Math education in the Berkeley Hills: CIME 2017

(Guest post by Dagan Karp.)

I want to tell you about CIME, a super awesome workshop, even though it’s problematic in some of the ways that academic research-focused workshops tend to be, in my experience. What the *#&% is CIME you ask? For the past 14 years, MSRI has hosted an annual workshop on Critical Issues in Mathematics Education. I just returned from CIME 2017: Observing for Access, Power and Participation in Mathematics Classrooms as a Strategy to Improve Mathematics Teaching and Learning. (This was my third CIME.) Although there were insightful sessions centered on observation, the long subtitle didn’t do this year’s workshop justice. The workshop was demanding, situating math education within white supremacy and focusing attention on women of color. It was useful, with participants walking away with action items and a new community of collaborators. And it was fascinating, with brilliant ideas presented across a host of settings. In this post, I’ll talk about what stood out to me, including some of the challenges I saw.

Rochelle Gutierrez. (Photo credit David Eisenbud)

Briefly, here were the highlights of the workshop for me. First and foremost, Rochelle Gutierrez rules. If you haven’t read her work, do so immediately. (Well, after you read this post.) In her opening plenary talk, Gutierrez suggested that we move past “equity,” discussing ways that equity can hurt in addition to help our cause in math education. She pointed us toward a model of rehumanization, and invited us to explore how we may make mathematics education rehumanizing. As the saying goes “we focus on teaching mathematics, instead of teaching students,” and Gutierrez pushes us to return our focus to the students themselves.

Gutierrez’s talk was filled with cool ideas. For example, the Nahuatl term nepantla, more common to Chicanx and Latinx critical studies, was introduced as roughly describing the phenomenon of simultaneously occupying two different positions, or of being “in between.” Although I have only a superficial understanding of the term, it already seems useful for describing intersectional and non-binary aspects of identity, and also the many ways in which seemingly distinct or opposing goals may in fact be inextricably linked, as two sides of a coin rising or falling together (such as mathematics and social justice, IMHO).

Gutierrez also introduced the traditional Mayan greeting In Lak’ech, which roughly translates to “you are my other me” or “I am another yourself” or “you are another me.” By dismantling the Other, Gutierrez works to deconstruct traditional classroom power dynamics.

The other sessions I attended at the workshop were also awesome! Nicole Joseph gave an amazing talk on research surrounding black women mathematicians. She gave a powerful argument for the social construction of mathematics with white supremacy playing a central role, and an interesting discussion of monolithic racial hegemony. She argued for intersectionality in our research, and pointed toward an intersectional analysis of power structures in addition to identities. Dorothy White led a memorable activity to help the audience understand tracking and its impact on students. And Joi Spencer led a session on equity-focused inventories and their use in studying mathematics learning opportunities. (Everyone said Darryl Yong’s session on microaggressions was amazing but it was parallel with Spencer’s.)

It was really fun to attend a workshop centered in mathematics education. I definitely came away with a better understanding of current research in math ed and new theoretical frameworks. As bell hooks describes so beautifully in Teaching to Transgress, theory has the power to provide comfort and actual healing. If the world is driving you bonkers, and you think about issues related to social justice and mathematics and everything seems headed in the wrong direction, gaining a better theoretical understanding, i.e. making sense of what is going on, can actually be healing. I found myself re-energized and ready to continue to work toward social justice in and through mathematics.

The workshop was practically useful was well. Hanging around with folks who think about mathematics education professionally, it was impossible to avoid picking up cool teaching tidbits and practices. So even if you’re a mathematician disinterested in issues related to social justice (probably visiting the wrong blog partner), I’d still recommend CIME or another mathematics education related conference or workshop.

Finally, it’s interesting for me to reflect on the experience as a cultural tourist (or as someone committed to work toward social justice in academics). The workshop had participants from K12 education, mathematics education research, and mathematics research. Given the topic and focus of the workshop, somehow I imagined a utopia of information sharing, generosity, and collaboration. This was partially true; it was super friendly. And people actually introduced themselves to each other. But there remained some power dynamics and social relationships similar to other academic gatherings. For example, it was clear from the outset that in attendance were a handful of stars in the world of mathematics education research. They played a role at times that research stars often do; they talked loudly to each other during intentionally quiet moments; they were sought out by participants, and gossiped about. In short, despite the focus of the group on (radical) social change, upheaval of traditional power dynamics, and the creation of inclusive spaces, my visions of utopia were not realized. Perhaps this is to be expected; we’re just human.

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