Queering Mathematics

First: Trans people are people who deserve to have their identities respected and validated and to live without fear. On this Trans Day of Remembrance #TDoR2020, we mourn those who have died from transphobic violence. As a broader queer community, we remember that this violence disproportionately impacts trans women of color, a group who have also led many of the efforts to secure human rights for us all.

I am proud to have participated with Ron Buckmire, Emily Riehl, Juliette Bruce, Anthony Bonato, and Robin Gaudreau in LGBTQ+Math Day (virtually) at the Fields Institute this week. An event like this contributes to the visibility of queer people and our accomplices/allies, and a major theme of our conversation was the fact that each of us, by virtue of existing, queered spaces by being in them, from the rugby pitch to mathematics conferences. But for this post, I’d like to reflect on the ways that I saw our queer identities influencing our mathematics.

Ron Buckmire kicked off the event with a talk entitled “Different Differences”. He started by telling us about some of his identities, which developed into an observation that our community treats some identities like race and gender as “standard” differences and often ignores others, like his gay and Caribbean identities. Ron reminded us that the data about representation in the higher education mathematics are sparse (and shameful) for the “standard” differences and often completely absent for the “different” differences. But Ron’s title also applies to the overview he gave of his research. Using calculus-based methods, we describe continuous change using a limit of an average rate of change, and this process can be discretized in multiple ways. Discretizing the most famous definition of a derivative leads to what is often called a forward difference, but those of who have taught calculus will be familiar with versions that could be called backward or center differences, corresponding to various ways to draw secant lines to continuous curves near a point.

Ron’s observation was that these three approaches all implicitly assume that the width of the approximations, h, will approach 0 linearly. In what I saw as the first example of queering mathematics in the session, Ron demonstrated how we can reject this assumption (i) by replacing the role of h with more interesting functions that still approach zero on the order of h to get “non-standard differences, which he would like to name Mickems differences, after Ron Mickems, and (ii) by taking non-local discretizations, which felt to me like a radical reorganization of an approach to discrete difference modeling.

Next, Emily Riehl talked about “Contractibility as Uniqueness”, which she explicitly framed as “queering uniqueness”. Emily’s work is in category theory, a subfield that I see as overtly working to reconsider and rebuild the foundations of mathematics, and this talk showed how we might think of that agenda as a queer one. Emily started from the idea of the first fundamental group of a topological space, which is a group made of all loops at a base point in the space with the (associative) operation of composition (or concatenation). If we loosen the restriction that the paths be loops, allowing them to start and end at different points, we lose the ability to compose an arbitrary pair elements, so Emily’s core question became: when it is possible to compose them, how unique is that composition? Is it unique enough for associativity? She built a tetrahedron representing a homotopy that answers this question affirmatively, but she wanted to step back even further. Uniqueness can be quantified as: there exists an x such that, for all y, x=y. Interpreting this from a categorical perspective, this became the sum over all x of the product of all y of the set of proofs that x=y, where sum and product are adjoints of the pull-back, and uniqueness because the observation that this is a contractible space, which can be proved without referencing the base topological space. I am personally drawn in powerfully by this kind of work in category theory, which reimagines the foundations of what had seemed necessary in mathematics and logic in ways that feel analogous to the work of reimagining the messages of what had seemed necessary in society for gender and sexuality.

Third, Juliette Bruce told us about “Computing Syzygies”. This is a classical subfield that owes a lot to Emmy Noether, but Juliette’s overview showed how there is still so much we don’t know about the relationships between monomials! In light of the themes of queering mathematics above, one particular move by Juliette stood out to me. Her research has made progress in understanding syzygies by bringing tools from applied mathematics for computing with enormous matrices to bear on what had previously been viewed as a classical, abstract problem. While it might be a bit of a stretch from the talk, I see this as Juliette rejecting the false binary of abstract and applied mathematics. I was pulled into algebraic geometry as a graduate student because I like the double vision of seeing objects from both algebraic and geometric perspectives, and I’ve long felt that the most exciting mathematics brings this kind of binary-rejecting double vision to approach problems from new directions. And while we didn’t get to hear about Robin’s work during this event, in a later communication they offered a sketch of a similar interpretation of some of their work in virtual knot theory in which some functions require or break a binary.

The final presenter, Anthony Bonato, told us about “Out, Proud, and Combinatorial: A gay mathematician’s journey”. He told us about his efforts to be an out, proud, mathematician as well as the challenging ways environments have resisted these efforts. In his overview of his work, he described efforts that overlap abstract and applied mathematics, similar to Juliette, in complex network analysis. He studies the hidden geometry behind complex networks, such as social networks, showing how complex social networks often reduce to a small number of characteristics (the dimensions in this hidden geometry). I might be reaching to claim this as queering the mathematics, but this hidden geometry certainly reminds me of Ron’s different differences and my own experiences learning to see implicit social structures that my non-queer peers could safely ignore. Anthony also turned the connection I’m making in reverse, perhaps mathing queerness, stating his axioms for mathematics and diversity/equity/inclusion work that remind me of Federico Ardila’s axioms. In both situations, mathematicians are using the disciplinary concept of an axiom to structure their approach to justice.

My own work is also inspired by my experiences as a queer person. I never fit into the implicit expectations for gender or sexuality as a young person, and that misalignment made me hyper aware of the systems that guided and structured human activity in general. In mathematics, this awareness served me well: I spent my time asking why we did what we were doing and how we knew the things we claimed to know. More recently, I have come to see that I was lucky to happen into those habits in mathematics, buttressed by my other privileges. I see how students, especially students of color, who ask similar kinds of critical questions are often driven out of mathematics when people assert that there is nothing to ask, that mathematics is just “pure” truth that they must accept. And even those who aren’t driven away are forced to experience mathematics as a form of authoritarianism. As a teacher educator, I work on helping teachers to critique, perhaps to queer, mathematics so that they in turn can build classrooms that don’t recreate this history of violence in the name of mathematics. In response to a comment I made on the panel, a participant offered the amalgamated word inqueery, on which I’m going to keep reflecting.

Queerness has been my entryway into understanding exclusion, but queering mathematics will not be enough, just as spaces dominated by cisgender gay men can sometimes be racist and toxic in other ways. The game historically called “cops and robbers” is an example of how dangerous ideas related to white supremacy and the police can subtly pervade even queer mathematics spaces.

Thank you for coming with me as I reflected on the ways that Ron asked us to queer our assumptions, Emily to queer our foundations, Juliette to queer our methods, and Anthony to queer our results. These talks will appear shortly on the Fields Institute’s YouTube channel, and I hope watching them through this lens encourages you to help further queer mathematics.

Posted in conferences, LGBTQ+ | Leave a comment

Building Gender and Sexuality Allyship in the Mathematics Community

Guest Authors:

Student Authors: Alexander Asemota, Kevin Harris, Quiyana Murphy

Organizer Authors: Alexander Diaz-Lopez, Pamela E. Harris, Vanessa Rivera Quiñones, Luis Sordo Vieira, Bianca Thompson, Shelby Wilson, Aris Winger, Michael Young

This summer, we participated in Math SWAGGER, a virtual workshop for underrepresented graduate students who are pursuing PhDs in the mathematical sciences. During the Gender and Sexuality session, we built a framework to reflect on how gender and sexuality intersect with our mathematical identity and our experiences within the mathematical community. To this end, we were split into subgroups by the gender participants identified the most with and talked about the spectrum of gender and sexuality, the privilege and barriers you may face depending on your identity, and ways to create inclusive environments through proactive allyship. In this article, we will share some of the lessons learned.

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Towards a Mathematics Beyond Police and Prisons

Guest post by The Just Mathematics Collective

The October 2020 issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society contained an open letter calling on the mathematics community to boycott collaborations with police and demanding, in particular, that we stop providing law enforcement with the mathematical technology they increasingly rely upon to terrorize Black and brown poor and working class people. The letter mentions the deeply racist feedback loops that predictive policing creates, and points out that predictive algorithms grant the police an unearned veneer of scientific legitimacy. 

Alongside the open letter, the AMS published three other letters: one by Ingrid Daubechies, Ezra Miller, and Cynthia Rudin; another by Daniel Krashen, who was also given space to write a separate article expounding on his opinion; and the third by Sol Garfunkel. The arguments in these letters vary, but all oppose the boycott in spirit. 

We, the Just Mathematics Collective (JMC), are a collective of mathematicians formed during the 2020 Black Lives Matter rebellion. Our goal is to shift the mathematics community towards justice via anti-racism, anti-militarism, and solidarity with the Global South. We acknowledge the role that mathematics plays in sustaining injustice, and the potential it has for creating a freer world built on mutual care and collaboration. 

As such, the JMC wholeheartedly supports the boycott and the purpose of this statement is to respond to these three letters and to Daniel Krashen’s article. [1]

There are JMC members who helped co author the “boycott letter”, but there is no containment in either direction. The boycott letter predates the JMC and the JMC takes specific political stances that are not articulated in the boycott letter, and not necessarily shared by the signatories of the boycott letter. As we will explain, we support the call for a boycott for reasons that go beyond the original letter’s arguments.

While we agree with the claims made in the call for a boycott regarding the racist feedback loops inherent to predictive policing algorithms, our opposition to collaboration with police does not rely on problems with specific algorithms and instead rests on a more fundamental contention:

The role of the police in US society is to protect racial capitalism with coercion and violence.  Thus, even if it was possible to create a predictive policing algorithm 100% free of racial bias, providing such an algorithm to the police would constitute an act of oppression.

Therefore, we will not rehash arguments summarized by the authors of the boycott letter about the specific effects of these algorithms. 

We emphasise that our position is political, as is any position on the matter of collaboration with police, whether or not that is made explicit. The JMC arrived at our stance not by finding a mathematical error in the literature on predictive policing algorithms. Our position rests in the political tradition of abolition and an understanding of the historical and present role of the police in maintaining unjust and racist structures of political and economic power.

In his article, Krashen claims that “police patrolling will not simply end.”  With these few short words, Krashen dismisses decades of political organizing and theorizing by workers, prisoners, and Black feminist thinkers who have dedicated their lives to building a world in which police patrolling will indeed end.  No one expects this will happen “simply”, but a major obstruction to its happening at all is an unimaginative collective assumption that it is impossible.

All three of the letters (as well as Krashen’s article) are rife with such assumptions — for instance, that the status quo of throwing people in cages as a means of addressing social problems is a necessary aspect of human society. Crucially, the authors do not explicitly acknowledge that these are deeply political assumptions, and instead obscure their political assumptions with claims to scientific objectivity.

Unlike those advancing these disingenuous arguments, the JMC freely admits our subjectivity — what we state here are our political opinions and we do not pretend otherwise. We see a tendency in the mathematics community to characterise as “rationality” the practice of ignoring lived realities, historical facts, and moral and political questions; unlike some of our colleagues, we will not allude to our “objective analyses” and “logical insights” when making our arguments. Our stance derives from being humans observing actual social and material conditions; from seeing the impacts of prisons and police on our communities, friends, and family; and from engaging in the basic human practice of envisioning a more humane and just world. 

To help frame what follows, we list below some historical facts and political opinions that undergird our position.

  • Historical fact: The police in the US derive from slave patrols and private strike-breaking forces [2].  There is a direct, well-documented throughline from these origins to the modern day quasi-military forces on our streets [3], and a consistent pattern of collusion with white supremacist vigilantism, fascism, and the far-right [4].
  • Political opinion: The true purpose of policing is to preserve “social order”, racial capitalism, and patriarchy [5]. The many connections between the police and explicitly white supremacist groups and movements are no accident, but are in fact an inevitable consequence of the nature of police. Therefore the racism, classism, ableism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and general inhumanity that is endemic to modern policing cannot be reformed away. [6]
  • Historical fact: Prisons were introduced as a reform, as a means of moving away from gratuitous and unpopular capital/corporal punishment [7]. In the US, prisons have evolved from the paternalism of the early penitentiary and the horrors of the convict leasing system into a massive industrial complex in which prisoners — disproportionately Black and brown people — are treated as raw material [8].
  • Political opinion: The US legal system is set up to criminalize non-whiteness and poverty, and to subjugate Black and brown communities through physical violence (via the police, immigration enforcement, and the military), and through the restriction of movement and other basic human rights (via prisons, detention centers, and militarized border zones). In anything resembling its current form, it is incapable of delivering true justice or healing.
  • Historical fact: The US legal system has a long history of creating conditions in which sexual and other gender-based violence proliferates.  This includes the rampant sexual violence in US prisons [9] and immigration concentration camps [10], as well as the long, ongoing [11] history [12] of forced sterilizations and other eugenics practices [13]. It also includes the system’s tendency to neither investigate [14] nor prosecute [15] intimate partner violence.  Gender-based violence disproportionately affects women, children, and LGTBQIA+ people of color.
  • Political opinion: White supremacy is deeply intertwined with patriarchy [16].  To those in power, gender-based violence is a desirable feature of the legal system and the misogynistic [17] violence perpetrated in prisons is deeply connected to the misogynistic violence that exists more broadly in society [18]. The fact that all of this overwhelmingly affects communities of color is by design.  Abolishing the police and prisons is a fundamentally feminist objective, and patriarchy can not end without achieving it.
  • Historical fact: There is little evidence that policing and prisons have reduced social harms, or even that they have much of a reducing effect on the rate at which legally defined crimes are committed [19]. They have, however, sanctioned many physical and social harms and concentrated violence in specific locations from which there is no escape [20].
  • Political opinion: Criminalization is a weapon used by the state to buttress its repressive power, and crime a legal construct [21] controlled by the white supremacist state — should not be confused with harm. Neither policing nor prisons are compatible with an ethos of valuing human life over profits and property, and thus a commitment to humanity requires the abolition of both.  

We emphasize that when we make a distinction between “historical fact” and “political opinion”, we are not assigning more worth to one over the other. Many truths are considered opinion and valued less than fact (or erased altogether) by those in power merely because they represent experiences of oppressed people. We will not buy into this devaluation. On the contrary, we often cherish our opinions more dearly than historical fact, since it is ultimately opinion — informed by fact, experience, and feeling — that we use to calibrate our moral compasses and political aspirations. The italicized sentences at the end of each opinion above demonstrate this calibration in action. What we call facts are simply statements represented in the academic historical record for long enough that even the most elitist academics — those who dismiss the lived experiences of marginalized people when they do not appear in the pages of exalted journals — would be forced to admit are true. 

Guided by these truths, we now outline some of the assertions mentioned by Daubechies-Miller-Rudin and Krashen and respond point-by-point [22]

“To boycott all interaction between mathematics and police, without any stated demands or termination criteria, fails to recognize the positive potential of mathematics in contributing to whatever concept of law enforcement is envisioned by the movement” (Daubechies-Miller-Rudin)

JMC response: There is no one concerted “movement.” As in any time of political turmoil, there are many voices, expressing many needs and political desires simultaneously. There is, however, a powerful contingency of everyday people, organizers, workers, thinkers, prisoners, and of course those at the intersections of several of these categories, who envision the complete non-existence of police. 

We ask the reader to imagine an extinct institution sufficiently heinous such that no engagement with it could possibly have a positive impact. For example, considering the origins of policing in slave patrols, imagine a proposal that scientists of the mid-nineteenth century outfit slave catchers with improved “technology” in an effort to make that practice somehow more humane. We hope the absurdity of this is clear, and we emphasize that such a proposal would have served a political purpose: putting an utterly unearned patina of humanity and legitimacy on the institution of chattel slavery. 

“When software developed from mathematical insights for use by law enforcement turns out to promote racist outcomes, it is irresponsible to launch a boycott, cutting short efforts to solve the problem.” (Daubechies-Miller-Rudin)

JMC response: The fundamental problem is not that the software merely happens to promote racist outcomes; the problem is policing itself. The purpose of a boycott is not to disengage from the problem, but to begin finally engaging with it. We support the call for a boycott precisely out of our sense of professional responsibility as mathematicians. We would instead suggest that it is irresponsible to assume certain answers to basic political questions and then restrict our role to technical tinkering within the framework of those (in fact highly contestable) answers. 

“Instead of refusing our expertise, why not offer our services with increased fervor…?…Withdrawal is not the solution.” (Daubechies-Miller-Rudin)

JMC response:  The only sort of “withdrawal” proposed by the boycott is withdrawal from a position of complicity with a murderous institution. By boycotting, we engage with this issue on our own political terms. And we are committed to fighting for a future in which this quote ages extraordinarily badly. 

“…it is critical to realize who our allies are, and to come together in common cause and not pull apart. When we engage in personal attacks and in casting doubt on our colleagues…we risk the destruction of the atmosphere needed to move forward.” (Krashen, Response to the boycott) 

JMC response: We are accountable to our friends, our families, our broader extra-mathematical communities, working class people, prisoners, and others deemed disposable by American empire and racial capitalism. The JMC would be honored to be considered allies and accomplices to all such people. So on this point, we agree: it is critical that we realize who our allies are. On the other hand, we have no allegiance to fellow academicians who profit from the brutalization of Black and brown people by selling their expertise to the police. 

While the JMC has no issue with criticizing individuals when criticism is warranted, we are confused by this reaction to the call for boycott, as no individuals were explicitly targeted by the boycott letter. We recognize that an effective boycott can cause damage to finances and reputation, and to the mathematicians who are financially and intellectually invested in predictive policing, we say: we are not aware of any clause in the call for boycott that precludes your joining. We believe that everyone is capable of transformation and growth. 

“If mathematicians, scientists, and others don’t come together to help formulate algorithms about patrolling, we can do little to influence the potential bias the police can (and likely will) bring.” (Krashen) 

JMC response: We reject this claim as false, and also reject it as an insult to decades of organizing and community care that have taken place outside of hallowed academic halls. Mathematicians and scientists can have a tremendous impact on policing by joining the fight for abolition, led courageously by non-scientists and non-mathematicians (at least not in the professional sense). It is in this spirit that the JMC considers participation in the boycott to be a meaningful scientific and political contribution. If mathematicians are intent on designing algorithms related to patrolling, we would call on them to create open access technology for the people, perhaps to help them maintain safety in their communities, including safety from the police

“This is the time to engage with our colleagues, who have developed and refined their expertise to think deeply about these problems, and who have developed a dialogue with various social institutions” (Krashen)

JMC response: We find offensive the implication that someone who has developed a predictive policing algorithm should be considered an expert on prisons and policing on that basis alone. It is in fact far past time to engage with the real experts on policing and prisons: prisoners and formerly incarcerated people, Black and brown organizers who are leading the fight for abolition, and the working class people whose daily lives are affected in concrete ways by these oppressive systems. Even within the extremely narrow realm of academia, mathematicians who design policing algorithms can not claim the title of expert. This mantle belongs instead to our colleagues in the social sciences and humanities who have spent years thinking about the societal harms caused by policing, prisons, and overcriminalization, as well as the reasons these oppressive systems were created in the first place.  

 Our sense of morality does not come from having earned an advanced degree or from being deemed expert in a discipline. It comes from being human, from having human experiences, and from learning from the experiences of others. We therefore can not afford to take seriously the proposal that we leave the question of how to engage with the police up to the very people who have the most personally invested in ensuring that the relationship between mathematics and law enforcement remains fundamentally unchanged. We hope the reader can acknowledge the irony of chastising boycott as disengagement, while also suggesting that any mathematician who is not already working with the police should not play an engaged role in deciding whether these collaborations should even exist. 

Most of all, we hope our community sees past the shallow arguments made in opposition to the boycott of police collaboration. We look forward to a new culture in the mathematics community, in which issues of ethics and politics are honestly considered at every point of interface between mathematics and the broader community in which it is embedded. Mathematics should be for the people! And so long as we continue to use our training to empower institutions which aim to oppress and brutalize, it can not be. We can collectively build the power to shape our community and move towards a more just and free mathematics. How will you help to claim and exercise that power? 

——————————————————

In the spirit of Krashen’s advice to engage with and learn from those with genuine expertise, we conclude this statement by honoring on-the-ground organizing that has inspired us and that is happening in the cities and states where Daubechies-Miller-Rudin (North Carolina), Krashen (Georgia until recently, and now New Jersey), and the AMS headquarters (Rhode Island) are located. We ask our mathematical community to support these freedom fighters in any way it can: 

Black Workers for Justice  (North Carolina)

Southerners On New Ground (with chapters in several southern states, including Georgia)

Vietlead (Philadelphia and South Jersey) 

Direct Action for Rights and Equality  (Providence, Rhode Island) 

If these arguments resonated with you and you are interested in becoming involved with the JMC, you can reach out to us here: 

justmathematicscollective@autistici.org

 

Endnotes

  1. The boycott has been criticised as an inappropriate tactic — Daubechies-Miller-Rudin’s letter cites the lack of “specific demands” or “termination criteria”, but we find a boycott of the type advocated in the original letter to be tactically appropriate. It is true that sometimes boycotts ask people to withdraw their participation in some activity in an explicit way, until explicit conditions are met, at which point participation resumes. For example, customers of a business in a labour dispute with workers may withhold their business by, say, refusing to cross a picket line; in such cases, the boycotters have specific leverage and there are explicit “termination conditions”.  However, boycotts can also be used to express — and foment — community disapproval of some state of affairs even in cases where most participants do not have much direct leverage and where the notion of “termination conditions” makes no sense.  In such cases, the idea is to build cultural norms against some unacceptable activity. There can’t be termination criteria for the mathematical boycott of police collaboration, because there are no conditions under which it will be acceptable to collaborate with an illegitimate institution. Most of the boycott letter signatories are presumably at no risk of collaborating with police, but by signing, they have publicly expressed disapproval of an intolerable state of affairs and helped to prefigure a culture where oppressive uses of our expertise are less professionally acceptable. To that extent, the boycott is a useful political tactic.
  2. See e.g. P. Reichel: https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=116023 and A. Vitale: https://www.vice.com/en/article/7kpvnb/end-of-policing-book-extract
  3. For a thorough account of this history and the current state of affairs, see Alexander, Michelle (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press. ISBN 978-1-59558-103-7.
  4. Recent infiltration of American police by white supremacist and far-right groups is well documented in news media; see e.g. https://theintercept.com/2017/01/31/the-fbi-has-quietly-investigated-white-supremacist-infiltration-of-law-enforcement/ or https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/aug/27/white-supremacists-militias-infiltrate-us-police-report.  There is also considerable historical documentation of the relationship between formal policing and white supremacist vigilantism, and the process of replacement of racist vigilante violence by racist police violence during the 20th century (see e.g. Silvan Niedermeier’s The Colour of the Third Degree).
  5. See e.g. R. Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag, or for a shorter and online accessible read, G. Potter’s The History of Policing in the United States
  6. This article by M. Kaba makes this point in more detail: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/12/opinion/sunday/floyd-abolish-defund-police.html
  7. This is again documented extensively. For example, Chapter 3 of A. Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete? contains a very useful account of the genesis of prisons.
  8. See e.g. A. Davis, Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison-Industrial Complex.
  9. See https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4881 for a government study on sexual violence in prisons.  Almost half of reported sexual assaults in prison are perpetrated by guards, see e.g. https://www.propublica.org/article/guards-may-be-responsible-for-half-of-prison-sexual-assaults. Sexual assaults are uniformly underreported (and it would stand to reason that this underreporting is even more dramatic when the perpetrator holds immense power over the victim, e.g. guards as perpetrators and inmates as victims), so undoubtedly these numbers should be higher.
  10. For a general discussion on the widespread nature of sexual assaults in DHS concentration camps, see https://theintercept.com/2018/04/11/immigration-detention-sexual-abuse-ice-dhs/ or https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/27/us/immigrant-children-sexual-abuse.html
  11. For an account of the current allegations against ICE concentration camps, see https://projectsouth.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/OIG-ICDC-Complaint-1.pdf
  12. For a brief summary of the history of forced sterilization by US law and immigration enforcement, see https://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/book-excerpts/health-article/forced-sterilization/
  13. For an in-depth discussion about the global history of the eugenics movement and its current successors—and the role that scientists play in defending and facilitating it—see A. Saini’s book Superior: The Return of Race Science.
  14. Less than 1% of rapes lead to felony convictions.  See e.g. https://www.rainn.org/statistics/criminal-justice-system
  15. There are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits lying in storage in US police departments, some dating back decades. For a general discussion, see https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/08/an-epidemic-of-disbelief/592807/
  16. For an introduction to the notion of intersectionality, see K. Crenshaw’s article Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color, 43 Stanford Law Review 1241-99 (1991).
  17.   For the notion of misogyny that we have in mind here—the system which serves “to police and enforce” patriarchal norms—see e.g.  K. Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny.
  18. See e.g. A. Davis’ article Public Imprisonment and Private Violence: Reflections on the Hidden Punishment of Women in the edited volume Frontline Feminism, ed. M. Waller and J. Rycenga.  See also K. Crenshaw’s article From Private Violence to Mass Incarceration: Thinking Intersectionally About Women, Race, and Social Control, 59 UCLA Law Review 1418 (2012).
  19. See e.g. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-prisons-make-us-safer/ or https://eji.org/news/study-finds-increased-incarceration-does-not-reduce-crime/.  Consider also that data on crime rates sometimes ignore crime that takes place within the prison system.  Arguments for policing and incarceration as means of ensuring “public safety” therefore sometimes take the implicit position that incarcerated people are not part of the “public”, or not entitled to safety.
  20. A recent grim summary: https://newrepublic.com/article/153473/everyday-brutality-americas-prisons
  21. Consider that there are thousands of federal and state criminal statutes — an accurate count is considered prohibitively difficult (https://thehill.com/opinion/criminal-justice/473659-america-has-too-many-criminal-laws).  This alone places tremendous and arbitrary power in the hands of the criminal legal system, and gives lie to the claim that police and prisons are primarily a democratic mechanism for maintaining justice or safety.
  22. While we believe Garfunkel’s short letter was intended to further dismiss the boycott, it is not directly relevant to the boycott since its focus is Andrea Bertozzi’s AWM lecture; the JMC celebrates the decision not to hold this lecture but will not address this here.
Posted in AMS Notices, Black Lives Matter, ethics, policing, racism, social justice | 3 Comments

Hopes for a new Editor-in-Chief

In June, as part of #ShutDownSTEM, I challenged the AMS to replace me as Editor-in-Chief of this blog. In particular, I challenged them to replace me with a Black mathematician by reconsidering how this position is valued. It is clear that we need to center, value, and support Black voices in mathematics and in this work. I hope that a strong pool of applicants can articulate many ways that the AMS can value this work, but there are two that I suggest.

First, I believe this position should be compensated. Black scholars in particular, and faculty from many groups minoritized in the academy in general, are asked to do a lot of unpaid labor for professional institutions and organizations. It is my understanding that currently all of the Editor-in-Chief positions for the blogs hosted by the AMS are paid 100 AMS Points per year, which is also what I have been offered for reviewing a book for the AMS. Here is the AMS’s language about how these points can be spent.

Each AMS Point entitles you to a \$1 discount on purchases of AMS publications, gift items and membership dues (up to a maximum discount of \$20 may be applied for membership dues). AMS Points may not be used for meeting fees or books distributed (not published) by the AMS. More information may be found on the AMS Points at: https://www.ams.org/membership/amspoints.

In contrast, this role of Editor-in-Chief has required energy from me comparable to responsibilities for which I have been compensated with (i) a course release or (ii) an annual stipend of more than $6000. As a white person, I am also protected from some of the most draining elements of this position. Most people who have been frustrated with me in my role have sent me substantive, respectful notes; and when people from outside our community have left angry comments for me, they mostly speculate that I must be bored or stupid to write the things I have written about justice and mathematics. My colleagues who are people of color, queer, and women have received death threats, so I expect that a new Editor-in-Chief who is Black would deserve to be compensated for significantly more labor even than what this role requires of me. It is my understanding that the AMS views itself as a volunteer organization and that the small compensation with AMS Points for the EiCs represented a big change in practice when it started.

This brings us to my second suggestion. I believe that the AMS needs to continue reconsidering this stance as a volunteer organization. Justice work needs to be core to the work of all professional organizations, including the AMS. I have been pleased that in recent years the MAA has taken up a responsibility for making sure that everyone at their events is asked to consider justice as part of our work, and I think it would be very powerful if the AMS were to insist that all mathematicians participate in this work, including people who up to this point have thought of justice as separate from their work as abstract researchers. I see this blog as doing vital work in our community under the auspices of the AMS, and it seems appropriate and perhaps necessary to frame it as such; moreover, I think that centering Black editorial voices in this work is critical. I have not considered every AMS blog in detail, but I suspect that many other editorial boards see themselves as doing vital work that we believe ought to be part of the public efforts of our largest professional organization. I do not mean to imply that the AMS is doing nothing to fight injustice, but I do think that work of the blogs should be re-imagined as a core part of the work of the organization.

In particular, I think that the relationship between the editorial voice of this blog and the AMS needs to be reconsidered. Right now, we are almost completely independent: in exchange for the AMS hosting the website, they ask us to follow some basic expectations, and an AMS committee formally approves any new Editor-in-Chief. I certainly appreciate that the AMS does not have or try to exert any editorial control over the blog, but in practice I think this means that these conversations are sustained by individuals rather than the organization, which has significant implications for how this work is supported. This is especially important when we account for the ways that white people often discount Black voices when they talk about justice; more formal and overt support for these voices from the AMS is one important element in a response to the structures of racism. Perhaps a new Editor-in-Chief would want to maintain the current arrangement, but I think it needs to be a part of the conversation with the next EiC.

So I hope several readers will apply to be the new EiC of this blog, and I am especially here to help push the AMS so that Black mathematician applicants can feel more confident they would be supported and valued if they accept the position.

Here is the call for applications for the Editor-in-Chief position. The deadline for submissions is 10/26/2020.
https://blogs.ams.org/inclusionexclusion/2020/09/14/applications-requested-for-editor-in-chief-of-the-inclusion-exclusion-blog/

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Get ready for LGBTQ+Math Day

Guest post by Anthony Bonato

Representation matters. Diversity is a fact, inclusion is a choice.

As a gay man and as a mathematician, those words resonate with me. Speaking from my experience and those of colleagues and students, LGBTQ+ mathematicians haven’t always felt represented or included in the broader community. While I’m happy to see equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives ramping up at conferences and mathematics departments in North America and beyond, there is much more work to do.

Given the success of meetings such as LGBT+ STEMinar, LG&TBQ and LGBTQ+STEM, I thought of hosting a day celebrating the life and work of LGBTQ+ mathematicians. With allies Lisa Jeffrey and Michelle Delcourt as co-chairs, the day-long event was scheduled in July 2020 at the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences in Toronto. We lined up fabulous speakers Juliette Bruce, Ron Buckmire, and Emily Riehl, and a panel discussion at the end of the day.

The pandemic hit, putting a halt to in-person events at Fields.  Given the lockdowns, we moved the event on-line and decided to hold it on LGBTSTEM Day on November 18, 2020.

Who can attend? We encourage LGBTQ+ mathematicians, students, and post-docs in the mathematical sciences to attend. We hope allies will join us too.

Why attend? Come to hear state-of-the-art mathematics conducted by LGBTQ+ mathematicians. Gain insight into their journey and challenges. Build or refresh networks within the community.

How can you attend? Visit our website and register. Please join us! It’s a free event.

 

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Applications requested for Editor-in-Chief of the Inclusion/Exclusion Blog

The AMS invites applications for an Editor-in-Chief of the Inclusion/Exclusion blog. This blog increases awareness of the experiences of marginalized and underrepresented groups in the mathematical sciences, with the goal of building a more inclusive, supportive, and diverse mathematical community.

The role of Editor-in-Chief requires excellent communication skills and a commitment to posting or soliciting posts once or twice a month,. Given the Editor-in-Chief’s central role in providing leadership and vision for the blog, mathematical scientists who identify as members of marginalized or underrepresented groups are especially encouraged to apply. The Editor-in-Chief is assisted by contributing editors and writers. Editors are asked to commit to a three-year term, with an opportunity for both the editor and the AMS to review the commitment each year. AMS blogs are hosted on blogs.ams.org and maintained in WordPress, and familiarity with WordPress or a willingness to learn is required. Each blog has an assigned AMS staff liaison to promote awareness of the blog and to provide documentation and other support, as needed.

Sponsorship of blogs allows the AMS to provide editorially-independent platforms to amplify the voices of members of the mathematical community on issues of common interest and concern. Building community furthers the AMS mission of creating connections among mathematicians and advancing research. This blog is one way to work toward an environment in which all mathematicians can contribute their talents and ideas to the research enterprise.

With sincere thanks to the current Editor-in-Chief of the Inclusion/Exclusion blog, applications for a new Editor-in-Chief will be reviewed beginning on October 26, 2020. To apply, please submit a writing sample from a blog or a piece written for a similar audience, a CV, a biographical sketch of no more than 200 words, and a statement describing your reason for interest in this role and your vision for the blog (such as examples of topics for blog posts). Applications and questions should be submitted to education@ams.org.

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Building equity-minded online programs

Guest post by Justin Lanier and Marissa Kawehi Loving

This article was written for the Early Career Section of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. It will appear there in the January 2021 issue. We are sharing the article as a preprint in the hopes that it will be useful for folks this fall as they work to build equitable online spaces during the ongoing pandemic. Thank you to Angela Gibney for inviting us to write this piece for the Early Career Section and thank you to Brian Katz and the other inclusion/exclusion editors for giving us the chance to share it early via this blog. 

 

Building equity-minded online programs

So you want to start a program to help build and serve the mathematical community. And you want your program to be effective, inclusive, and equitable—and these days, probably online. What should you do?

Two years ago we were in this exact position. We knew how isolating the start of grad school can be, and we wanted to start a program to help connect first-year grad students online to combat this isolation. And we knew that this experience of isolation can be especially acute for students belonging to groups historically excluded from our mathematical communities.

The resulting work-in-progress is the SUBgroups program (www.gradsubgroups.org), now in its second year. We’d like to share with you the lessons we learned and the toolkit we developed as we worked to design an online program that serves its entire audience—a task that requires meeting the particular needs of minoritized participants. We hope our experiences can be useful to you as you plan and organize your own initiative.

 

A year of change

Two seismic shifts have hit the world this year. In May, police officers killed George Floyd. The inequalities entrenched in our institutions came into sharp focus during the national Black Lives Matter protests that followed his killing. In the wake of the uprising, many mathematicians are reckoning with the racism pervading our academic institutions and are being energized to effect change within their departments and research groups. We want to get involved to make change, to do something!

This renewed focus on racial justice takes place against the backdrop of a global pandemic that has upended our lives. We have shifted so many of our academic activities online in an unprecedented way: teaching, conferences, seminars, research meetings, thesis defenses and more. This collective move of our professional lives to an online setting, combined with an increased need for virtual connection to combat physical isolation, has stoked interest in creating new programs, forums, and opportunities.

In this moment, there is a great possibility for positive change, but our efforts must be accompanied with care and foresight. Whenever an activity is moved online or a new online initiative is started, there is a real danger of recapitulating the inequitable and harmful structures that often already exist in our departments and fields. Heightening this danger is the speed at which our mathematical lives have shifted to online settings. The ease of starting new online programs can bring with it a “move fast and break things” ethos; this can lead to harm, especially to the well-being and professional lives of our most precarious community members. We must take steps to create mathematical programs and communities that serve all mathematicians.

 

A toolkit

Building a new program of whatever size is a long-term process. It involves choosing a need to address, designing the structure of your program, and then carrying out your plans. It is important to bring the same care and judgement to designing your “broader impacts” that you use to craft your research program: we must choose which problems to work on, understand the literature, and find some initial insight on how to tackle the problem—an “edge”.

Here are a few items to reflect on as you get started. Some of them we had in hand when we began our work together, while others are lessons that we learned along the way. We hope you’ll find them to be useful tools for building online programs with equity in mind. In the next section we’ll use SUBgroups as a case study to give examples of how to use this toolkit in practice.

1. Don’t just do “something”. The first step in starting a new initiative, online or not, is to pause and think critically about what you are trying to accomplish. Who are you trying to serve? What explicit need are you attempting to address? What experience are you aiming for your participants to have? Remember, your intentions aren’t what drive outcomes—your decisions are what drive outcomes. Beliefs need to be turned into working structures. Because of a sense of urgency, it is understandable to want to put your first ideas into action. But it’s important to pace it out and think about what individuals will be served by your program, and how. You need an intentional plan—an “if you build it, they will come” mentality will not suffice!

One pitfall is addressing problems only superficially, rather than at their root. Or providing a resource but not thinking through how individuals will be able to access it. Another pitfall is letting the professional pressure to obtain funding shape your approach. While funding, prestige, and advancement are all interconnected—and this can be a challenge to navigate—there are often many ways of addressing a problem that require little or no funding. Don’t ignore these!

2. Do your homework. It’s possible and even likely that other people have previously worked to meet the same need that you wish to address in the math community. Find out what structures are currently in place. Can you borrow ideas or structures from these programs? Are there aspects of the problem that existing structures don’t yet address? Just as when you are doing math research, understanding the landscape of a problem can help you to define and refine your goals and plan of action. It’s also important to build relationships with individuals who can give you input based on their experiences and expertise; they might also become a part of your team. It can also be useful to search for programs or approaches that address similar needs in other STEM fields.

3. Undo harm. In setting up structures and norms for your program, it is easier to imagine and scope out the experience of the majority. If you design a program with a “default” user in mind, your program can appear to function well while excluding or harming individuals with less access, prestige, or privilege. To draw on a familiar aphorism, you may think your rising tide is lifting all boats, but this same tide may be sinking some of your participants. There need to be explicit mechanisms and strategies established to avoid and mitigate harmful hierarchies and power structures within your program. For example, in theory any new platform where anyone can participate and discuss will benefit everyone equally; but in practice it will serve and amplify the voices of those who already have power and privilege unless care is taken in how the platform is structured.

4. Leverage scale effectively. Creating a program that will happen online allows for it to scale where the logistics and resources required for in-person programming would be prohibitive. This capacity is why there should be more online activities even in non-pandemic times! If your online initiative is not local to your institution, be prepared to take steps to support a bigger audience, just in terms of logistics, workflow, and technology. Make sure that you are advertising your program in ways that reach the wider audience that this new scaling allows for. On the flip side, the scale of the internet also means that it’s important to consider who’s listening. The same language and structures that make sense and are welcoming in the “local” setting you are used to might come across as alienating or unwelcoming to the much larger and more diverse audience that life on the internet brings. For example, an all white panel for graduate students on navigating the job market isn’t exclusionary if your department doesn’t have any students of color in it, but it sends a clear message about who your panel aims to serve if you advertise more widely.

5. Actively solicit feedback. Once your program is up and running, it is important to get feedback about how it’s going, especially from the most marginalized people that your initiative aims to serve. It is important to distinguish between feedback that is formative and feedback that is summative—one provides information that can help you to modify your program as you go (candid reactions), the other allows participants to give more holistic feedback as they reflect on their experiences with some distance (considered criticism and deserved praise). It can be useful to solicit them separately. Avoid asking for “anonymous” feedback that also collects demographic information. Again, using multiple feedback instruments can be helpful here. Finally, remember that opportunities for feedback don’t have to be uniform, just as the experiences of your participants will not be uniform; without being burdensome or tokenizing, reach out to minoritized participants to better understand their experience of your program.

 

A case study: SUBgroups

SUBgroups is an online peer support program. Each participant is either a first-year math PhD student, a first-year math master’s student considering a PhD, or a student in a math post-bacc program. Each SUBgroup is composed of three to five participants. A group meets regularly over the course of a semester or quarter for a video chat that lasts approximately an hour, once every two weeks on a fixed day and at a fixed time. Ahead of these meetings, participants are asked to reflect on their week and to come up with a positive experience, a negative experience, and some math that they’ve encountered recently and that they might choose to share in their SUBgroups meeting.

In fall of 2019, SUBgroups had 60 students participate from a diverse collection of programs across the country and beyond. As we are writing this, we are just starting our fall 2020 program, helping to support over 200 first-year students in what will certainly be a stressful academic term. This fall we’re also excited to share that a group of junior physicists is running a program for first-year physics graduate students that is modeled on SUBgroups, called SU(5).

We now give some examples of how we used the five tools outlined above to help shape SUBgroups.

1. Addressing isolation through virtual community. We knew we wanted to address the tough experience of being a first-year grad student—an experience we both encountered first-hand. We chose as a focus the isolation that comes with being a beginning graduate student, when it can feel like no one really understands what you’re going through. We knew of lots of ways of finding social connections on a campus or within a department—and we’d heard all the advice about joining an intramural league or going to departmental tea. But the core idea of SUBgroups was that it could be really powerful to put first-year students in touch with each other, in a way that a single department couldn’t coordinate on its own.

2. Programs existed only at the local level. We knew of attempts to provide support within individual departments, such as pairing beginning and more senior grad students. This can be a positive support, but the fact that it is local leaves a worry that any negative comments or experiences shared with a peer mentor might “get back” to other people in the program. So in surveying what kinds of supports were in place for beginning grad students, we did not find an example of a program like we had envisioned in SUBgroups. At the same time, SUBgroups wasn’t designed in a vacuum; we relied on our many experiences in small group facilitation. We built into SUBgroups norms and routines to ensure more equitable participation in discussions, such as prompting participants to do some reflective writing ahead of meetings.

3. Disrupting isolation through participant-tailored groups. We recognized that if we just brought students together and randomly assigned them into small groups we would likely end up reproducing many of the conditions that led them to feeling isolated in their programs to begin with. In particular, some students might once again be the “only one” in their group—the only woman, the only Black student, the only queer student—and this experience is compounded for people with multiple minoritized identities. To address this, we asked for demographic information as part of registration and also asked students if they had any requests regarding the composition of their group. This required extra work and care in order to comply with privacy laws like the EU’s GDPR, but we knew that this information would help to make functional and difference-making group dynamics possible.

When deciding on the structure of the SUBgroups, we debated whether to provide each group of first-year students with a more senior grad student mentor to help facilitate the group meetings and answer any big picture questions about math grad school. Ultimately we decided against doing so since it introduced an unequal power dynamic into the group which we felt would inhibit honest and open sharing of experiences between participants. This decision wasn’t without drawbacks. There were a couple of groups which unraveled after their first meeting or two without a senior point person to coordinate meetings and help with rescheduling. This year we are modifying the way that meetings get scheduled to help build agency and responsibility for participants up front to avoid this consequence of our decision about mentors. At the end of the day, there is no way to ensure a perfect outcome. Still, it’s important to think critically about the impact that even these (superficially) purely logistical questions can have on meeting your goals.

4. Advertise! Advertise! Advertise! We believed we could leverage scale in the online space to help address this collection of problems: isolation felt by graduate students, the claustrophobia of the first-year experience, and the compounding “only one” challenge. Of course, one concern we had during the organizing phase was that we wouldn’t have a broad enough swath of students participating to accommodate students’ requests for their group composition. Our solution was to advertise as extensively as possible. We reached out directly (with individualized emails) to the graduate directors and chairs at about 200 math graduate programs in the US and Canada. We also advertised in community Facebook groups that are focused on various underrepresented groups in math as well as advertising through the NAM newsletter and the AMS grad student newsletter. This fall we also specifically contacted a number of minority-serving colleges and universities, to raise awareness about SUBgroups among underrepresented minority students who will be starting graduate programs in the next few years.In addition to far-reaching advertising, we have aimed to make SUBgroups as inclusive as possible while still being focused enough to address the specific needs we outlined. For instance, we’ve received a number of inquiries about whether applied math students or students who plan to pursue teaching-focused positions can participate in SUBgroups, as well as inquiries about whether our program is a good fit for students in statistics, math education, or bridge-to-PhD programs. We have added language to our website to clarify that all of these are within the program’s audience.

5. Disaggregating student feedback. Asking for feedback is one area where we definitely still have room to grow in running SUBgroups. We asked for feedback from SUBgroups participants after the first meetings and again at the end of the program. It was all fully anonymous. We did get some good early feedback that reassured us that groups were functioning and that people were generally having positive experiences. The response rate was not as high as we would have liked, however. Our closing survey gave us several choice quotes that felt good to read and were helpful in further advertising the program; it also pointed out places in the program that could use improvement. In addition, since our surveys were anonymous we had no way to ensure that we were hearing from minoritized individuals to better understand that our structures were meeting their needs and expectations. This year we will gather additional feedback from our underrepresented participants on their experiences in SUBgroups.

There are lots of social, human, and structural problems within the math research world that are either unaddressed, or not widely recognized, or not even clearly identified. These problems need to be worked on creatively, energetically, and thoughtfully—and it’s never too early (or too late) in your career to get started! We hope that the toolkit we’ve outlined can help you to think critically about how you develop initiatives to meet these needs.

—–

Justin Lanier is an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Chicago. His long-term goals involve building inclusive and flexible mathematical communities, especially ones that connect K-12 educators and mathematical researchers. Find him on Twitter: @j_lanier

Marissa Kawehi Loving is an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Math at Georgia Tech. She is invested in addressing issues of equity and justice in the mathematics community. Find her on Twitter: @MarissaKawehi

Posted in graduate school, introduction, mathematics experiences | 1 Comment

Todxs cuentan: building community and welcoming humanity from the first day of class

Guest post by Federico Ardila–Mantilla

(Note: This paper was written for the upcoming book “Proceedings from a Workshop on Professional Norms in Mathematics” edited by Mathilde Gerbelli-Gauthier, Pamela Harris, Mike Hill, Dagan Karp, and Emily Riehl.)

Abstract.

Everyone can have joyful, meaningful, and empowering academic experiences; but no single academic experience is joyful, meaningful, and empowering to everyone. How do we build academic spaces where every participant can thrive? Is that even possible?

Audre Lorde advises us to use our differences to our advantage. bell hooks highlights the key role of building community while addressing power dynamics. Rochelle Gutiérrez emphasizes the importance of welcoming students’ full humanity.

This note discusses some efforts to implement these ideas in a university classroom, focusing on the first day of class.

Continue reading

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Remembering John Lewis, by Karen Saxe

With this post, we are amplifying a tribute to Congressman John Lewis by Karen Saxe of the AMS.

https://blogs.ams.org/capitalcurrents/2020/07/23/remembering-john-lewis-african-americans-in-congress/

From Karen Saxe:

Karen Saxe is Associate Executive Director at the AMS and heads the Office of Government Relations in Washington, DC. There, she advocates for funding for mathematical research and education in the mathematical sciences, and for policies that broaden participation in higher education generally and in mathematics more specifically. She writes the AMS Capital Currents blog: https://blogs.ams.org/capitalcurrents/. Her July 23 post commemorates John Lewis. Congressman Lewis was very proud of the achievements of the colleges and universities in his district, including HBCUs Morehouse College, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, Morris Brown College, and Morehouse School of Medicine. He kept his website up-to-date with announcements about constituents who received federal funding for their research, and his staff offered grants assistance and workshops to explain the federal grants process. He was, generally, a great proponent of higher education and fought in Congress for affordable post-secondary education for all, believing “that no matter a person’s income or zip code, access to an excellent education should be a right.”

Mathematics as a discipline is not central in Saxe’s blog post (though it contains a compelling context for discussing social justice mathematics), but I think that the connections to justice and education in Lewis’s legacy make a strong connection to our goals here at inclusion/exclusion. Moreover, I draw inspiration from Lewis’s admonition to “get into good, necessary trouble” as I think about the ways we must continue to #DisruptMath.

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Math, in pandemic and precarity

Today is the last day of my employment. I didn’t expect it to matter to me, because my relationship with my current institution has soured over the way the administration and tenured faculty have handled their response to the pandemic, and also because I do have a job that starts in September. But it still hit me, with the only indication of my employment ending were the emails yesterday alerting me that my institutional email was going to expire and I should return my work computer. No one from my department has contacted me, asked if I had any employment after, or just said it was nice to know you.

Despite all that, what’s even more bitter is the feeling of failure: today will also be the last day of employment for my other contingent faculty colleagues, whose promises of contract renewals were rescinded, and who will enter the ranks of the unemployed tomorrow. Since the hiring freeze was announced three months ago, as with academic institutions across the US, contingent faculty began to lose their jobs, contracts offers were rescinded, and searches were stopped. At my institution, we got organized: we petitioned, wrote letters, got press coverage, made a website, had them boycotted by prominent academics, gained wider support, even as the administration dug in their heels. They had no moral argument: what excuse did they have to furlough staff and layoff faculty when administrators had paychecks sometimes 10 times theirs? They hid behind “curricular need” and “budget shortfall,” repeating the same lines over and over again knowing that eventually we’d be gone. Even tenured and tenure-track faculty wrote letters in support that got little to no response.

“What irony for an institution that writes to its students and alumni about its commitment to racial justice, when women and people of color are overrepresented in its contingent faculty ranks, when it values the non-labour of its tenured professors and administrators over the labour of their working class, and whose Office of Equity and Inclusion’s only furloughed employee is a Black woman.”

So for today—though I promise not to give up—I feel like a failure. I failed to save my friends from losing their jobs. We’re not alone though: staff have already been furloughed since a month ago. What irony for an institution that writes to its students and alumni about its commitment to racial justice, when women and people of color are overrepresented in its contingent faculty ranks, when it values the non-labour of its tenured professors and administrators over the labour of their working class, and whose Office of Equity and Inclusion’s only furloughed employee is a Black woman.

I know contingent faculty who have been afraid to speak up for fear of losing what little longevity they have at the institution, and tenure-track faculty afraid of possible retribution in their tenure-review. The academic system is so disciplining, so domesticating. We’re supposed to be grateful for any tenure-track job we get. But what’s tenure worth if tenured professors would not dare or care speak out and act up for us, beyond writing a polite letter to the administration? How fitting, that I learned today that the Gini coefficient of academia is even higher than that of the US income distribution. How sad, that this should not surprise anyone.

On the rare occasion that I can work on math these days, it’s actually a pleasure. It feels like a form of escapism, like retreating into a world where the problems don’t oppress or kill. And then you wake up one day in the middle of the George Floyd (and Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade) rebellion to learn that it’s not just data science that powers predictive policing, it’s abstract mathematics.

“I wanted to hear about how the math community will account for the lack of productivity during a global pandemic. The coming Fall job market will be a frozen tundra. What’s to stop the best jobs from going to the highest bidder? What’s not to say that those who have been most mathematically productive during the pandemic and protests will be rewarded? And we know that the coronavirus affects communities of color disproportionately, not to mention the trauma of Black death.”

I attended a Zoom panel recently where mathematicians reflected on doing math during the pandemic. People talked about schedules and routine and childcare, but no one seemed to be having a really hard time at all. Honestly, I wanted to hear how it sucked like it does for me. I want to hear how someone is also having a hard time doing “pure math” when the world is in crisis and things aren’t getting better. I wanted to hear about how the math community will account for the lack of productivity during a global pandemic. The coming Fall job market will be a frozen tundra. What’s to stop the best jobs from going to the highest bidder? What’s not to say that those who have been most mathematically productive during the pandemic and protests will be rewarded? And we know that the coronavirus affects communities of color disproportionately, not to mention the trauma of Black death. Grad students and contingent faculty including math lecturers, visiting professors, and postdocs are expected to go back on the job market with a pandemic’s worth of mathematical output. Sure, one might say we value mathematics qua mathematics, but can’t a profession full of PhDs figure out a system that works better?

Sadly, if my last few months are anything to go by, the answer will be no. As Frederick Douglass wrote, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.”

Today, I have decided it is ok to be sad. Tomorrow, the fight continues.*

 

*Despite being out of health insurance.

Posted in Black Lives Matter, cultural pressure in academia, hiring | 10 Comments