One year organizing in the mathematics community

Guest post by the Just Mathematics Collective

As we reach the one-year mark of the Black Lives Matter rebellion of Summer 2020, many of us are reflecting on the actions we promised to take last summer and on what we’ve done in the intervening year. Our main objective in writing this post is to let folks in on our experiences organizing in the mathematics community. Tl;dr: we would’ve never thought that something that so often feels like herding cats could also be so joyous and inspiring! We’re also here to give a round-up of our past and current campaigns and to let people know how they can get more involved in our fight for a more just mathematics.

The Just Mathematics Collective (JMC) formed last summer in an effort to try and push our community towards a freer and more just mathematics. One year and several campaign launches later, we write this post in the same reflective spirit mentioned above, and to catalog some of our experiences, victories, and challenges.

We’re overjoyed by the connections, friendships, and solidarity we’ve built with one another! Our collective is now an organizing home to more than 50 mathematicians and scholars of mathematics, including undergraduates; graduate students; post-docs; tenure-track faculty; and tenured and full-time faculty at R1’s, teaching-focused institutions, and liberal arts colleges. We were frankly surprised to find so many mathematicians who are interested in an abolitionist mathematical future!

On the other hand, we’re also frustrated. We’re angry — on behalf of both ourselves and oppressed people all over the world — at the apathy of those who continue to stay on the sidelines. We’re disappointed in senior mathematicians who’ve made names for themselves in the DEI industry but still refuse to take political risks by attaching their names to genuinely radical ideas or pledging to take actions that — by virtue of how true justice is resisted by the status quo — might get them in trouble with colleagues and their home institutions.

In this post, we’ll summarize our year of campaigning and what it’s taught us about risk, seniority, and different forms of power as they relate to organizing within the mathematics community.

 

“Once I get tenure, I’ll speak my truth”, and other lies we tell ourselves

“It’s just too risky to rock the boat right now — you have to think about your career and your future! Just wait until you have tenure: then you’ll have real power to make change.” JMC members have heard versions of this advice countless times, but most senior mathematicians’ engagement with our work has been to loudly dismiss our campaigns. In light of this enormous gap between promised action and observed inaction, we need to ask: where are all the boat-rocking tenured mathematicians?

In our experience, senior people have played by far the smallest role in the work required for meaningful and lasting change. This lack of engagement is a real shame, since their job security puts them in the best position to take political risks, and because their professional seniority grants them a huge amount of influence in our community. Of course, this is an oversimplification, but we want to highlight four major types of senior mathematicians we’ve encountered in the last year:

  1. The Apathetic Academics
  2. The Militantly Opposed
  3. The DEI Specialists
  4. The Accomplices

We view the Apathetic Academics and the DEI Specialists as the biggest impediments to our organizing efforts.

Complete disengagement is sometimes worse than active opposition. Apathetic Academics do not want to be inconvenienced in any way, and being principled is often very inconvenient! Of course, the Militantly Opposed are not our friends, but unlike the Apathetic Academics, they are at least honest enough to admit that they have political beliefs (regardless of how abhorrent these beliefs actually are!) and are brave enough to express those beliefs in a public forum.

And the eagerness of the Militantly Opposed to share bad and/or misinformed opinions can sometimes be useful to our organizing efforts. For example, consider a hypothetical in which someone announces that they’re so opposed to the idea of ethics informing academics’ choices in where to direct our labor that they would personally recruit for Satan if he were hiring mathematicians. By pointing out how morally bankrupt this position is, we can facilitate a much needed conversation about the relationship between academic freedom and ethical participation in the academy.

Unlike the Apathetic Academics, the DEI Specialists are willing to be inconvenienced. Many of them spend countless hours organizing equity events or conferences tailored to underrepresented and marginalized students. DEI Specialists often portray their work as going completely unnoticed and uncompensated, and they see themselves as rebellious scholar-activists in search of “good trouble”, as evidenced by right-wing extremists targeting their efforts. One problem with this narrative is that right-wing extremists wouldn’t know true equity and justice from a hole in the ground. Moreover, genuine “good trouble” actually requires the possibility of getting in trouble! And since much of the DEI Specialist’s work is institutionally sanctioned, they rarely need to worry about that.

Along these lines, the JMC believes that conventional diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work — much like the neoliberal policies of the Democratic party — simply does not (and fundamentally can not!) address the root causes of injustice in our communities. Toothless DEI work provides cover for our institutions, allowing them to launder their reputations and feign concern without the threat of meaningful, radical change to the oppressive systems they benefit from. It is for precisely this reason that conventional DEI efforts are actually showered with immense amounts of resources and institutional time, and the folks who lead those efforts are often recognized with personal accolades, promotions, and social clout.

Last, and  sadly very much least (in quantity!), we have the Accomplices. Some have become JMC members and contribute immensely to our active campaigns. Frankly, it’s thanks to them that the more junior members of our collective know it’s not impossible to have both tenure and integrity!

Lessons learned: We absolutely can not rely on senior people. The system rewards those willing to uphold the status quo too overwhelmingly for the existence of a strong contingent of senior folks with radical politics. We won’t give up on them as individuals, but we can’t afford to wait for them.

 

Power: who has it, and who doesn’t? 

Obviously, senior mathematicians with tenure do have power and security, but where do we draw the line between the powerful and the powerless? That there’s no clear-cut way to measure power makes it possible for so many senior academics — including chairpeople — to claim powerlessness when asked to implement even the most minor departmental reforms. Different people have access to different amounts of power, but anyone can feel powerless. And no environment is better at producing spinelessness than professional academia. Researchers are trained to believe that any wrong move could make the difference between a coveted tenure-track position and unemployment; that is, we’re trained to forfeit our power. This is the problem with the “wait until you’re tenured before making waves” advice: by then, this training has already been fully internalized.

Nevertheless, most academics have access to at least a baseline of power: institutional affiliations that can navigate behind paywalls; opportunities to mentor and teach students who themselves may go on to wield power in the future; and spending time in classrooms, offices, and hallways from which most human beings alive today are effectively barred. So instead of asking “Do I have power?”, we think the far more pressing questions are “How do I honor the responsibility to use the power that I do have? How can I be accountable not only to my students and mentees, but to the people I’ll most likely never meet in an academic context?” There’s no single right answer to these questions, but junior members of the JMC believe in our power, and over the last year, we’ve proved that we can exert it to make serious impacts.

Of course, many of us don’t have tenure, and there’s undeniable differences in power and safety from member to member. Collective anonymity is a useful tool for mitigating some of these differences, and acting collectively made us realize that we need to move away from the model of power that sees the individual as its key source. Collective action is where power is built. When those with the authority to make changes are unwilling to do so, either because they’re invested in the oppressive status quo, too cowardly to claim their own power, or more often both, our goal is to organize movements with sufficient energy, volume, and momentum to force hands and shift culture.

Lessons learned: The view of power that ascribes the most to senior people and the least to marginalized folks is reductive and presumes that power originates with the individual and not the collective. In some ways, this view ultimately reinforces the hierarchies we want to dismantle. For example, the more people who sign on to a risky or politically controversial campaign, the more powerful the campaign becomes, and the more the barrier to participation is lowered for the next person. Every time we choose to stand up for our principles, we exercise and claim our power, and when people get together to do this collectively, new power is generated.

 

Mathematics Beyond Prisons and Policing

About a year ago, an open letter began to circulate calling for an end to collaborations between mathematicians and police. At this time, the JMC was still in the process of formation; some JMC members were coauthors, and many of the people who would become members helped to edit and advertise the letter once it was written. As abolitionists, we envision a future without police and without prisons, and as mathematicians, we have access to the mathematics community. Organizing is most effective when people know each other and have preexisting relationships, so we came together to fight for our principles within our sphere of influence. In a relatively short time, we collected hundreds of signatures. Looking back, we think it was so successful because:

  1. There’s a genuinely strong desire for a police-free mathematics community.
  2. The political energy of the moment placed this issue at the forefront of many peoples’ minds after the police murders of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.
  3. We weren’t asking most people to make major changes in the way they did their math — many people already didn’t collaborate with police in their professional work and didn’t plan on doing so in the future.

Of course, Militantly Opposed senior mathematicians acted quickly to express their disagreement with the letter. Several letters to the editor opposing the campaign appeared in the Notices of the AMS. As frustrating as it was to see so much justification for throwing human beings in cages at a time when Black and Brown people were rising up against police violence all over the country, the AMS’ decision to dedicate so much space to folks who thought we should keep working with cops gave us the opportunity to respond on this very blog. We used this moment to introduce an unapologetically abolitionist stance to the practice of professional mathematics and to expand our membership, increasing our labor power and our capacity for deeper and richer organizing work.

Lessons learned: Reading political energy and taking advantage of the right timing is essential to effective organizing. People with little experience claiming their power — such as those in the mathematics community — are often only ready to take small steps, and will therefore be most willing to sign on to campaigns that require little change in their daily habits.

 

Mathematics Beyond Secrecy and Surveillance 

After laying down a foundation with our Mathematics Beyond Prisons and Policing campaign, we were ready to take on a more demanding organizing project. Security and surveillance organizations play a much larger role in our community than do local police departments, and when it comes down to it, the National Security Agency (NSA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and their international analogs are policing organizations. They act to uphold the same oppressive hierarchies that local police departments do, and they criminalize liberationist dissent all over the world. As we argued in our campaign document, being a member of an international mathematics community is impossible for so many of the Black, Brown, and Indigenous people of the world in part because of the brutality meted out by these organizations. So we believe that a mathematics event centered around equity, inclusion, or social justice which includes recruitment at the NSA or any related agency, fails on its own terms. There is nothing socially just about training a new generation of Black, Brown, and Indigenous imperialists!

Our ongoing campaign revolves around asking mathematicians of conscience to divest from these agencies. We designed a pledge campaign that allows signatories to pick and choose their commitments, ranging from sharing the document with colleagues and sparking discussion, to refusing to collaborate with the NSA on conference organizing and grant proposals, to refusing to write letters of recommendation for NSA-related programs. This flexibility allows people to sign on only to the parts of the campaign that they felt they could personally support and we’ve noticed that it’s encouraged more participation.

We’re thrilled with the energy the campaign has generated around these issues, and we’re grateful for the number of mathematicians who have already signed on. But in spite of the ease of participation, there are many DEI specialists who have definitely heard about the campaign several times (we’ve made sure of it!), but have yet to engage with it. As far as this campaign is concerned, these folks are far closer to being Apathetic Academics than they’d like to admit.

And if you’re a senior person interested in DEI work and you think we’re referring to you, we probably are. We’d love to have your participation in any of our campaigns and we leave space always for growth — even if you don’t feel like you can support this initiative now, we’re not giving up on you. But in the meantime, we encourage you to engage even in disagreement. You have a point of view; pushing through the fear you may have about airing it publicly is what sparks motion, growth, and dialog. In short: express disagreement with your chest, not your silence.

This isn’t the place for rehashing all of the arguments that cropped up around this campaign: readers can check out the FAQ we wrote for that purpose. We do, however, want to highlight one typical concern:

I’m just one person, struggling to get funded in an environment where money for basic research is harder and harder to come by. If the NSA is giving it out anyway, and my work isn’t really even that related to national security, what’s the big deal?” 

We really do sympathize with this point of view! But we also feel that it misunderstands how agencies like the NSA purchase influence with their grant money. Funding organizations jockey for larger percentages of total awarded dollars so that they can more actively shape the research landscape. A world where surveillance agencies are responsible for a significant portion of available funding is also a world where:

  • research towards a mathematics for the people (e.g., developing open source and freely available technology for people to protect themselves from the police and from governmental surveillance) is much less likely to be funded, and therefore much less likely to be carried out at all;
  • even “pure” or “basic” research conducted by folks who express interest in a mathematics for the people is less likely to happen, since we have no way to hold surveillance agencies accountable, and they have a history of political blacklisting.

Again, we see how an individualist framework misses the forest for the trees. We can only see what “the big deal” is when we zoom out and think about the impact the NSA has on all of us, as a community. And it’s only collectively that we can remove its hold over mathematics, because the sorts of changes required here are big, including: putting pressure on those in power to lobby hard for more basic research funding detached from surveillance agencies, and thinking collectively about more ethical job opportunities for our students so that no one has to choose between leaving mathematics and working with the police state.

Besides asking mathematicians to make individual commitments, this campaign also called on the AMS to explain the nature of its relationship with the NSA, and in particular, to not grant surveillance agencies the space and resources for recruitment at the Joint Mathematics Meetings. Campaign participants were asked to write emails to the AMS, and the AMS responded in an official email from its president, claiming that “the AMS invites any potential employer of mathematicians to engage with our community…” Given the the utility of mathematics and the many organizations with power and money who are also actively white supremacist, queer and transphobic, sexist, etc., we need the AMS to clarify what it means here.

This campaign is active and there are future phases in planning that we can’t say more about yet. For now, you can play a role by taking the pledges, and by joining the email action by sending this updated script in response to the AMS. We also urge all professional societies that claim to care about justice to heed our call and commit to not accepting any funding from the NSA and other surveillance agencies. Spectra has already set the bar by doing so — what will it take for your organization to be next? Please join us!

Lessons learned: Making bigger asks means we need to work harder to achieve the same level of engagement. Integrating flexibility into a campaign allows people to pick and choose how they want to participate. The sort of change we are looking for requires long-term planning and open-ended campaigning. And when we campaign for justice in math, we’re not just standing up for oppressed peoples. We’re also standing up for the healthy — and well-funded — future of our own mathematical community.

 

Mathematicians for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions

On the Day of Action (May 18) in solidarity with the Palestinian uprising, and in light of the recent escalation of Israeli violence towards the entire Palestinian nation, the JMC officially endorsed the Palestinian call for the academic boycott of Israel, and urged individual mathematicians and their societies to follow suit. While this campaign is very similar to our first two in terms of its abolitionist goals, it diverges from them from an organizational perspective in that we didn’t design its guidelines. Our campaign for a liberated Palestine falls within the broader Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, one that had already been gathering momentum, while also enduring various forms of suppression.

There are already deeply ingrained patterns in how detractors express their opposition to any speech or actions in solidarity with Palestinians, and we’ve seen those patterns play out very predictably in our own campaign. We won’t address all of the opposition here, in part because we think our campaign document already does a good job of that. But, as in the last section, we’ll highlight one or two that have a lot to do with the common theme of this post: power building is collective, and when we stand up for a truly just cause, we stand up for everyone, including ourselves. 

The first common objection we’ll spend some time with revolves around academic freedom:

“I can’t participate because this boycott is a violation of the academic freedom of Israeli mathematicians.”  

We can’t stress enough that the guidelines of the boycott are clear: individual academics are not boycottable. In particular, collaborating with mathematicians from Israeli institutions, inviting them to conferences and seminars, and hosting them at non-Israeli institutions do not constitute violations of the boycott. The “academic freedom” straw man is particularly absurd as an argument against boycott in light of institutional efforts to silence, harass, intimidate, and punish anyone who express sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Not to mention the reality that, as is consistent with the colonial paradigm under which they live and work, Palestinian scholars have little to no academic freedom or mobility.

By endorsing the Palestinian-led call for boycott, we’re at the same time honoring the freedom of Palestinians to determine the best strategies for their own resistance, and honoring our own freedom to express radical political beliefs. So many people have been blacklisted, fired, and shunned for expressing solidarity with Palestine (many of them Black, Brown, Arab, Muslim, and/or Jewish) that civil rights groups refer to the “Palestine exception” to free speech. This is the battleground issue when it comes to the right to express radical and just political points of view, so when you join us, you’re fighting for yourself, too.

The second common objection we’ll highlight focuses on efficacy and impact:

“Academic boycott has low impact. My decision to go to a conference at the Technion has no bearing on the course of the movement.”

In spirit, this response is almost identical to the one we spent time with in the last section: I’m just one person, so what’s the big deal? The whole point of collective power building is that when we join a movement, we get to be more than just ourselves! We’re no longer just a few academics taking a principled stand. We are part of a broad and strong mass of people from many industries — shipping/imports/exports, arts and culture, research and development, agriculture, construction, the list goes on! — who stand together to say NO to apartheid and settler-colonialism. Beyond that, academics, and especially mathematical scientists, play a special role here because academia holds so much power in shaping and shifting culture, and the occupation and apartheid regime rely heavily on the mathematical technologies that we study and teach.

There’s so much we could get into, but we’ll end by emphasizing how much more challenging this campaign has been than either of the others. We were thrilled to find (so far) 65 mathematicians who were ready to sign on with us, but there’s so much more work to be done. Understandably, people are afraid to claim their power. We understand this and we empathize with it, because many of us who have already signed on are also afraid. But we did it anyway because it was necessary to be in line with our own answers to the questions we’ve raised above in the section on power: this is how we use the power we do have to be in solidarity with oppressed people. If you’re on the fence and what you’ve read here resonates with you, ask yourself how you’ll live in alignment with your own answers to those questions. And remember that when you join us, you make participation less risky for everyone.

This campaign is active, and you can join by signing on here.

Lessons learned:  There is a lot of fear in the air around taking this stance. Overcoming that fear requires more targeted organizing strategies: one-on-one conversations, political education, and small group discussions. Progress is slow, but there is ample room for growth and opportunity for impact.

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The First Spectra Conference

Spectra is proud to announce that the first Spectra Conference will be hosted virtually by the Institute for Computation and Experimental Research in Mathematics (ICERM) on August 18th-20th, 2021. The goal of this conference is to create a meeting for LGBTQ+ mathematicians where all branches of the mathematics community (including applied, theoretical, and education) are represented and to create a space for LGBTQ+ mathematicians both to celebrate achievements and to spark conversations of challenges in our community. The conference will feature three plenary speakers as well as contributed sessions of short research talks and lightning talks. Additionally, we plan to have social hours via Gather.Town and a panel to discuss the past, present and future of the LGBTQ+ math community.

1) To attend the virtual conference, please register through ICERM (use the “Apply with Cube” icon): https://icerm.brown.edu/topical_workshops/tw-21-smc/

Registration is FREE!

2) If you would like to also give a contributed talk or lightning talk, please submit your application and abstract using the link below:

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScdCDPNiR56lqdU1lQctKsQrVlzfgq0-yEMvONMShpRzMYawg/viewform

The deadline for submission is July 31st 5pm Pacific.

3) If you simply would like to know more about the program of the conference as it becomes available, please go to the conference page:

https://sites.google.com/view/spectra-math-conference/conference-schedule

Titles, abstracts, and schedule for the three plenary speakers, Becca Thomases, Luis Leyva, and Dylan Thurston, are already accessible.

 

-For the organizing committee:

Rustum Choksi
David Crombecque
Alexander Hoover
Brian Katz
Freda Li
Claire Plunkett
Konstantina Trivisa
Alexander Wiedemann

===

Allies are welcome to attend as participants as long as they are committed to centering the needs of the LGBTQ+ community in this space.

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Happy Pride

As Pride Month comes to an end, I few resources related to supporting queer mathematicians.

 

(1) A research paper by Cech and Waidzunas that asks: Do lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) professionals face parallel experiences of disadvantage in STEM? They find that

Controlling for variation by demographic, discipline, and job factors, LGBTQ STEM professionals were more likely to experience career limitations, harassment, and professional devaluation than their non-LGBTQ peers. They also reported more frequent health difficulties and were more likely to intend to leave STEM. These trends were similar across STEM disciplines and employment sectors. We found no differences by LGBTQ status in education level, work effort, or job commitment. These findings reveal LGBTQ status as a clear axis of inequality in STEM and motivate further research into the mechanisms producing such outcomes.

 

(2) If you are identify as trans or non-binary, you might be interested in Trans Math Day(s): July 14-15. The organizers point out

While we greatly appreciate the support and aid of allies this event aims to center trans and non-binary people, and as such we ask allies not to attend or register, but instead use that time to do other forms of allyship work.

 

(3) TODOS has released a “Statement in Support of LGBTQ+ Persons”. The statement asserts that

TODOS recognizes the direct impact these [anti-transgender] bills have on our students’ physical and mental health, teachers, and others working in education. We believe that these anti-transgender bills and the discourse surrounding them, even if they do not pass, contribute to a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ persons generally and transgender persons specifically. We have a duty to oppose and counteract these measures, to speak out about these direct attacks on LGBTQ+ Persons, and to protect the well-being of our students, family, friends, and colleagues. We must stand up against transphobia, homophobia, and hate in any form against LGBTQ+ Persons.

This statement contains links to multiple other resources and ideas for action.

 

(4) The 2022 International Congress of Mathematicians is planned for St Petersburg, Russia, where it is defacto illegal to be part of the LGBTQ+ community. Many people feel concerns for our lives are being dismissed by those making decisions about this event. Here’s a thread about actions people can advocate for that would help.

 

(5) We must also stand in solidarity with Black folks, who are so often the targets of institutional violence, and Native Americans, especially in this time when the horrors of “boarding schools” in the US and Canada are finally being acknowledged for what they were in public discourse. Solidarity is vital in general, but it is also important to realize that Black and Indigenous queer people have often been the minds and actors behind movements that earn human rights for all queer people.

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Who will celebrate you?

Guest post by Noelle Sawyer

You’ve reached the end of your mathematical career. There is a celebratory conference in your honor. Who is speaking? Who is invited?

Your career is cut short, but it was stellar. A prize is named after you. Who are the recipients?

You didn’t get your flowers while you were here, but after you die, a lectureship is named in your honor. Who is giving the lectures?

If the image you conjured in your head is a group of cis straight white men, I need you to question that. Why and how, in a celebration of you and your mathematics, are the people doing the celebrating all the same?

You may have seen or heard me say this recently, and I stand by it: If the only way you can celebrate me after I die is by giving more things to cis straight white men, then I ask that you do not celebrate me.

What is the harm to you and your legacy if a mathematician with different identities than you speaks in your honor? No, really. Ask yourself.

Some of you may be distressed at this moment. How can you be properly celebrated by any other group of mathematicians when all the best mathematicians in your field are white? They’re all men. As far as you know, they’re all cis and straight. Again, now is the time to ask yourself questions:

  • Are those really the best mathematicians, or are they the ones that I see the most?
  • Are they getting published the most because they’re inherently better, or are there politics and other circumstances to consider?
  • Does my mathematical circle just look a lot like me?
  • When was the last time I spoke to a mathematician of color at a conference?
  • Do I know any trans mathematicians?
  • Is there someone in my field who gatekeeps to make sure that ‘the best mathematicians’ always look the same?
  • Am I gatekeeping?

That’s just a list to get us started.

In recent weeks, I have been asking how speakers are chosen for the Maryam Mizrakhani lecture at JMM. The AMS renamed the Gibbs lecture, one of the AMS invited addresses, and held the first Maryam Mirzakhani lecture in 2020. I have been told that speakers are chosen regardless of race or gender. That the goal of the invited lectures is to celebrate excellent mathematicians. As a result, two of the three invited speakers have been white men so far.

I’ve gotta tell you: When I hear people making choices for something “regardless of race or gender” all I hear is “we’re going to pick white men and you can’t stop us.” That’s not me putting words in anyone’s mouth. That’s using my experience in life so far. Not considering race or gender very rarely works out for people who are not white men. When you do things without paying attention to color or gender, of course you can ‘accidentally’ pick a white man every time. Now is the time for questions again: Why do you think that most of the ‘excellent mathematicians’ are white men? Are there reasons that white men might be more prolific at an earlier stage of their career than others?

Should you continue that pattern by highlighting white men who are already recognized as being excellent mathematicians by their peers? Are there other mathematicians who are just as deserving, but have been given fewer opportunities to stand in the sun and have everyone see them as having value?

The AMS can do that. The AMS can give the validation that a mathematician is excellent by having them give an invited lecture at JMM. The AMS can put a mathematical stamp of approval on anyone’s CV by simply extending the invitation. So why is the AMS so worried about making choices regardless of race or gender to celebrate excellent mathematicians? You make the rules, AMS! You can make this decision. The only thing standing in the way of the AMS is the AMS.

An excerpt from an email I sent in response to finding the criteria for choosing a speaker lacking:

If the guidelines for choosing speakers do not directly address the bias with which speakers are chosen, what is the point? Why did the AMS name a lecture after Maryam Mirzakhani  and not a Fields medalist from a different year? The AMS made that choice because she was the first woman and first Iranian to win a Fields medal. Now with the 2022 speaker, you are not celebrating people who are not men, people of color, or mathematicians outside of the US. Without more guidelines, the speakers will continue to be white American men, and while I’m shocked that it took until the third lecture for this to happen, I’m still disappointed that it happened at all. Again: What is the point?

The arguments I have heard about guidelines boil down to four points. Before you think these are comments paraphrased just from members of the AMS leadership, some of these are from your very own colleagues!  I will answer each argument in turn:

  • Would Maryam Mizrakhani have even wanted the lecture named after her to have guidelines based on race/ethnicity/gender/nationality?
    • This is an interesting point that we cannot answer! But also I don’t want more lectures named after people who would have an issue with this. To this I say: If you can prove that she wouldn’t have wanted this, simply name the lecture after someone else who would have.
  • We don’t want this to become known as the lecture that’s for women or people of color!
    • The suggestion here is that reserving something important for people who are not white men will devalue it. That is, dare I say, both racist and sexist.
  • We’ll miss out on so many great speakers if we have fewer white men speak!
    • I promise that the white men you want to invite are giving other talks. They are not being hidden away. No one is blocking their shine. However, you’re missing out on great speakers now who are not as readily invited to be plenary speakers at conferences.
  • We can just reserve some other lecture or prize for women of color, since you want one so bad.
    • Why not this lecture? What is wrong with putting guidelines in place for one of the AMS invited addresses? Do you want to give us something less fancy? Again: Ask yourself why.

I’m going to repeat my private comments in public:

While this may be a careless coincidence, making that choice feels deliberate and malicious. Just this year, I read the report of the Task Force on Understanding and Documenting the Historical Role of the AMS in Racial Discrimination. All 68 pages. Nothing in it surprised me because I exist in the mathematical community as a Black woman. However, the report touched on this particular issue already. On page 47, speaking about the Section Program Committees: “The charge of these standing committees lacks concrete instructions on how to seek a diverse set of speakers beyond gender.” So far, the speakers for the Maryam Mirzakhani lecture have not even been a diverse group based on gender.

It’s not just about this lecture. It’s about having to see an announcement for the “Fellowship for a Black Mathematician”. It’s about not once attending a special session at a sectional meeting with more than two other people of color. It’s about the AMS repeatedly informing me and my community that it does not care enough to be careful with its choices and how they affect us. 

I am asking with this email blog post that the AMS:

  • Write clear guidelines on how speakers will be selected to give the Maryam Mirzakhani lecture and include specifics about ensuring that there is representation of gender, ethnicity, and nationality.
  • Publicly post said guidelines.
  • Select another speaker for the 2022 Maryam Mirzakhani lecture.

The final question I want you to ask yourself:

Why not?

Some notes: 

Since I first drafted this post, I have been encouraged to join an AMS committee. I respectfully decline. I will most likely continue to do so unless I see evidence of change happening without me there. If the wheels aren’t turning before I get there then I, Noelle the untenured Black woman mathematician, will not be spending my time trying to grease them. Instead, I have spent time sending emails which state my case and are the points I would make in any committee meeting. Really, remove the points about Maryam Mirzakhani being a brown woman herself and replace names; you could read much of this post word for word to make any argument for making changes to any named lectureship, prize, or award.

I have been told that the Prize Oversight Committee was created to work on the problem of how the AMS chooses awardees for prizes and lectureships. It has been in existence for approximately the same amount of time as Maryam Mirzakhani has had an AMS invited address named after her.  

I have also been told by the AMS president, Ruth Charney, that ensuring a broader distribution of speakers for named lectureships has been specifically added to the agenda for at least one AMS committee. I hope that’s true, and I hope to see change.

[Editorial: The guest author selected the featured image to summarize the tone of this piece.]

Posted in introduction | 4 Comments

I want to quit my job part 1

I’ve sat on this post for a while, not sure what to do. It began as a letter to my students, but it didn’t read as one. It wasn’t exactly helpful to my students and would probably just bring them more pain. It was clearly written for you all to read, but I couldn’t stop addressing the students I wished I could reach.

I started out angry. So, so, angry. But now I’m just sad. Well, tired and sad.

I hate my job. 

screen shot of this tweet: https://twitter.com/pwr2dppl/status/1373374900585517056?s=20

Exhibit A

Obviously if asked, in person, I will say that nothing I write is 100% accurate because I cannot in a set of coherent words express all of my feelings and all of the nuances I carry in my mind. 

I want the people I work with to think this is about them in as much as I want them to think about how their actions affect others. I don’t, on the other hand, want to be accused of starting smear campaigns or going after people or being vindictive. I’m not about spite. In fact, I’m about restorative justice. 

But mostly I’m about not being silenced.

a post from user Piper H, the text reads: You made Piazza unsafe for me, the only place in this course that was comfortable. Social media is how I am surviving this semester. I believe it is important not to doxx people, so if I accidentally released your name I would definitely undo that. But I will not be silencing myself to make you more comfortable. I don't know if you have attended any of the Equity Forums, but maybe that's a good place to start if you want to understand this situation better.

Exhibit B.
My response in an instructor’s only post on Piazza requesting that I remove my complaints from Twitter.

So it’s a delicate balance between truth and fiction, keeping my job, and keeping my promise to always be honest with you.

Still, I have learned many things I did not know.

  1. I do not believe that I or any other human has the right to pass judgment on others.

  2. I do not believe that I or any other human has the right to ask, encourage, or set someone up to sacrifice their health for capitalistic goals.

  3. I will not accept being ignored or gaslit by my instructional supervisors, especially when I am trying to protect students.

  4. I will not allow undue suffering of the many in order to protect the theoretical journey of a few.

  5. If I am forced to choose between students and professors, I will choose students.

  6. Professors routinely abuse students in the name of meritocracy and I will not agree and will not play nice and I will not cover.

  7. The reason we have the legal right to assign as much work as we want, the reason we can roll our eyes at student excuses, the reason we can require a student to prove they haven’t cheated, the reason cheating is even a concept involved with learning, the reason it is so easy to ignore what passes for student feedback, is that we are the oppressors walking around reveling in our supremacy which we think we earned via surviving the very oppression we perpetuate.

  8. I cannot be the good cop.

 
Without further ado, my not-actually-to-my-students letter to my (now, former) students.


Breathe in, breathe out.
(Writing this makes me anxious; I will take breaks.)


Dear students,

I do not know exactly how to do this, because I do not want to upset or demoralize anyone who is doing okay right now. It is okay if the current system works for you. Each of you deserves to learn calculus and have a good experience. Just like I’ve met the rare person who enjoyed an emotionally unsupportive grad school, I am certain that some number of you are really into the material and are good with how it’s presented and enjoy the freedom that comes with the anonymity of remote learning. I do not want to take anything away from that. The problem is that I know that a sizable number of students are struggling. And I know that I am struggling. And I know that we are being lied to. 


Think grounding thoughtsFive things I see: headphones, dinosaur, bean bag chair, ipod (yes, ipod), textbook…


Students, I have always said that you cannot trust your professors: we are people with unearned power in a system that feels no obligation to prioritize anyone’s health. Imagine deciding how much homework to assign, and all you know is how much homework you had as a student. Maybe it was awful, but look at you now! Or maybe you want to be more reasonable, but you see the results from professors who overload their students and you want your students to be just as successful. This is just a small example where we make decisions that have huge impacts on you and generally we make them off of experiences and information that literally have nothing to do with you personally. At research institutions many of us run on rumors rather than education research (maybe that sounds ironic but there are actual math professors who are paid actual money and yet don’t believe in math ed). 

screenshot of this tweet: https://twitter.com/pwr2dppl/status/981938136484691969?s=20

Exhibit C.
In which I have been me in public for years.

That you can’t trust your professors is already known in terms of sexual misconduct data, by the way. I don’t know why we don’t talk about this. Since I’m here, I might as well tell you to Stay Away from charming professors. 

Stay. Away. from Charming Professors.

Professors who allow you to think highly of them while they casually cross boundaries because they’re so comfortable with you? 

Predators

I routinely use my vulnerability as a tool to empower others, and I’ve seen that many students respond in a caring way. It is flattering, and I would love to think that we’re all just humans sharing in the struggle, but we are not. Not as long as I have unearned power over them. And I know 100% for a fact that there are professors who feed off of student admiration and concern; they will be vulnerable for a special student and that student will care about that cool professor who is sad about the thing, and that professor will use this to meet their own needs, with little regard for the harm this causes.

Abusive and toxic professors are very real and they get tenure and they keep tenure and the system just keeps going and we let students in and we know it’s not safe. Abusers get grants and give public addresses and sometimes they organize workshops on diversity and inclusion.

Being employed by a top university does not mean someone is a worthwhile person. Being allowed to hold office hours for students does not imply this is a person a student should ever be alone with. And it’s going to stay that way for as long as universities have a conflict of interest between status and education.

But I digress.

Rihanna dancing on stage with arms crossed, text: STAY MAD

Me when profs get mad that I am honest with students about my concerns for their well-being.

If your university and your professors won’t keep you safe, who will? How can you tell if you’re being appropriately challenged or merely exploited?

I have no idea. We keep you at a disadvantage. No part of the traditional North American education gives you the tools necessary for critically assessing what a teacher or professor is demanding of you. Furthermore first year students are often told repeatedly that they don’t know what college is or should be. To paraphrase a student’s retort to this attitude “is this not a first year class? Who else would be the main group to offer critique of this course?” In fact, I have no idea how we decide if a first year course is good. Do we care about students who are only with us for a year? To be honest I can’t say that there is much evidence that any of the (R1) math departments I’ve been in care about how any of our students feel if that isn’t coupled with unsatisfactory numbers. Which is to say, I’ve seen no evidence that they care about how students feel.

students in masks, social distancing, wearing signs saying UAW on strike

Now feels like a good time to advertise unions. Collective bargaining and protest are the only ways I know to give power back to the people.
Photo credit Mary Inhea Kang

 

Four things I feel: the bed, the keyboard, a metal nightstand I ordered online thinking it was wood, my hoodie…


Here’s the thing. I really want to talk about what we’ve been put through this semester. The syllabus, the website, the course design, the mixed messages, the don’t email your professors, the typos, the bad problems, etc. I have been so unhappy with so many aspects of the course. Yet, when I talk to my friends, I realize it’s not that any one thing in particular is so bad or unforgivable. It’s more like things are bad in multiple ways that coalesce in potentially devastating ways for some number of students. The only thing I know for sure that was missing was heart.

 

Lucille Blooth from Arrested Development looking at Michael. Text: I don't know who that is, and I don't care to find out.

What it’s like bringing up one student’s concern in a course of eighteen hundred.


I wasn’t sure how to discuss the course publicly in a “safe” way. Fortunately, a friend sent me a seemingly anonymous article titled Contrarian Decisions in Online Teaching [1], which I will quote from below. My intent here is to share some of the attitudes I faced and frankly could not fight. My hope is that these attitudes will stop passing as acceptable and maybe this discussion will give you the confidence to demand better, or at least to know you deserve better. 

Like all other course coordinators preparing my calculus course for online delivery was my life during the summer of 2020: every decision was carefully considered, thoroughly researched, and discussed. I became well-versed in the research, conversations, and recommendations for teaching online. In the end, however, I made a few decisions that went against what are seen as common “best practices” for teaching online. 

This excerpt from the introduction sets the tone. At face value it sounds great. This person did a lot of research. I love research! The last line indicates that the author went against that research, so one would hope for an understanding of why general “best practices” did not fit the author’s specific situation. Instead, we get a controlled narrative in which the author is telling us to trust them. I’ve gone back and forth about whether the article is about the author’s personal journey or about the pedagogical choices they made. Either way, this journey does not contain the research, the context, or how to evaluate these choices. The intro tells us that the author’s views and choices are to be trusted because of all the energy the author put into it. As if the decisions only impact the author and not potentially hundreds or thousands of students.

From the section “Synchronous Lectures are Not Recorded”:

Many teaching and learning centres (at least in Ontario) recommend recording synchronous lectures so that students can watch them if they are in a different time zone or if they have issues that prevent them from attending live. Along with the other first-year calculus instructors I decided not to offer lecture recordings (except for cases of academic accommodations) because of the way classes were designed.

I believe that these recommendations assume that the online class experience is pretty comparable whether you watch it live or at a different time. Our classes, however, are largely built around student activities …

While it would be very easy to post a video recording we wanted to send this message to students: your contributions to class matter.

Maybe this is a well-known rhetorical device. The bait-and-switch? The deflect-and-respect? At any rate, let’s dive in.

The premise:

Under COVID restrictions, we may no longer assume all students can attend synchronous lectures. It is recommended that lectures thus be recorded so that students who cannot attend may still benefit.

The decision:

Synchronous classes will not be recorded.

The rationale:

Recordings cannot replace live lectures given the design of the course (for instance, a flipped classroom scenario)

The last word:

We want students to know they are valued.

I banged my head against this tactic for months. There is a stated problem “not all students can attend live lecture” and there is the suggestion “we should record lectures.” This suggestion is rejected not because there is an alternative solution for students who cannot attend, but because such a decision would violate some kind of sanctity of something. The fact that recordings cannot replace live lectures is meaningless to students who can’t attend. The reason we are throwing away the concern for those students is because of the group of students who could attend, but might not if they felt like they had the choice. It is more important to restrict student’s choice than to support students who are already at a disadvantage. And then the last line is manipulation. It means you can’t possibly argue. Am I saying I don’t want students to think their contribution matters? That’s not very inclusive!!

From the conclusion:

As with most decisions that come down to following your beliefs over popular opinion I received criticism, most aggressively from others at the University who worked with students but did not take time to understand the context of my decisions. The critics assumed that I didn’t know enough about online education or that I was not thinking about the interests of students.

This is yet another thing I’ve come up against, and is a common tactic of people refusing to dismantle their own privilege: a complete dismissal of the existence of valid complaints. An assumption that critics are merely insulting/attacking/devaluing/undermining the person in charge, rather than looking at how students and/or marginalized mathematicians are impacted. 

How do we face this?

A question I have asked the chair of my department is what can an instructor do if they feel that students are being mistreated by faculty? I don’t have an answer. What can a student do if they feel mistreated? If they aren’t personally targeted, if they are suffering anti-student oppression? Probably not much. I mean sure, you can complain. Tell your TA, tell your instructor, tell the chair. Is there anyone able to care? To help? What if the problem is the conscious decisions made by experienced teaching stream faculty? What then?

It is hard for me to fight course designs and pedagogy. I am not an expert in either. My experience is limited. My interest, if I’m honest, is limited. I am however an expert on being mistreated, neglected, manipulated, and made to doubt myself. I am an expert on struggling to accomplish things I “should” be able to do. I am an expert on being told explicitly and implicitly that I am not wanted in math.

When I see that happening to my students I am going to fight for them. Period. 

I learned this semester I cannot work with people who refuse to value all students.

 

Three things I hear: my laptop trying too hard, a child asking for food, breathing…

 

I sat on this letter in part because I felt it was important to detail what I had to endure… but I also felt strongly it was not safe to do so. Now that the semester is over I can more easily prioritize and summarize what I want to describe.

When a student misses a deadline and emails me to accept something late, what I think about is how I have no childcare and no help and how I have anxiety and no therapy, and how I can go hours without being reminded of a deadline or scheduled event. When students are told they have to attend a synchronous lecture or live office hours, I think about all of the talks I’ve declined because I cannot commit to anything live while I am without childcare. I think of all the meetings I’ve been forced to attend and how awful it is when a child is having a meltdown while I am really trying to say or hear something. You may say you do not mind interruptions but you were never my concern.

My child does not consent to being ignored for an hour while in distress, and I can’t think properly when I’m constantly interrupted. We can’t just pretend that working from home is merely a change in location.

 

Two things I smellokay, is this real? Are people always surrounded by smelly things or am I supposed to sniff nearby objects? I chose to sniff my coffee and I have zero regrets. Also leftover muffin. I’m going to go back to the coffee, if that’s okay.

 

In the days since my duties ended I have been unpacking the trauma of how I was treated. Usually when teaching ends I’m excited to take a break and then dive into research. That’s not where I am at. I’m still processing how little I mattered to anyone. How little you, the students, mattered. How the existence of students succeeding rendered meaningless any suffering from a “minority” of students. When a real person’s suffering is dismissed as anecdotal, I just really question the morality of remaining in this system.

My experience this semester was that instead of having my needs accommodated, I was condescended to. My energy was demanded. I was told that they knew of my writing and they wanted me to fight for the students. They wanted me to challenge them, but only on their terms. I was asked to do things I couldn’t and when I explained that I couldn’t, I was made to feel bad.

 

One thing I taste, guess I’ll go with coffee again…

 

Students, nothing is more important than your physical and emotional health and safety. No calculus course is going to be designed to meet everyone’s needs. If a course is failing to meet your needs, that is the course’s fault. Learning should be wonderful! Life in a pandemic is hard. Being isolated is hard. It’s not fair. None of this is fair or right or just. My personal opinion is that we should have thrown out everything and focused entirely on communal support. But then again students need degrees and jobs and none of us can put everything on hold. But I wish the judgment and cruelty in education would finally die. I know that standing up for yourself and demanding more is a risk. I am not someone who can organize a student strike or even design a better course. 

I can only tell you that you are being mistreated. I know it because I have been mistreated. I can only tell you that you are being disrespected. I know it because I have been disrespected. 

screenshot of this tweet: https://twitter.com/pwr2dppl/status/1379907439173177347?s=20

How do we make sure victims are heard in a culture that hates discomfort and fears accountability?

Some day I hope to be able to talk about it more openly.

For now, I leave you with a few well wishes to all the students out there from some educator friends:

“This system is obviously, horrendously, and in every way that matters, failing you. Some of that is beyond our control. Some of it isn’t, and for that, we need to do better because we owe it to you. Not as customers but as people.”

“You matter more than this class. Your mental health, your access to material resources, who you love, what you enjoy should not be sacrificed ever. You have a right to be a human first and a student second. You should be trusted to do your work in community with us.”

Sincerely,

Prof H

 

1. I have been informed that the post doesn’t show up on search engines, so I am including the link here, but please only comment/engage with that post if you are supportive of it. Any critique of that post should stay here please.

Feature image taken from: flowchart summarizing what happens when a woman of color works at a white organization, described here: https://coco-net.org/problem-woman-colour-nonprofit-organizations/

Posted in equity, inclusive pedagogy, mathematics experiences, mental health, racism, social justice, supporting students | 5 Comments

Women of Color: Who Tells Their Stories? (and why it matters)

Guest post by Courtney Gibbons

The AWM EvenQuads deck is a lovely idea. Bringing more women in mathematics into the spotlight is a laudable effort. To be sure, the intention deserves recognition.


However, it is also necessary to recognize that the outcomes are not universally positive.

Continue reading

Posted in introduction | 3 Comments

A Spectrum of Dehumanizing Other People from jokes to Manzanar and Atlanta

Guest post by Stan Yoshinobu

Violence and harassment against Asian Americans is on the rise, stoked by angry, divisive words used by political leaders. In the past year during the pandemic, 3800 incidents were reported (Link). In January, Vicha Ratanapakdee, 84 years old, was brutally slammed to the ground and died of his injuries (Link). Last month 8 people were killed in the Atlanta area by a gunman, 6 of the victims were Asian women. My first thought is about the families and friends of those who died in such a horrible way. The pain is amplified by how their loved ones were taken in acts of hate. My second thought is on how quickly these deaths have been dehumanized in various ways from innuendo about the sex industry, to saying the perpetrator was having a bad day, to denying that this act can be both racist and sexist.

Continue reading

Posted in minorities in math, racism, sexism, social justice | 1 Comment

Towards a Fully Inclusive Mathematics Profession

The AMS recently published a report on the historical role of the society in racism and exclusion in mathematics. The task force responsible for this report was chaired by Kasso Okoudjou and Francis Su, and the other members were Tasha Inniss, Jim Lewis, Irina Mitrea, Dylan Thurston, and myself, and started this work on July 2020. The description of this work and the full report are available here. In this short post, I wanted to bring attention to the report, and also share some of the biggest takeaways for me.

Continue reading

Posted in equity, racism, social justice | Leave a comment

Amplifying Excellence

I wanted to amplify some recent and ongoing excellent work and news!

 

Mathematically Gifted & Black

Mathematically Gifted & Black (https://mathematicallygiftedandblack.com/) continues to share exceptional profiles of mathematicians every day this month. MG&B is organized by Dr. Erica Graham, Dr. Raegan Higgins, Dr. Candice Price, and Dr. Shelby Wilson.

You can follow MG&B on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. You can also contribute to their effort to support the next generation of under-represented minorities in mathematics (https://mathematicallygiftedandblack.com/support/).

 

A profile of Dr. William Claytor

In late January, Dr. Ranthony A.C. Edmonds authored and shared a Twitter thread about Dr. William S Claytor. As many others have noted, Dr. Edmonds’s thread is expertly researched and written. Dr. Claytor was “an outstanding black mathematician” who “would have greatly benefited benefited consistent support of the mathematical community”. And as others have noted, Dr. Claytor is obviously worthy of having a fellowship named in his honor.

 

 

 

The Hesabu Circle

Dr. Kagba Suaray “wanted to create a space for the Black community to connect with each other and meet others with a shared interest in math”, so he joined with Robin Wilson, Edray Goins, Kyndall Brown, Rob Rubalcaba, Pamela Lewis, Micki Clowney, and Kekai Bryant to create the Hesabu Circle, “named after the Kiswahili word for mathematics”. As described in the Facebook group, the Hesabu Circle is a space created by black mathematicians & educators where black students “from pre-K to post-doc” can connect with each other & faculty, and rediscover our innate excellence in the mathematical sciences.

You can follow the Hesabu Circle on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And you can read more from Dr. Suaray in recent articles from CSULB and a Long Beach community paper.

 

New NAM Leadership

The National Association of Mathematicians has recently had an election for President. I want to thank Dr. Edray Goins for his years of service, and Dr. Leona Harris for her work as Interim President, and I’d like to congratulate Dr. Omayra Ortega as the new President!

You can follow NAM on Facebook and Twitter. You can join NAM as an individual or institution and donate to NAM’s efforts.

Posted in history of mathematics, mathematics experiences, minorities in math, racism | Leave a comment

The mathjob market is bad. But what else is new? A 2020 retrospective

Let me start by saying that it’s no news to anyone that the pandemic has affected the academic job market. At the same time, it’s nice to have some data to back up that feeling of doom. Especially for someone like me, who had been on the job market every year between 2015 and 2019 (would not recommend, in case you were wondering), I constantly heard that the job market was tough. But if it’s tough every year, what’s the difference?

In early October 2020, Science reported about a 70% drop in US job postings on their job board, a pretty drastic number. On the other hand, since US math jobs appear primarily on mathjobs.org, and plus the fact that the economy has made an impressive (and frankly, unequal) recovery since the initial crash in March 2020, maybe it’s worth taking a closer look at how the pandemic is affecting math jobs.

So how bad was the 2020 mathjob market?

Going into 2020, the number of graduating PhDs in Mathematics, Statistics, and Biostatistics had been steadily on the rise, a number that the AMS tracks very well.

New Mathematics, Statistics, and Biostatistics PhDsOn the other hand, the number of jobs posted appeared to be relatively stagnant, between 2013 and 2017, as documented by the AMS again,after which time there was a slow rise in job postings on mathjobs.org, as the graph below shows. When the pandemic hit the US in March 2020, freezing the job market, we saw an initial decrease in job postings (and not to mention a drop in employment which isn’t measured here). Continue reading

Posted in cultural pressure in academia, equity, graduate school, minorities in math | 2 Comments