tell stories about people’s different paths into math and mathematical careers that will broaden students’ conceptions of who does math and what mathematicians do?

How do you think about genius and identity in mathematics?

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