Converging on a Solution: A Playwright’s Path

Guest Post by Corrine Yap

Uniform Convergence is a one-woman play, written and performed by mathematics graduate student Corrine Yap. It juxtaposes the stories of two women trying to find their place in a white-male-dominated academic world. The first is of historical Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya, who was lauded as a pioneer for women in science but only after years of struggle for recognition.  Her life’s journey is told through music and movement, in both Russian and English. The second is of a fictional Asian-American woman, known only as “Professor,” trying to cope with the prejudice she faces in the present. As she teaches an introductory real analysis class, she uses mathematical concepts to draw parallels to the race and gender conflicts she encounters in society today.
– synopsis that was included in the MAA MathFest 2018 program

In 2016, at a graduate school open house, I was told by a math professor that I would fit right in because they had “a large group of international students from China.” I responded, “Oh, I’m not international; I’m from Missouri.” He replied, “Well, yes, but it would be a good group for you.” Throughout my life, I’ve had many little exchanges like this. Uniform Convergence was not born out of these experiences but rather out of my struggle to discuss these experiences (and race in general) with other people.

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Girls Talk Math: Not Your Ordinary Math Camp

Guest Post by
Francesca Bernardi & Katrina Morgan

Programs supporting girls in STEM are becoming more and more common. But we believe there is a gap in these offerings: General STEM programs tend to leave out the M, at least in the way that a mathematician would define Mathematics. Most of the math centered programs for girls focus on students at the undergraduate level or higher. The math programs for high school girls that are out there tend to be designed for the top students who are competitive enough to win a spot.

The 2018 Mathematical Epidemiology group working together to develop their own disease spread model

These programs are important as they offer much needed support for talented young girls, but what about the girls who think they’re not good at math? We know they’re out there. Research has shown that girls as young as 3rd grade start to believe they struggle with math even though they perform as well as their male peers who see themselves as capable. If we want to address the low number of female mathematicians, we can’t limit outreach to high schoolers who managed to make it past the first hurdle.

The reason that more girls don’t enter mathematics is not simply that they didn’t have the opportunity to study it. Women and minorities do not see themselves represented among mathematicians and therefore do not see the field as one that is available to them. Underrepresented groups also often report feelings of social isolation that contribute to decisions to leave mathematics. When we dreamt up the Girls Talk Math summer camp, our goal was to create a program that not only introduced high school girls to fun and exciting mathematics, but also addressed the issues that we know would prevent these girls from continuing in mathematics. No one program can address every barrier girls face in entering mathematics or engage every under-confident student, but we wanted to reach some of the young women who underestimate their mathematical abilities to increase their confidence. We developed a non-traditional math camp with the goal of attracting non-traditional math students from a variety of backgrounds. We hope our approach, the lessons we have learned from implementing it, and our camp curriculum (now freely available online) will be useful to others engaged in similar outreach initiatives.

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Five Takes for the First Day

Take 1

Welcome to Math Class, I am Professor I-Get-To-Have-A-Name. I will probably never learn your name, and that is okay. Who you are doesn’t matter. I may try to get you interested in math, but not actually you because I know nothing about you. I am basically never talking to you. First we’ll go over the syllabus. In the syllabus you will find rules, policies, percentages, office hours. You will not find anything here that matters to you. You will not find a reason to care anywhere within these pages. I will ask you if you have any questions on the syllabus, and then we will start the first lecture. You may not know it yet, but I’ve already lost you. You have several other classes, and other work or family obligations, or maybe you’re struggling to manage your social life or your mental health. Either way, mine is not your only class. But it’s a new semester and you are totally going to put a lot of work in for all of your classes. Things don’t play out the way you expect. You do the homework. You don’t get it all right, but this is how you learn, right? Your quiz scores aren’t what you’d hoped for; guess the class is hard. You don’t come to office hours, because you don’t know office hours are for you. At any rate, if you just study really hard for the midterm, it’ll be okay. At any rate, if you just study really hard for the next midterm, it will be okay. You send me an email, if you just do really well on the final will it be okay? Now you reach out to me, you really really really need to pass the class and you’ve struggled all semester with personal issues and you’re certain you’re ready for the next class, because next semester your life will be settled and you can really study hard all semester long you just really really need to pass.

Take 2

Welcome to Math Class, I am Professor Harron. I really want to learn all your names, but I probably won’t because I haven’t worked through my guilt and anxiety about the situation. I idly run through various “fun” ideas, but at the end of the day I have so many other things I have to get done. I want you to know that you matter, but I don’t know how to tell a class this size that everyone matters. I want to tell you that you can each email me anytime you want, but I couldn’t possibly reply if you all emailed me at once. Continue reading
Posted in inclusive pedagogy, math education, mathematics experiences, supporting students, teaching | 8 Comments

Identity & Illusion

[Spoiler alert: This post is, in part, a reflection on the show “In & Of Itself“, written and performed by Derek DelGaudio. If you are near New York City, I strongly encourage you to see this show before it ends on 8/19/18 and before reading below.]

This summer, I have helped lead a professional development workshop for mathematics educators on student-centered pedagogy. One session of the workshop [1] is organized around a paper by María Trigueros and Sally Jacobs entitled “On Developing a Rich Conception of Variable”. Trigueros and Jacobs argue that the concept of “variable”, which seems unified from an expert perspective, is multifaceted. Moreover, they point out the ways that this multiplicity is challenging for students and that there are structural issues with our curricula that fail to support the development of a rich conception of variables in most students. Faculty can easily take a deficit perspective on students whose conceptions are unlike our expert perspectives, and this concept in particular is at the root of a lot of the blame we lay on students when they think differently than we expected.

At the workshop, we use this image of an old parable about scholars and an elephant. The elephant represents the concept of variable, and the scholars each describe an important facet of the concept: as unknowns, general numbers, parameters, co-varying quantities, or something else. The point is that student conceptions of variables are reasonable attempts to make sense of the contexts in which we have placed them and judging them for not having integrated those contexts into a unifying concept feeds into some of the structural issues with our educational system.

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Reflections on Autism, Ethnicity, and Equity

Guest Post by Michael Ortiz
Sul Ross State University
Rio Grande College

I’m an associate professor of mathematics at Rio Grande College, a branch campus of Sul Ross State University consisting of three geographically separated units in the middle Rio Grande border region of Texas. I teach four or five (or six) courses each semester, all different, all at the junior, senior, or graduate level, and all through distance-learning equipment. Students transfer from the local community college. Roughly speaking, the student body is about 70 to 90 percent Hispanic, female, first-generation, and low-income, with an average age around 30.

I received my doctorate in 2009 and began work at Rio Grande College immediately thereafter. I’m of Puerto Rican descent, and my graduate work was supported partly by the Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship for Minorities. I grew up on the south side of San Antonio, Texas, and, later, in a small town to the west, within the service region of my current institution.

I drafted these reflections while attending the recent National Inquiry-Based Learning Conference in Austin, Texas, much of which focused on inclusion and equity. I’m a member of an ethnic minority underrepresented in STEM fields; I also have an autism disorder, which went undiagnosed until I was midway through graduate school. Actually, it was grad school that prompted me to seek a clinical evaluation. I’m hoping that my account might be helpful to someone. It’s impossible to tell whether a given effect might have been related to my ethnicity, my disorder, or my own shortcomings, so I’ll leave it to the reader to connect the dots as they will.

I’ll begin with my autism disorder, which has had the greater impact.

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Posted in ableism, equity, graduate school, implicit bias, inclusive pedagogy, intersectionality, introduction, latinx in math | 6 Comments

Toward humanizing undergraduate mathematics education: A re-imagining through historical perspectives in mathematics

Photo from Dr. Sara Hottinger’s Coastal Carolina faculty profile webpage

This blog post was inspired from my reading of Sara Hottinger’s book, Inventing the Mathematician: Gender, Race, and Our Cultural Understanding of Mathematics (2016). Hottinger’s book advanced my thinking about how cultural contexts of mathematics perpetuate gendered, racialized, and other systemic forms of exclusion. She adopts a cultural studies approach to examine how four sources of mathematical representations – textbooks, histories of mathematics, portraits of mathematicians, and ethnomathematics – limit opportunities for building “individual and cultural relationship[s] to the field” (p. 7). Hottinger (2016) uses the term mathematical subjectivity to refer to how individuals make sense of themselves in relation to mathematics across these four sources. Her analysis highlights how exclusionary representations of mathematics result in the “construction of normative Western subjectivity and in the construction of the West itself” (p. 6) that limit possibilities of positive mathematical subjectivities among members of historically marginalized populations.

Considering the inclusion/exclusion blog’s focus on issues of social marginalization in mathematics and my research interest in increasing inclusive educational opportunities in undergraduate mathematics, I focus on Hottinger’s analysis about the history of mathematics – an area of inquiry associated with a special interest group of the Mathematical Association of America and incorporated in courses of study for mathematics majors in the United States. I begin with summarizing Hottinger’s distinction between internalist and externalist historical accounts and their respective influences on the construction of mathematical subjectivities. This is followed by a discussion of how Hottinger’s insights can be applied to re-thinking pedagogical practices in undergraduate education that challenge traditional representations of mathematics as void of sociohistorical contexts and personhood.

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Posted in culture, equity, feminist theory, history of mathematics, math education, teaching | 1 Comment

What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s happening: A conference on ethics in mathematics.

Guest Post by Catherine Buell

In a time before Cambridge Analytica but after Snowden, there was a buzz in the maths hall at the University of Cambridge. Two Cambridge academics, Maurice Chiodo and Piers Bursill-Hall, together with many of their students began discussions addressing the ethical situations mathematicians find themselves, and often without much guidance or principles specific to a mathematician and the field. From these initial discussions, the Cambridge University Ethics in Mathematics Society (CUEiMS) grew into being on the campus. The mission statement and constitution of the society are on the website, but from my perspective, there are two simple threads to the mission: doing good and preventing bad.

“…[W]e see that the utility of mathematics is derived from the way that it empowers us to understand, change, direct and manipulate the world around us, and not the other way around. It does not change the world because it is useful; it is useful because it can change the world.”

“Mathematics is a tool wielded by people, and thus subject to the desires, objectives and will of people. As such, we as mathematicians need to be aware of this. We need to realise that mathematics can be, and sometimes is, used in a harmful way. We need to have the foresight to anticipate such events before they happen. And we need to be prepared to do something about it.”​

The Society hosted speakers from mathematics and computer science including Bonnie Shulman, who the organizers assert was one of the only search results when seeking “Ethics in Mathematics.” Thanks to James Franklin, Mathematics and Ethics now has a Wikipedia page adding to the relevant search results. But it was Dr. Shulman’s articleIs There Enough Poison Gas to Kill the City?: The Teaching of Ethics in Mathematics Classes” and subsequent video-linked talk for the society that opened up the conversation of ethics beyond the profession of mathematics and into both the curriculum of mathematics and social ethics.

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Posted in ethics, public scholarship, social justice | 2 Comments

Trans Day of Visibility: a reading list

 Today, March 31st, is Transgender Day of Visibility. As seen on the left (taken from the banner on the community’s Facebook page), the day is more than just about visibility. Again, from their page, “March 31st is Transgender Day of Visibility, when we celebrate, empower, and raise awareness of issues facing the trans community.”

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Posted in gender research, inclusive pedagogy, intersectionality, LGBTQ+, math education, spectra, trans day of visibility | 4 Comments

Highlights from the Latinx in the Mathematical Sciences Conference

It is hard to know where to start when speaking about this conference, held this last weekend at the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IPAM) at UCLA, and organized by Federico Ardila, Ricardo Cortez, Tatiana Toro, and Mariel Vasquez. Maybe it’s because the snow storm on the East Coast prevented me from getting there for the first day, and once I got there I felt as if I was already in catch-up mode. Maybe I was overwhelmed by the joy, talent, and radical thinking surrounding every single interaction. But I think it was more the fact that, like with many amazing and busy conferences, I just have lots of memories that are more scenes and feelings than clear summaries of talks or a play-by-play of chronological events. So in this post, I walk you through some of the most memorable moments from the conference.

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Workshop on Increasing Minority Participation in Mathematics: Reflections on A Park City Mathematics Institute program

[Applications for PCMI “Shape of the River: Workshop on Equity in Mathematics Education” are open until March 7, 2018.]

Guest Post by Martha Shott
Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Statistics
Sonoma State University

Question: What are you hoping to get out of the Workshop on Increasing Minority Participation in Mathematics?

This prompt in my application to last year’s Park City Mathematics Institute gave me pause. Leading up to this question, the online form had asked for information that I am able to give on autopilot (name, title, institution, email address) as well as information that is relatively easy to speak to (e.g., how did you hear about this program?). But in considering my motivation for attending, my hopes for how I would benefit from the week-long program was a little bit harder to verbalize.

It wasn’t the case that I was unsure of what I wanted to achieve through my participation – on the contrary, I had specific concerns in mind from my home institution that had incited me to apply to the PCMI workshop. Our department was just beginning to develop four new “stretch” courses that were to replace our developmental courses in elementary and intermediate algebra – two places that we most often interacted with students typically underrepresented in math before they disappeared from our program. I was also thinking of the interdisciplinary science course that I teach for first-year students. That program was initially funded through an NSF grant which, in part, was aimed at closing the achievement gap in STEM – yet the student cohorts we have been able to recruit into that class have been dominated by white males, a trend that is not observed in other comparable general education courses.

Given that I had good reasons to apply to the Workshop on Increasing Minority Participation (WMP), why did I hesitate in my application? Continue reading

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