Some Revelations In My Tech Free Adventure

On the ferry to Dar Es Salaam, contemplating pedagogy, accessibility, transportation, supply chain management and sunsets. Photo Courtesy of Frank Neikes.

I’m still in Tanzania, still with limited access to technology resources, so I wanted to take this post to share with you a few technology-free mathematical revelations I’ve had during my time here.

First, the pedagogical revelation. I’m teaching a Complex Analysis course to a group of 150 non-native english speakers in an acoustically challenging space. Imagine a large hall made of concrete, with lots of metal crossbeams running widthwise, and open air windows that allow all the noise in from outside and allow all of my careful words to escape into the schoolyard.

It has never been put in such stark relief how I take for granted my ability (and the ability in others!) to hear well and understand me when I speak. I have a great great deal of difficulty both hearing and understanding students when they ask questions, due to barriers of a linguistic and acoustic nature. And I’m constantly worried that they can’t hear or understand me. It’s completely changed the speed and cadence with which I deliver a lecture and engage with student questions. And it has really gotten me thinking, how many non-native english speaking or hard of hearing students have I had in my career who could have benefited from this?

It reminded me of this important microphone related PSA I read on Twitter a few weeks ago from writer @SarahPinsker. She wrote, “Abandoning the mic at a panel/ reading causes an accessibility issue for audience members. Even if you ask “y’all can hear me?” you don’t know if there’s someone with hearing loss who came out for you & has now been put in the uncomfortable position of speaking out or losing out.” I will never again eschew a microphone and dismissively say “It’s ok, I have a loud voice.” Although, to be honest, I never would have done that in the first place.

The AMS Inclusion/Exclusion blog has done some great coverage on accessibility concerns in mathematics, including ableism and inclusive pedagogy. If you’re interested in getting in on some of these conversation, I’ve found that Piper Harron’s Twitter feed is often full of thoughtful and nuanced takes on the subject.

The other revelation I’ve had is more mathematical in nature, and it involves what makes math interesting to humans, and it’s occurred to me that there are two main camps (feel free to fight me on this one, I’m not committed to this idea). There are the math-is-beauty-and-beauty-is-math-and-we-should-learn-number-theory-because-it’s-written-into-the-very-bones-of-our-being types, call then Type A. And there are the math-is-money-and-we-should-learn-complex-analysis-because-it-will-help-us-become-engineers-so-we-can-build-big-things-and-get-money, call them Type E.

I’ve been a Type A for most of my life, and I think that most of my students have been Type A as well. People who are just drawn to the wonder and beauty of it all. But suddenly I’m seeing a world full of nails, and math is the hammer, and I’m wondering if maybe my students were really Type E all along and maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention. And I’m wondering if maybe I’m not also secretly a Type E…

It’s not that I think these two types necessarily need to exist in conflict with one another, nor are they necessarily mutually exclusive. And it’s not as simple as just a pure/applied split, because of course we all know that all math is eventually applied math. I’ve just noticed that math means different things to different people, and that’s pretty amazing. It’s the ultimate multitool. Whether you coming at math from hardcore operations research like PunkRockOR or mathematical essentials like From Fish to Infinity, there is an entry point for everyone.

My job as a lecturer is just to find out people’s preferred point of entry and guide them there. And my job as a mathematician, I guess it to make really good math regardless of which Type I belong to.

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