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also be the last day of employment for my other contingent faculty colleagues, whose promises of contract renewals were rescinded, and who will enter the ranks of the unemployed tomorrow.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ago, as with academic institutions across the US, contingent faculty began to lose their jobs, contracts offers were rescinded, and searches were stopped.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 | 5 Comments

#ShutDownMath

In this post, we join the call for the Strike for Black Lives that will be taking place on Wednesday June 10th, but first, we want to give some context. The editors of the inclusion/exclusion blog join our voices to the calls for justice and action that we are hearing across the nation in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many Black people at the hands of police and white supremacists. We emphatically affirm that Black Lives Matter. But we also recognize that a message is not enough. If our majority white professional societies’ actions do not match our words, our words are empty and a form of ally theater. For our Black mathematician colleagues, it is just another reason not to trust these organizations and to be understandably angry.

Continue reading

Posted in Black Lives Matter, ShutDownSTEM | 2 Comments

A report on a gathering of mathematicians for social justice at JMM 2020

Guest Post by Paige Helms, Ryan Moruzzi, Andrea Arauza Rivera, and Robin Wilson

Paige Helms

As the 2020 Joint Mathematics Meetings (JMM) in Denver, CO approached, there was an unusual amount of tension in the mathematics community. The divisive stance taken by an AMS Vice-President on the use of Diversity Statements in hiring sparked a flurry of responses in print, on social media, and in the Notices of the AMS. This tension was amplified by the uncertainty around the upcoming parting of the AMS and MAA from their joint partnership to organize and fund the country’s largest annual gathering of mathematicians.

Ryan Moruzzi

Despite the increased anxiety over the circumstances surrounding the meeting, there was great excitement around what seems to be an increase in sessions addressing issues related to equity, inclusion, and social justice. In addition to talks on those topics, there were also special sessions organized by MAA, AWM, NAM, and AMS members that highlighted mathematical research and other contributions from Black, Latinx, Native American, LGBTQ mathematicians as well as many allies. We will highlight one such session here, which was the AMS Special Session on the Mathematics of Social Justice.

Andrea Arauza Rivera

The session, Mathematics of Social Justice, consisted of six 20-minute talks on a range of topics related to how mathematicians can take up issues of social justice. Some key ideas discussed were centered around the culture of mathematics within our community, its role in society, and how this positioning affects us; work with students around issues of interest in their community; and raising awareness around the mathematical underpinnings of the public policy issue of Gerrymandering. Our goal was to provide some fertile ground for dialogue and for sharing of ideas related to social justice issues, both as they relate to efforts for justice within the mathematics community and as ways that mathematics can be used as a tool for fostering social justice in our society.  We feel that we were successful in creating space for our colleagues to voice opinions that do not often have a platform at the gatherings of our mathematical societies.

Robin Wilson

The idea for the session grew out of a seminar that was organized by a group of undergraduate and graduate students at the University of California, Riverside (UC Riverside). This seminar provided a space for weekly discussions with graduate students, postdocs, and faculty on topics centered on equity in the mathematics field. The organizers of the Mathematics of Social Justice special session have close ties with UC Riverside and have contributed to the discussion of diversity, equity and inclusion in the mathematics community across Southern California. From their various positions and perspectives, the organizers sought to contribute to a shift in the types of conversations that are taking place at the JMM about who and what mathematics is for.

In this blog post, our goals are twofold. We aim to shed light on the social justice work being done that was presented at JMM, and we wish to open the door for responses and self-reflections from the community, especially those who were not able to attend the JMM session. Our hope is that these important conversations continue to have a space at future mathematics convenings. A description of the happenings of the session is below, in the order that the speakers appeared, with links to the slides below. Continue reading

Posted in introduction | Leave a comment

Everything* is fine

Post by Piper H

One of the first significant losses for me during this pandemic was the loss of my laptop in a work from home incident featuring a six year old who “DIDN’T DO IT ON PURPOSE!!!” In the grand scheme of things obviously this is not much of a loss (no my stuff wasn’t backed up, yes I know, etc), but since every single email from my university and department has been about how I can Keep Teaching Online, well it has been hard. I don’t have money for an iPad. In a touching and bizarre show of faith and charity some of my students tried to figure out how to legally gift me one. Fortunately before we were put on lockdown I was given two third gen iPads, and it is on these that I fight through technology whose system requirements I don’t meet. It’s a headache. Or it would be if I could feel anything over the near constant anxiety in my chest and throat and mouth (am I having trouble breathing??).

I say all that to say this will not be my best post. And I’m not living my best life. And I have more than the normal number of complaints but I no longer get the energy to share them.

What brings me here though is a compromise between fire and fatigue. I am mad. I am on fire with rage at my own department but I also don’t feel like I can do anything about it so this post is to ease my guilt a bit. Or maybe it’s a plea for help. Who needs labels when the world is ending.

Continue reading

Posted in introduction | 1 Comment

Grading as an issue of justice in this time of transition

by Brian Katz and Kate Owens

BK: There are multiple, foundational justice and ethics questions involved in HigherEd responses to COVID-19. Personally, I’m pleased how central these issues have been in the discussions I’ve witnessed recently, including questions at faculty fora and conversations in the Twitterverse. For example, I see faculty acknowledging their institutional power and stability and hence that they have responsibility to advocate for staff members, for whom institutional changes represent much larger dangers or who might be required to put their health at risk by being present on campus.

One theme looms particularly large in these discussions: grading. In part to advocate and in part to share ideas as many faculty are in the throes of designing new remote-learning courses that without the time or training to do that well, I wanted to try to summarize the themes of these discussions for a wide audience.

First, some information about my perspective as it filters this summary. (i) Grades are a fairly recent invention, and they have never been objective or precise measures of students nor could they ever be. (ii) There’s lots of evidence that grades are not very useful for decision-making, and there is lots of evidence that grades undermine learning. (iii) To the extent that grades are “useful”, they appear to measure privilege and other contextual factors more than skill or learning. (iv) Grading is dehumanizing, for both students and educators.

Here is a position piece penned by Dr. Kate Owens, Associate Chair of the Department of Mathematics at the College of Charleston, that lays out a strong case.

—–

Hello Colleagues,

A growing list of institutions making the P/NP leap: https://oudigitools.blogspot.com/2020/03/feedback-alternate-grading-in-crisis.html

I support the switch to P/NP by choice — either that of the instructor for a specific course, or of the students within courses. Here’s why:

I am concerned about our ability to deliver high quality online instruction in the given circumstances. In my courses, I strive to have course grades accurately reflect the demonstrated content knowledge of each student. Right now I’m teaching calculus so I will refer to that course. When assigning a grade of, say, 83%, what I’m really saying is that “Given the data at my disposal, I have a reasonable belief this student’s knowledge of calculus is somewhere between 81% and 85%; I assign a grade of 83%, and give a B-.”

This approach for grading does not work well in our current scenario. If you imagine calculus as a hurdling event at a track meet, the course has a predefined track length, a prescribed number of hurdles, and each hurdle has a preset height. Given the reality of the situation we are facing, all three of these things will need to be accommodated in some form (distance, number, and height). I cannot expect my students to do as well at mastering the content of calculus as they would have done before. Yes, I can modify how I assign grades; but to change the hurdles mid-race is going to be difficult and stressful on instructors and students alike.

Outside of my class, burdens will not be shared equally among my students. I worry about their stress of keeping or maintaining their grade at midterm. I worry that not all of my students have access to what they need to be successful in the course (high speed Wi-Fi? A quiet place to study? Time away from care-taking duties?). I worry that some of my “regulars” to my office hours will be less successful now that I am not as available as I was before. I worry about equity, both in access to learning and knowledge, and also in ability to master the associated content.

Additionally, I have some concerns about the type of measurement letter grades (B, B+, A-, etc.) impose. My uncertainty bars around any learning data will be larger than they were before. I am no longer confident that a student with an 83% average really knows between 81% and 85% of what I’m measuring. Given the new delivery system, the new assessment system, the lack of in person proctoring of examinations, and so forth, it’s probably more fair to say that an 83% really means I have reasonable belief that a student’s knowledge is between 78% and 88%. Reasonable grades to assign in this range would be C+, B-, B, or B+. It is not clear to me how I am to distinguish between them.

Lastly, I have seen the argument that if we make an institutional switch to P/NP that some students might do the least amount possible to secure a “P”. I think this is a feature and not a bug of the system. Our students are juggling a lot right now. They are rational actors. If we, as instructors, set a minimum bar for passing, and some students meet that bar, then they have done what we asked. I trust my students to make decisions about their priorities. On the other hand, I know several of my students will aim much higher, maybe because of personality, or curiosity, or because they are hoping for a glowing Letter of Recommendation at some point, or because they really love calculus (who doesn’t?!?). This is great, too. We need to trust our students to use their judgement about how best to allocate their time and energy.

—–

BK: Kate highlights many of the key themes I have seen in these discussions:

  • Concerns about students’ access to computers, internet, and quiet time/space and equity of this access.
  • The need to adjust goals. My current Provost encouraged faculty to identify the critical heart of our objectives and let go of the rest in support of achieving this primary goal.
  • Changes in our ability to support students, which was always part of the course into which students enrolled.
  • Allowing students to make the hard choices based on their contexts and priorities.

The other theme, which is hinted at in Kate’s letter, has been discussions of cheating. As long as we assess skills that can be demonstrated by putting forward the knowledge of others, there is and will be some cheating, including in whatever was planned for courses before COVID-19 forced us to revise our plans. Moreover, as long as we connect these kinds of assessments to high-valued outcomes like grades, we are setting up a situation in which it could be rational to try to cheat. I feel as betrayed by academic dishonesty as anyone when it happens, but it is a systemic problem. We could talk at length about redesigning assessments to address these issues, but I commend the efforts I’m seeing to envision either “open world” assessments that assume students will have access to many resources (scaffolded so that this doesn’t replicate privilege) or synthesis assessments for which the demonstration is the meaning-making rather than results and hence is largely independent of resource use. More broadly, I support the efforts to re-envision assessments as opportunities for students to show their skills rather than comprehensive measurements.

My personal stance is that any system that requires students to engage in our courses during this crisis is holding the first half of this semester hostage and potentially forces them to choose ongoing coursework over their own health and the needs of the communities in which they live. There will be loss of “productivity” in a global pandemic, and whatever meaning you give to the problematic term “rigor” is clearly met by students’ learning under duress. For me, the question is who has to make the hardest choices about which losses to accept, and do they have enough power in their systems to make that choice freely. Faculty and some institutions have suggested extending the withdrawal deadlines even past when grades are submitted, which mitigates the consequences of some choices in ways I like, but still makes credit for the first half of the term contingent upon continued work.

My preference would be that we allow students to accept credit for smaller courses for the first half of this semester (eg converting 4-credit courses to 2-credit courses, although assessments in these last two weeks have certainly been inequitable), allowing them to walk away and choose to focus on their other needs, and then offer supplemental, non-credit opportunities either for those who want to do some learning in this time [though I am concerned about this replicating privilege]. I also think it would be good to declare the semester over, giving students credit if they were in good standing and offering very generous incomplete or withdrawal options for those who need a little more time to get there, largely as Berea College seems to have done. Some faculty have announced that final grades will be no lower than current midterm grades, which accomplishes much of this same goal.

Barring that, Kate and I support what Smith College is doing: making all course grading Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory. This is much like Kate’s recommendation that students or faculty can elect to do this for any course, but we prefer it because it shifts the challenge to the institution rather than individual faculty and students. The Princetonian recently advocated for something similar. In Smith’s implementation, letter grades will be reported but not included on transcripts, so students who want these letter grades shared (e.g. with graduate schools) could have that done formally from the Registrar. We prefer a formal move of all courses to Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory or Pass/NoCredit because individual faculty and students are not in a position to move between the options at this time. We also think that faculty will design better courses knowing that all students are in a P/NC course, but this option seems to have all of the same choices for students and might allow faculty to put their limited work time into other critical course issues.

A few people have responded to me or Kate or others advocating these ideas with concerns that this move will hurt students who need a certain GPA, who can’t have P/NC courses count toward their major, and who might lose NCAA eligibility. These are important issues to consider as we make decisions, but all of these examples are issues within our power to change. As Kate put it:

“If we can’t do something in the best interest of the mental and emotional health of thousands of people because of (obscure regulation), then I maintain the regulation should be expected to adapt, not the people. We are all being forced to adapt to stressors and situations none of us ever imagined a month ago. We need to lighten the burden felt by all of us. Cut the red tape — trust me, it’ll be easier to repair that than emotional baggage when things go back to normal (which I hope is soon).”

For example, at Smith a D is coded as Unsatisfactory; at the roll-out of these changes, the Provost was explicit that students for whom course credit from a D would have been sufficient will have that manually adjusted despite what the transcript reads. And perhaps we simply treat Pass this semester as 4.0 in terms of any GPA computations we are forced to make.

One concluding thought that is helping us: future courses will have to adapt, no matter what. There is no version of our spring courses that will allow the fall to be “normal”, and students will have different experiences from each other. Moreover, we always need to meet our students where they are. When building courses, we need to keep the prior diverse experiences of our students in mind, and build the courses in such a way as to invite them in. So we should make choices now that treat students and faculty with respect and humility and that allow them to take care of themselves. And perhaps this is a moment to acknowledge that we should always do this, and that grades are (always) interfering with our ability to do that.

[Editorial: I have chosen not to tag individual faculty in the comments above because of the potential to increase their workload today.]

 

Posted in introduction | 2 Comments

Interrogating Whiteness in STEM: A Book Discussion

Whiteness structures our society in ways that I, as a white person, am encouraged to ignore, and that invisibility is a powerful mechanism for the slow violence of dehumanization in our society in general as well as in mathematics in particular.

One way for me to work on countering this invisibility in my worldview is to learn about the historical and ongoing narratives that have been erased or hidden from my awareness (that I have allowed to be erased or hidden). For readers looking for a starting place for this kind of work, I would recommend the challenging and joyful profiles on Mathematically Gifted & Black (https://mathematicallygiftedandblack.com/), run by Erica Graham (Bryn Mawr College), Raegan Higgins (Texas Tech University), Candice Price (Smith College), Shelby Wilson (University of Maryland).

Another way for me to work on countering this invisibility is to learn to disrupt the patterns that sustain me in not seeing. As a white person, it can be tempting for me to fall into patterns of  thinking of racism as a historical event or attributing both the good and bad only to individuals. Similarly, I grew up in a Jewish community, and the story told there repeatedly was: they tried to kill us; we survived. I know this feels glib, but it’s a quote, one repeated often enough that I can’t attribute it to an individual. From my perspective, both of these patterns of meaning-making allow me to avoid looking at structural issues. So for the rest of this post, I’m going to share my experiences reading and leading discussion groups around a book that helped me question structures edited by Nicole Joseph (Vanderbilt University), Chayla Haynes Davison (Texas A&M), and Floyd Cobb (University of Denver) entitled Interrogating whiteness and relinquishing power: White faculty’s commitment to racial consciousness in STEM classrooms. The goal is to help other groups discuss this important book.

Continue reading

Posted in introduction | Leave a comment

Can mathematics be antiracist?

In 2017, mathematics education professor Rochelle Gutiérrez wrote that “mathematics operates as whiteness.” Word of this spread quickly, leading to a strong backlash of hate mail and offensive comments on Gutiérrez’s social media [1]. This soundbite is often quoted without context, so here is some context:

“Who gets credit for doing and developing mathematics, and who is seen as part of the mathematical community is generally viewed as White. School mathematics curricula emphasizing terms like Pythagorean theorem and pi perpetuate a perception that mathematics was largely developed by Greeks and other Europeans. Perhaps more importantly, mathematics operates with unearned privilege in society, just like Whiteness.” [2]

In this sense, at least in the U.S., one could certainly argue that mathematics operates as whiteness. In this blog, I would like to pose the question: Can mathematics do otherwise? Can mathematics be antiracist?

Last semester, I developed a class called Inequalities: Numbers and Justice, aimed towards non-majors. My students ranged from undergraduate seniors to students in the local high school, with majors ranging from Government to Chinese to Computer Science. It was the second incarnation of a course I had taught years ago, in which we worked through the ideas in Gutstein and Peterson’s Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers, which was written at the middle-school level [3]. In Inequalities, my hope was to develop these ideas into a college-level course.

Over the course of the semester, we explored how notions of fairness and equality have been considered from the point of view of mathematics and economics. What ways were these ideas defined, and given the definitions, how can they be measured? We covered topics ranging from the misuses of statistics to gerrymandering to racial capitalism and climate change. In the end, students were able to appreciate the complexities of fairness, the deep inequities that capitalism produces, and questioned the idea that mathematics is politically neutral.

Can mathematics, specifically beyond the K-12 level, be antiracist? Are critical mathematics pedagogy (the application of critical theory to mathematics education) and “higher” mathematics (college mathematics and beyond) necessarily in opposition to each other? Social justice is a popular phrase these days, even in mathematics circles, but what does it mean? In a recent volume, Mathematics for Social Justice: Resources for the College Classroom, editors Gizem Karaali and Lily Khadjavi describe the work as part of a “national movement to include social justice material into mathematics teaching” [4]. While the volume represents an important effort in bringing discussions around race, gender, class, and power into the college mathematics classroom, I am left wanting more.

Attempts to shoehorn social justice into mathematics curricula perhaps say more about the political leanings of the teacher than anything else. At the same time, we must be wary of diversity initiatives in mathematics which simply reproduce a different class of scientists that perpetuate structures of domination and oppression, in place of work to dismantle the whiteness which mathematics operates as, and to truly equip students for a world of growing inequality and climate catastrophe. After all, would it have been better if it were nonwhite people who developed the atomic bomb? Or the technology to surveil, incarcerate, and deport vulnerable communities?

These small-scale reforms to the system leave the larger problems of capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy intact. As Piper H. wrote in an earlier post,

“Most of us do not have good role models for what a feminist math department would look like. I have this talk that I give and afterwards, I will often get concerned white men asking me what they can do to fight sexism. But they’re not really thinking about ending sexism. They’re thinking about progress. They want to know which benefits the cis male hoarders-of-power can offer to women so that we don’t feel so bad and complain so much and contribute to such dismal numbers. This is natural, reasonable even, but sexist all the same.”

Indeed, what would a feminist — an intersectional, anti-racist, and class-consciously feminist — math department look like?

Should mathematics be antiracist?

Before we consider the question further, we ought to ask whether mathematics should be doing the work of social justice. Such questions have been asked for some time now in the physical sciences. See the update below.

To be certain, mathematics educators have thought long and hard about the ways in which mathematics education intersects with issues of race, gender, class, and power, at least since Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed [6]. The teaching of mathematics is deeply embedded in politics, and inasmuch as some would prefer to view abstract mathematics as occurring in a vacuum, the social dimension of mathematics education has wide implications.

But what about the majority of college mathematics professors who are not trained in mathematics education but in mathematics? They are highly involved in the production of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors and the maintenance of power structures in college mathematics classrooms and departments. These mathematicians are not hired primarily based on their pedagogical ability, even at many liberal arts schools.

There are practical and cultural differences between research mathematics and mathematics education (let us admit this binary for the sake of discussion). One could say that mathematics education is concerned about the formation of mathematically literate students, the interplay between oppression, power, and privilege in the context of mathematics education, especially in K-12 settings; whereas in mathematics, we are concerned about mathematics qua mathematics, often as divorced from social reality (except as applied to the physical sciences and engineering). Indeed, in my field, number theory, it is a common boast that the solution of famous problems like Fermat’s Last Theorem are of no immediate practical use. Therefore, simply to attempt to have abstract and socially-engaged mathematics at the same time is to have a kind of a mathematical double-consciousness, and to attempt to bridge the two is a highly non-trivial  endeavor.

Nonetheless, one thing is clear: if mathematics is political (and also racial and gendered), then we must be on the side of justice, whatever that may look like. In other words, if mathematics can be antiracist, then it ought to be.

Towards a critical research mathematics

Mathematics education research has made it clear that the teaching of mathematics is a highly political act. But what about the content of mathematics? In other words, what kind of “pure” mathematics might be useful for antiracist mathematics? Is that even the right question to ask? Can the abstractions in college mathematics and beyond, ideas from say, category theory, differential geometry, or abstract algebra open up new ways of critically approaching the social?

In Inequalities, we discussed applications of social choice theory, metric geometry, and random walks to gerrymandering. Some of this follows the work of Moon Duchin’s Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group (MGGG) at Tufts and MIT, which is doing exciting work, especially given the upcoming 2020 census. We debated Andrew Hacker’s controversial op-ed, Is Algebra Necessary?, which advocates for replacing the standard mathematics curriculum with “citizen statistics” that would “familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives.”

We also spent time on fair division, a subfield of behavioral economics initially studied by mathematicians such as Hugo Steinhaus [7], which continues to hold the interest of mathematicians [8]. More complicated fair division problems lead to matching problems in graph theory, for example the Gale-Shapley algorithm in the Stable Marriage problem. The latter was applied to the School Choice problem of matching students to schools, as described in the module [9]. This is an example of a class of problems that construct simplified models of social reality, as one does in the physical sciences, in order to study it.

Another example is the Petrie multiplier, which describes a power law in a model of sexism. The model assumes that men and women are equally sexist, similar to the way that the Schelling model of segregation assumes that people are equally (non)racist, and simply prefer to be with their own kind [10]. One might argue that this approach reveals mathematical laws that force certain phenomena to occur, without discussing how external factors might intervene in reality. Might it be possible for models of social phenomena to account for the complexities of race, gender, class, and nation?

I don’t pretend to have the answers to the questions I am asking. This small sampling suggests a handful of possibilities for mathematics as, say, an intersectional, anti-racist, and class-consciously feminist enterprise. In any case, if we can agree that mathematics can operate as whiteness, then we have a moral duty to ask how mathematics might be otherwise. There is much work left to do. With the strength of our combined mathematical creativity, what might we come up with if we dared to imagine?

Update: (1/2/2020) A previous version cited work of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein that was not yet published. I have removed the reference and apologise for the error. Here is the proper reference. See here, here, here, and here for a sample of the work that is presently published. I readily acknowledge the erasure and antiblack racism perpetuated consciously and unconsciously by nonblack people such as myself, including in science and math, profiting off the work and labour of black people. I’m willing to be called out on that. It was also brought to my attention that there are other people such as Danielle N. Lee, Stephani Page, Raychelle Burks, and Jedidah Isler too who are doing similar work in other realms of science.

References:

[1] Gutiérrez, R. “Why Mathematics (Education) Was Late to the Backlash Party: The Need for a Revolution.” Journal of Urban Mathematics Education 10.2 (2017): 8-24.

[2] Gutiérrez, R. (2017b). Political conocimiento for teaching mathematics: Why teachers need it and how to develop it. In S. Kastberg, A. M. Tyminski, A. Lischka, & W. Sanchez (Eds.), Building support for scholarly practices in mathematics methods (pp. 11–38). Charlotte, NC: Information Age.

[3] Gutstein, E., & Peterson, B. (Eds.). (2005). Rethinking mathematics: Teaching social justice by the numbers. Rethinking Schools.

[4] Karaali, G., & Khadjavi, L. S. (2019). An Invitation to Mathematics for Social Justice. Mathematics for Social Justice: Resources for the College Classroom, 60, 1.

[6] Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury publishing USA.

[7] Steinhaus, H. The problem of fair division, Econometrica 16 (1948), 101–104.

[8] Brams, S.J., M. Kilgour, and Christian Klamler. “Two-person fair division of indivisible items: An efficient, envy-free algorithm.” Notices of the AMS 61, no. 2 (2014): 130-141.

[9] Glass, J., & Karaali, G. (2019). Matching Kids to Schools: The School Choice Problem. Mathematics for Social Justice: Resources for the College Classroom, 60, 155.

[10] Schelling, T. C. (1971). Dynamic models of segregation. Journal of mathematical sociology, 1(2), 143-186.

Posted in equity, hiring, intersectionality, math education, social justice, transparency in teaching | 1 Comment

Round-Up of JMM 2020 Sessions on Issues of Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice

Post by Editor Luis Leyva

The 2020 Joint Mathematics Meetings (JMM) will be held on January 15-18, 2020 in Denver, CO. As per tradition, this pre-JMM blog post highlights scheduled sessions with talks focused on issues of diversity, equity, and social justice in the mathematical sciences.

The list below was compiled by flagging JMM lectures, invited addresses, workshops, special sessions, invited paper sessions, and contributed paper sessions with talk title/abstracts in the online Scientific Program that address structural inequities and social experiences relevant to the mathematical sciences.

Please note that this list is no way comprehensive and should not imply that other sessions do not address issues related to equity or justice. Also, this list is not intended to present an “equity/non-equity” divide in the JMM 2020 program. Rather, this list aims to provide a birds-eye view of promising sessions for inclusion/exclusion blog readers who plan to attend JMM 2020 and wish to immerse themselves in dialogue pertaining to equity-oriented perspectives and issues. Readers are encouraged to add to this list with comments below.

Continue reading

Posted in conferences, joint mathematics meetings, social justice | 3 Comments

Diversity-22

I will make this brief. I have not read all of the things people are saying about diversity statements, and thus I don’t feel like I’m in any position to contribute to the conversation. That said, I did want to share my personal experience with those following the dialogue.

Imagine fighting to stay in academia, knowing how many people don’t value you, knowing every department you apply to has a “diversity” problem, and then being asked how you will help with that problem.

Spoiler: It’s me you’re looking for

It’s almost comedy. Departments light on melanin, lacking in queerness,  filled with mathematicians who took a traditional route through elite education, want to know how underrepresented applicants can fix this lack of representation, but we can’t just say “it me.” So now you’re staring at your screen wondering how to say “I’m Black” in 500 words, knowing you’ll be competing against white men who have Participated in Initiatives.

It’s funny because when I explain why I support diversity in a job application, what I’m doing is trying to convince them that I will work to support people like me. But I’m people like me! I’m working to get a job! I support diversity!

Full disclosure: I have never been on a hiring committee so I’m only speaking as an applicant. I have no idea how any of this works, or what they actually want, or whether any of it matters. I just know that I have not had an easy enough time in academia to justify being marked down for an unimpressive diversity statement. More to the point, if they are asking people regardless of background to provide this kind of statement, they are most likely unqualified to assess the statement they receive.

The following is what I managed to write. Enjoy!

Diversity Statement

Nobody ever told me I should be a mathematician. I was consistently a top scorer in math tests my entire childhood, but I was given no guidance. I was a quiet Black girl with an affinity for mathematics and I was praised as an anomaly but offered no support. My first year as an undergrad at NYU, I mistook the effort required to learn Linear Algebra for a sign that I was no longer competent, and stopped taking math. Nobody checked in on me. My junior year, I took Elementary Number Theory for fun and excelled at the beginning but stopped doing the work due to outside commitments. The professor would later recognize my talent and lament my final grade when saying he couldn’t write me a letter of recommendation for grad school, but at the time he did nothing. I am a mathematician by sheer will and stubbornness, in spite of the many indications that I was neither wanted nor needed. My life’s story is a sequence of anecdotes on how to keep marginalized people out of math: every decision I made to stay was hard and came at an unreasonable price. That I am still here, still fighting, is itself a statement of diversity.

In 2013, I gave up on fitting in. It had been four years since I’d left Princeton, and I had to face my own failure. I knew there was no way I could succeed in writing my dissertation and defending my thesis, if I did it the “right” way. Instead, I wrote my dissertation in a way I could understand. I made it a document of my heart, one that I could love and feel proud of. This was an act of resistance, and defiance, but at the time it was my only choice. I simply could not do what had been implicitly asked of me. This was my first diversity initiative. My PhD thesis was written for all of those who, like me, felt pushed out of mathematics by a culture which can feel intent on shunning diversity. People loved it. The response was overwhelming. Even to this day, four years after I first put my dissertation online, I still get emails from people thanking me for giving them hope, telling me they came across my thesis at just the right time. Many diversity initiatives miss the need for hope to counteract the isolation that non-inclusive spaces create for those who do not belong. I fight to make space for myself, and in doing such I make space for others, and that is how you build diversity.

In everything I do, I fight against:

  • the idea that there is only one path to mathematics
  • the idea that there is a correct way to study mathematics
  • the pressure to sound like an expert, rather than work in concert with others to build mutual understanding
  • the pressure to conform to the lifestyle of a mathematician with no other obligations
  • the hoarding of knowledge
  • complacency in the face of large-scale social problems.

I fight against these things in my classrooms, in office hours, in department meetings, at invited speaking engagements, on conference panels, and in my writing.

By putting myself out there, by being open about the obstacles I’ve faced, by letting myself be vulnerable, I continue to break down the barriers between the myth of the mathematician and marginalized people like me. I have already made a difference in many people’s lives. I have had many women and people of color tell me that I give them hope that they can succeed in math, or that they feel less isolated knowing I’m out there fighting for them. The difference-making actually goes both ways. I only applied for my first postdoc after finding out that I wasn’t alone. I had no idea that my PhD thesis was going to be the start rather than the end of my career.

I am committed to working on issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion, because I am Black and queer and committed to staying in math. A department where marginalized students are uncomfortable is a department where I am uncomfortable. Yet, I can only do so much. I hope that a university that solicits diversity statements is one that would see my value and actually support me if hired.

Posted in introduction | 1 Comment

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion statements in the hiring process

With the publication of the December edition of the AMS Notices this week, equity-minded mathematicians have once again taken time out of our busy lives to respond to an editorial by AMS Vice President Abigail Thompson. In it, Thompson suggests that hiring committees should not be required to ask for diversity statements, and that forcing people to use rubrics she deems as “bad” to evaluate diversity statements from candidates is tantamount to asking for a loyalty oath a la McCarthy era. This is a false equivalence, a weak argument, and frankly a dangerous one on par with “reverse racism” claims. Asking for people to identify how they will create an environment (for students and colleagues) that allows EVERYONE to flourish and be welcomed into mathematics is not equivalent to political persecution. Disliking an enforced rubric is fine, but jumping from that to the Red Scare is overly dramatic and problematic. Anyway, much of this has been said already, in different places, very well. We at inclusion/exclusion wanted to do two things with this post:

  1. Give a forum for people to comment on the Notices piece (“A Word from… Abigail Thompson”), beyond responses in the form of letters to the editor. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. We will post disagreements with our stance and counterarguments, too, as long as they are made in good faith (read: racist/sexist/homophobic comments and ad hominem attacks will not be approved).
  2. Give a few resources that we find particularly useful when thinking of these issues. For example, if you want to learn more about WHY people might want to require diversity statements, read this terrific piece by Chad Topaz. If you want to read what some really smart people are saying on Twitter, threads by @MBarany, @dagan_karp, @stanyoshinobu, @dtkung, @j_lanier and @mathprofcarrie are particularly insightful, in different ways. If you want to read a letter some of us drafted to send to the AMS Notices, you can go here (and if you agree, you may want to consider signing the letter).

Finally, even though we are disappointed by the publication of this opinion piece, we are heartened by the response of many in the math community who care about and support processes that lead to more equitable and inclusive math departments.

Posted in equity, hiring, participation, social justice | 17 Comments