Math in the Time of Corona: A Tour

Math in the Time of Corona is a blog created by Dr. Jennifer Quinn to reflect on teaching during a pandemic. She is a professor at the University of Washington Tacoma and president-elect of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). As she describes on the website, this is “a blog in response to a global pandemic from an eternal optimist. Musings on emergency remote teaching (of mathematics), maintaining humanity, and building community in isolation.”

There is a new post every day, and while they can vary a lot in topic and length, each of them brings a sense of comfort as her authenticity shines through her writing. Also, the posts are not solely about mathematics showcasing to me a new way of humanizing mathematics. Some of my favorite posts include:

“Dear Mathematics,

I am more grateful than you can know that you are a part of my life. You make my pulse race when a solution is revealed. You inspire me towards creativity and persistence. You provided the foundation upon which I built my career. And you bring comfort—even when I don’t know that is what I need.” – Dr. Jennifer Quinn

I was so appreciative of the thoughts behind the blog that I reached out to Dr. Quinn to know more about the inspiration behind her writing. 

a) VRQ: Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself and your blog?

Figure 1. Self-portrait of Dr. Jennifer Quinn. Credit: Dr. Jennifer Quinn.

JQ: I am a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Washington Tacoma and president-elect of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). Expository writing has played an important role in my professional life: first, as co-author with Art Benjamin of the award-winning book Proofs that Really Count: The Art of Combinatorial Proof, then as co-editor (also with Art) of MAA’s Math Horizons, and finally as Chair of the MAA Council on Publications, at the time overseeing its three print journals, one electronic journal, two magazines, and eight-book series. At JMM 2020, I was moved by a recurring call to humanize our discipline and I bring that lens to my current writing. By showing myself to be authentic, flawed, and yes, at times struggling, I hope others can see that they belong in mathematics with me and together we can help one another survive and achieve.


b) VRQ: What motivated you to start blogging during the “Corona times”?

JQ: I never planned to write a blog. I sort of fell into it. Let me explain:

I started journaling the day after the announcement that the University of Washington’s three campus’s classes would suspend face-to-face interactions and teach remotely. Mostly my posts were on Facebook. Some were on MAA Connect, the MAA’s member platform. Maybe it’s because I was on the leading edge of the emergency transition. Maybe its because I felt a duty to other mathematicians going through the same ordeal. Regardless, I kept thinking, writing and voicing my doubts, concerns, successes, and vulnerabilities.

Then Beth Kalikoff, friend and director of the UW Center for Teaching and Learning, asked if she could use one of my posts in the Center’s new Teaching Remotely blog.  I agreed but had no response when asked, “where can we link our blog post so people can read your other reflections?” Over the next 24 hours, Math in the Time of Corona was born. I started by posting past reflections chronologically and vowed to continue writing until there was no longer a need. I posted almost every day through the end of spring quarter 2020. After a summer hiatus, I restarted daily posts on September 28 with the beginning of Autumn teaching.

c) VRQ: What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned through daily blogging? 

JQ: I find writing to be therapeutic as I reflect on the state of my life, my work, my profession, and the world.  I am always surprised at which posts are embraced by readers and which are ignored. It seems to be a combination of timing, clever title, good picture, and who you mention. The June 11 post detailing my method for giving oral finals in Spring is, hands down, the most popular post on the blog garnering more than 10% of all views. It has been visited three times more frequently than the second most popular post, a logic puzzle based on Zoom placements featuring screenshots from Art Benjamin, Jeanette Shakalli, Nancy Neudauer, and me.  (The puzzle was fun but is essentially obsolete because of the recent upgrade to Zoom 5.3).
I have been told that what I post has resonated with folks—not just mathematicians, not just teachers, but many people experiencing this wild and crazy pandemic year.  If they find any comfort, then I consider it a success.

d) VRQ: Are there any reflections/wisdom you would want to share with our readers about “Math in Corona times”?

JQ: The full impact and injury of the global pandemic is yet to be seen. Covid-19 has up-ended education from K-20+. It will disrupt scholarly productivity for years to come.  Those lucky enough to have the health, mind space, and lack of care-taking responsibilities to continue in isolation will be fine. Everyone else will fall further behind. I keep returning to the words I first wrote on March 13, 2020. They are as true now as they were then. “Don’t panic. You don’t have to be an expert. Just use what you know and adapt. Ask for help. Offer help. Breathe.”

So far I have remained true to my original vision of writing about emergency remote teaching, maintaining humanity, and building community. As our isolation drags on, I  imagine adapting the blog to suit the needs of the times.  I would love a day when the title Math in the Time of Corona no longer makes sense and then I will happily change it. May that day come soon.

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About Vanessa Rivera-Quinones

Mathematics Ph.D. with a passion for telling stories through numbers using mathematical models, data science, science communication, and education. Follow her on Twitter: @VRiveraQPhD.
This entry was posted in Blogs, Current Events, Math Communication, Math Education, people in math, Uncategorized, women in math. Bookmark the permalink.

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