Let’s Listen

Guest Author: Thomas Goodwillie

Last spring I taught a course at Brown University called Race and Gender in the Scientific Community, and I’d like to say some things about what that was like for me. I have the idea that by reflecting on this experience I might manage to breathe a little new life into the overused and inadequate words “diversity and inclusion” for some of the people who read this. I’ll tell the story of the Race and Gender course, and I’ll tell some other personal stories, too. There’s a common theme to this set of narratives: it’s all about learning and changing by paying attention to what people have to say.

This post is aimed at people who have good intentions but who also have a tendency toward complacency. I think that there are a lot of us in that category. It’s easy to see oneself as being committed to opposing racism and sexism and other wrongs (such as class prejudice, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism), and it’s easy to agree that these wrongs ought to be addressed in one’s own professional world; yet at the same time it can also be easy — at least for someone like me — to have only a fairly abstract idea of what is actually wrong, and only vague ideas of what anyone might do about it.

Teaching the Race and Gender course has played a part in (partially) opening my mind and my heart to some hard realities. And I don’t simply mean that the content of the course has had an impact on me. Perhaps even more, it is the students and the process that have had an effect.

The main message of this post is: listen and learn.

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Changes for inclusion/exclusion

I am writing this post to announce that I have stepped into the role of Editor-in-Chief of this blog. This might raise some questions, and it’s a good time to write a little about how I see the blog, plus we’d like to hear about your ideas.


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AWM Moving Towards Action Workshop

Join AWM at the JMM 2020 in Denver, Colorado for this important event!

When members of the mathematics community are made to feel unwelcome in our profession, the success of mathematics as a whole is put into jeopardy. This workshop is focused on understanding and creating welcoming environments (providing actionable information and process change plans to mathematics department interested in driving cultural change at their respective institutions) so as to invite more people to enter and persist in STEM disciplines.

The Moving Towards Action workshop to improve the culture and climate in the mathematical sciences will take place in conjunction with the 2020 Joint Mathematics Meeting (JMM) in Denver, Colorado on Tuesday, January 14, 2020.

Left to Right: Vicki Magley (UConn), Rebecca Renard-Wilson (Think. Create. Engage.), Tuba Özkan-Haller (Oregon State), Stephanie Goodwin (Wright State)

The 2020 Moving Towards Action Workshop will feature

  • A welcome from AWM President Ruth Haas (Hawaii)
  • An introduction to the findings and recommendations of the NASEM “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences,” by report co-author Vicki Magley (UConn)
  • An interactive session to build skills for recognizing unintended barriers that your university may have in place, led by Rebecca Renard-Wilson (Think. Create. Engage.)
  • An interactive Bystander Intervention session presented by Power Play (University of New Hampshire) and moderated by Stephanie Goodwin (Wright State University)
  • Working sessions on developing action plans for your department, led by Tuba Özkan-Haller (Oregon State University)
  • A poster session to showcase initiatives and discuss what has worked
  • Resources for you, your department, and your institution to guide conversations
  • A panel focusing on the nuts-and-bolts of implementing change at your institution: what to be ready for, and how to stay motivated, featuring Rosalie Bélanger-Rioux (McGill University), Mary Anne Holmes (University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Emerita), Herbert Medina (University of Portland), and Michael Young (Iowa State University).


Space and financial support is limited to 30 participants. Applications close October 1, 2019.
Visit the website to learn more and apply to attend!
Questions? Contact Maeve McCarthy mmccarthy@murraystate.edu

AWM would like to thank the NSF for their sponsorship.

[Editorial Comment: We would normally expect a post to go beyond advertising a workshop, but the goals of the workshop and its approach to changing the culture of mathematics feels so novel and important that I wanted to help get out the word.]

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Inclusive Practices: Syllabus and Day One

I’m on leave this year to be visiting faculty at Smith College. As a result, I get to rethink all of my teaching. It’s a new context, so in general it feels like a great time to take stock. Smith is also a college founded on goals of justice in educational access, which both challenges me to be my best and makes me feel a bit more licensed to push these issues. [For example, one of my mathematics colleagues, whom I believe to be cisgender, spontaneously normalized talking about pronouns in the context of mathematics without any of the buffering discussions I’ve seen around these moves in other contexts!]

So I get to [and feel inspired to] (re)write and re-imagine my syllabi. I took this as an opportunity to collect the recommendations about inclusive practices for syllabi. In practice, it was hard to separate the syllabus from the work of the first few days, so there is some boundary flexibility, but it’s my personal belief that it’s best to do most of these things live and collaboratively (such as in class on the first day) but also to make sure that these values are made explicit informal elements of our courses (such as the syllabi). This post is my attempt to list the ideas of which I’m aware.

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Posted in inclusive pedagogy, introduction, supporting students, universal design | 2 Comments

The future of AMS-MAA Meetings + MathFest 2019 Equity Round-up

As you may have heard, the AMS and MAA will move away from co-organizing JMM after 2021. This week, at MAA MathFest 2019 in Cincinnati, OH, the executive directors of both the AMS (Catherine Roberts) and MAA (Michael Pearson) will host “A Conversation with AMS and MAA on the Future of Meetings”. Here is their description:

Last year’s announcement that AMS and MAA would discontinue shared management of the Joint Mathematics Meetings has raised questions among many in our community about how we can sustain the value of the collaboration associated with this annual event beyond 2021.

This session will allow leadership of both organizations to share their vision for the future, including annual and section meetings, and new initiatives to provide professional opportunities for members of our community. You are also invited to provide feedback directly to AMS at  http://www.ams.org/about-us/jmm-reimagined  and https://www.maa.org/meetings/jmm.

I have several concerns with this change related to the mission of this blog:

  1. In my career, I have seen the gap between the AMS and MAA narrow. While neither the AMS nor MAA is completely focused on teaching or research, they do stand as symbolic short-hand for these dimensions of faculty. This symbolic short-hand impacts their memberships and programming. However, what had initially seemed, 15 or more years ago, like a forced choice between scholarship and teaching was becoming a false dichotomy. Honestly, I (and many others) hope that these two professional organizations will recombine to further support this change in the way we as a discipline view being a mathematician. I am worried that this progress will be undermined and regress if the MAA is no longer part of JMM.
  2. Within the first concern, some people in higher education seem to conceptualize equity as a concern within teaching. I worry that any separation between teaching and research will further isolate some members of our community from discussions of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. I worry that this change will mean that we are less able to engage all mathematicians in important discussions of equity.
  3. It is my understanding that the AMS is happy to continue having MAA programming at this re-imagined JMM management. This is positive in my mind, but as anyone who has looked at systems through an equity lens knows, there can be big gaps between an action being technically possible in a system and it actually happening (not to mention happening easily). Moreover, it can matter a lot who is in the room for decisions and when in the flow of design people get access to those decision.

Put simply, even trusting the good intentions and skills of the AMS and MAA leadership as I do, I think it matters exactly how this change is effected, and I think the recent progress made in the mathematics community related to equity is still fragile and particularly sensitive to these changes.

Fortunately, I also think that the most powerful tool for making this transition positive is already in reach: sustained engagement by people across the mathematics community, especially people asking about the implications for equity in our conferences and our community. I am concerned because I think there are possible paths through this change that lead backwards, but I also genuinely believe that we can avoid the worst paths and counterbalance many of the possible negatives together. So, in the end, I am encouraging you to attend this invited conversation with Roberts and Pearson if you are able and to give feedback through the links above.

And now that I have your attention, here is a list of other events related to the mission of this blog at MAA MathFest 2019.

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Decolonize Academia #KūKiaʻiMauna

If you follow me on social media, you will know that lately I’ve been posting almost exclusively about the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project that is supposed to be built on/in Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaiʻi. I’ve never blogged about it though.

The main reason I haven’t taken this on is that my writing is inherently selfish and the fight to protect Mauna Kea is not a time for me to be selfish. You see when I blog, I share my experience and I grapple with the burdens of being marginalized. In my home on Oʻahu, though, I grapple with my settler privilege. When I write I am secretly hoping to write something awesome that people will love and share (sorry, not sorry). When I blog, I am demanding space. And in Hawaiʻi, brought in by the University of Hawaiʻi, living in housing subsidized by the University of Hawaiʻi, I am already taking up too much space.

This is not going to be a revolutionary piece on why we should protect Mauna Kea and stand with all indigenous people who fight for their land. They have already said and will continue to say all the most important reasons for their actions. Please educate yourself.

Morning meetings, Mauna Kea, 2019
Photo by: Eric ʻIwakeliʻi Tong

I am writing here because silence is violence, because finding no use for my privilege is a privileged mindset. I write because there are people I can reach, as a non-native, with whom I can communicate, and it is my burden to do so. (Though again, others are better equipped and it is a shame that anyone might be getting their first glimpse of this now.)

Mathematicians need to know that we in academia—especially those of us in STEM—are in the middle of a struggle for our humanity. (Well, humanity has never been what it claimed—much like America has never lived up to its self-image—but let’s just call it humanity.) I do not know the entire history of the TMT project, whose idea it was, or who decided Mauna Kea was the best spot, but I do know that kānaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) had no power in the decision-making process. I know that those who have taken and destroyed so much could never be trusted with a site as precious as Mauna Kea. I use precious instead of sacred, following this definition, because many of us haven’t unpacked our religious bigotry when it comes to how we discuss indigenous beliefs.

The ability to view a mountain as precious is something that colonialism and capitalism has stolen from us.

I’m going to say it again.

The ability to view a mountain as precious is something that colonialism and capitalism has stolen from us.

My first semester at UH, I taught Business Calculus (zero stars, btw, do not recommend). I was supposed to tell my students how to maximize profit by minimizing, among other things, the cost of labor. The cost of labor. Nowhere in my book did it explain that labor was actual people with families to feed. Nowhere in my book did it explain that the cost of labor was how much you paid people who were counting on this money to survive. At no point did it discuss how to know if you were mistreating labor. The idea that you can apply calculus to human lives was taken as a given. And I was supposed to show them how to do it. Even when it’s not Business Calculus, our apolitical abstract lectures perpetuate the idea that there is nothing precious.

Right now, Indigenous people and their settler allies around the world are saying ʻAʻole TMT: No TMT. They are doing this not just because Mauna Kea is precious, not just because it is sacred to Native Hawaiians, but because they know first-hand what happens when their land is taken. We are hundreds of years too late for this kind of favor, hundreds of years and countless lives too late to request this level of trust.

Ihumātao solidarity, police vans in the background, Mauna Kea, 2019
Photo by Eric ʻIwakeliʻi Tong

The mathematics community needs to care about this for many reasons. First, these are our students. One of the barriers to success for marginalized and first generation students is the disconnect between their academic world and their home life. When kūpuna (grandparents, elders) are being arrested, when kānaka maoli have to do the arresting, when Hawaiian scientists are being erased, when Hawaiians opposing construction are being mocked as “backward,” and when all of these degrading interactions are played out in national media, these are aggressions on native people everywhere, and our indigenous students shoulder this burden.

Second, those of us who work at research universities are complicit in the state violence acted upon a community who is explicitly posing no threat. The Governor of Hawaiʻi declared a state of emergency because his interests were being threatened, and the university’s interests are being threatened. He went on TV and attempted to portray non-violent (and frankly, life-affirming) protest as a threat to public safety. This type of action is not necessary if you are doing ethical research, and should not be
supported by anyone in academia. We have to reevaluate what we think our quest for knowledge is worth, and whom we’re willing to force to pay that price. Any argument that only discusses the wonders of discovery can be used, for instance, to experiment on humans without consent.

Lastly, all of this ties back into something we’ve discussed here before, namely humanizing mathematics. From recognizing the humanity in our own students, to recognizing science and math as human endeavors, we must break free from this colonized/capitalist metric that sees humanity as a distraction. Indigenous voices, history, and knowledge will be essential to decolonization and sustainability. The time to start listening is long, long, overdue.

A scene from the workshops
(Puʻuhuluhulu University)
Photo by: Eric ʻIwakeliʻi Tong

I will close with something personal because as valuable as abstract reasoning can be, it doesn’t matter if it isn’t personal.

The first people I met on Oʻahu were white moms who were mostly military wives. They had their own community, and I wasn’t sure how they fit into my desire to understand the local culture(s). Turns out, they didn’t. After many months and many hours in traffic spent just to “socialize” my three year old, an entire mom group abruptly cut me out of their lives over a Facebook thread. I had posted a link about white privilege on a thread where they were complaining about Black Lives Matter, and this was too much for them. I was stunned. Not that they were upset, but that they didn’t think it was worth getting through. My only thought was: “How are you going to burn bridges with people when you live on an island?!” It seemed so clear to me that this was an unsustainable attitude. I would later read about Hoʻoponopono, the Hawaiian process of conflict resolution, and this would be my first connection (however loose) with Hawaiian culture.

I never learned as much local history as I wanted. I never got past the second
chapter in my ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi book. I couldn’t figure out the politics of sovereignty,
or remember the right language regarding the US relationship to Hawaii. I wasn’t even
sure if I should be saying aloha and mahalo. Really, the only thing that was immediately
clear to me was that we should definitely not be building an Earth shattering telescope
on pristine land, especially not sacred Earth, especially not stolen land.

Last year was the first time I attended a demonstration about Mauna Kea. I am
embarrassed to admit I was shocked at how much I agreed with what was being said. I
knew I supported kānaka maoli as an ally, but I still had not unpacked my bigotry that doesn’t have a place for “sacred” things. I expected to hear about ancestors and traditional practices, things that have been abstracted away from me without my consent. Instead I heard about sustainability, about accountability, about abuse of power, about mismanagement and lies. At the end of the event I was about ready to stand arm in arm and face the police on the Mauna.

And then they sang.

I have the privilege of being moved without feeling the exploitation. I have the privilege
of wishing I could go to the Mauna for selfish reasons. But I am also a Black American
who longs for that sense of the sacred that racism took from me. While it may seem silly, Black Panther was amazing for me on so many levels—especially when it depicted a society thriving through a mixture of an Indigenous culture and futuristic technology. In school I was told that viewing mountains as sacred was primitive, or, at best, quaint. In school I was taught that we had moved on from valuing nature for how it sustained us, and we were now properly in the era of doing whatever we wanted because we’re so smart and technologically advanced.

It’s 2019, and the United States has concentration camps, and one of my Senators is chairing a Special Committee on the Climate Crisis while his own State was taking police action against some of its most beloved elders because they were breaking with US protocol of legislated desecration of natural environments. It must stop. Mauna a Wākea is my first sacred mountain. It is the first time I have been willing to take a risk for a natural resource. My link to the Mauna is through the kānaka maoli organizing resistance and the kūpuna getting arrested and through the realization that this is the only way forward. It’s 2019, and maybe we’re all going to hell, but if we don’t stop TMT we will be going there a little bit faster.

Kū Kiaʻi Mauna
Kū Kiaʻi Mauna
Kū Kiaʻi Mauna


Mahalo nui loa to Aurora Kagawa-Viviani, Sara Kahanamoku, and Katie Kamelamela for help with this piece.


[Editorial Comment: While this blog and its authors do not speak for the AMS, we hope all readers will take seriously the challenge to think about research as an institution that impacts the world that we often view as outside our explicit inquiry, especially readers who identify primarily as researchers.]

Posted in culture, ethics, social justice | 12 Comments

Living Proof: A Must-Read

The AMS and MAA have recently published a phenomenal collection of essays entitled “Living Proof: Stories of Resilience Along the Mathematical Journey”, edited by Allison K. Henrich, Emille D. Lawrence, Matthew A. Pons, and David G. Taylor. The book is free, and features an astounding group of contributing authors. The stories are organized around common themes in the experiences. Part I is about math getting hard and people hitting a wall. Part II is about struggling to belong in math (and is particularly well aligned with the goals of this blog). Part III is about persevering through and overcoming difficulties. And Part IV is about the sometimes challenge of integrating our mathematical identities with the rest of our lives.

Enjoy. Reflect. Be the change you want to see in our community.


Table of Contents:

Foreword, Stephen Kennedy

Preface, Allison K. Henrich, Emille D. Lawrence, Matthew A. Pons, & David G. Taylor

Part I: Mathematics Just Suddenly Feels Hard! 1

1 In the Deep End in Algebra, Deanna Haunsperger. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
2 The Road Less Traveled?, Lloyd Douglas . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
3 Help Will Always Be Given at Hogwarts to Those Who Ask for It,
Allison Henrich. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
4 I Don’t Know What I’m Saying—Using Language as a Model for
Embracing Mathematical Struggle, Steven Klee . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
5 A Complex Conundrum, Matthew Pons . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
6 An Accidental Mathematician, Jennifer Quinn . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
7 Nowhere to Go But Up, Lola Thompson. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21
8 Hitting the Wall, Laura Taalman. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24
9 To Algebra or Not to Algebra, Jacqueline Jensen-Vallin. . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
10 The Unnecessary Struggle of Self-Mandated Isolation,
Alicia Prieto-Langarica . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29
11 The Struggle of Qualifying Exams, Alejandra Alvarado. . . . . . . . . . . . . 32

Part II: Who Are These People? Do I Even Belong? 35

12 I Am a Black Mathematician, John Urschel . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37
13 Cold, Austere, or Queer, Autumn Kent. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 40
14 A View of Mathematics from Behind the Veil, Robin Wilson. . . . . . . . 43
15 When You Are Told You Can’t: Do Just the Opposite, Angie Hodge. . . 47
16 Look for the Helpers, Jennifer Bowen. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 51
17 Good, But Not on the Team, Tim Chartier. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 54
18 Othering and Such Climatic Joy Killers, Arlie Petters. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 58
19 Black, Female, … Bigger, Candice Price. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 62
20 Moving Beyond Affirmative Action for Men, Alice Silverberg. . . . . . . . 65
21 Struggling with the Messaging of Mathematics, Rachel Weir. . . . . . . . 68
22 The Harassment Is Real, Pamela Harris. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 71
23 Sustaining Through Mathematics, Donald Cole . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 73

Part III: Can I Really Do This? How Do I Muster Through? 77

24 Good Things Come to Those Who Shower, Robert Allen. . . . . . . . . . . 79
25 Winning by Impression, Robin Blankenship . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81
26 A Walk in the Park Isn’t Always a Walk in the Park, David Neel . . . . . 84
27 Just Don’t Bomb the GRE, Amanda Ruiz. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 88
28 Sometimes When Your Hopes Have All Been Shattered,
Nick Scoville . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 90
29 The Compassion Is Life-Changing, Hortensia Soto . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 93
30 A Close Call: How a Near Failure Propelled Me to Succeed,
Terence Tao. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 96
31 Oh My Darlin’ Clementine, David Taylor . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 100
32 A Dream Almost Deferred, Emille Davie Lawrence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 104

Part IV: What Do I Do Now? What Happens Next? 107

33 Mathematics, Beauty, and Creativity: How I Learned to
Stop Worrying and Love Mathematics, Victor Piercey. . . . . . . . . . . . . 109
34 Five Dollars, Colin Adams . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 112
35 Am I “Good Enough”?, Christine von Renesse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 114
36 My Journey from Slippery Rock to Duluth, Joe Gallian. . . . . . . . . . . . 117
37 Failure By the Numbers, Dominic Klyve. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 120
38 How I Learned to Research Like the Incredible Hulk
(or I’m Always Angry), Robert Vallin. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 123
39 Anxiety Attacked Me, But I Survived, Ken Millett . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 126
40 It’s Like a Jungle Sometimes, It Makes Me Wonder How
I Keep From Going Under, Christina Eubanks-Turner. . . . . . . . . . . . . 131
41 Should I Quit Mathematics?, Francis Su. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 134

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SET Theory: On reading student evaluations of teaching

The school year is over, commencement has come and gone, grades are in, and the summer lies ahead of us, with all of its promise of research or rest or travel, and only one potential obstacle looms in the horizon – the dreaded teaching evaluations. We have all been traumatized and scarred by teaching evals at some point in our lives. If you’re in a privileged position like mine, with tenure, chair of your department, and no promotion coming any time soon (I am only eligible to go up for promotion in like three years), you can avoid the trauma using one simple trick: just don’t look, until you have to.  You know no one else will, either. But this is not the case for early career tenure-track faculty, postdocs and other visiting faculty, or for “tenure exempt” faculty (Linse, 2017). The fact is that so-called Student Evaluations of Teaching (SET) are still heavily used for reappointment and promotion, and sometimes requested by hiring committees. But another fact is that this data could potentially be useful even to senior faculty – for our own teaching but also as colleagues and mentors to these more vulnerable faculty. Last week, I attended a workshop at my institution run by my colleague in Chemistry Dr. Lynn Mandletort, designed to help us make the most of these teaching evaluations. In this post, I summarize some of my main takeaways from this workshop, and some suggestions and resources for further reading.

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Posted in student evaluations of teaching, student ratings of instruction, teaching | Leave a comment

Challenge for JMM2020

tl;dr I am challenging AMS and/or MAA to invite and promote a speaker and/or panel to a main stage to openly discuss the very real issues facing marginalized members of our community.

For the past two years I have been invited by the AWM to participate in their panel related to activism or inclusion. Being on panels is always somewhat awkward for me. My main claim to fame is (if you will) my self-expression. This only counts as activism or in any way noteworthy because of the (toxic/oppressive/erasing) context in which I live. I don’t participate in or research initiatives. I am not on any front lines (except when the front lines come to my inbox). Yet because of the specific things I say, people invite me onto their platform. I respect that, which is why I say yes, but I always feel out of place.

At the panel this year, the first question was asking us for practical ideas. I (repeatedly) declined to comment. When I did speak, the first thing I said was that I hate these panels. Every AWM panel I’ve attended has contained a self-selecting audience, disproportionately women, people of color, and I imagine queer. We, who can not breathe the air of academia without choking, sit in a room and discuss the poor quality of our environment and we ask ourselves what *we* can do.

While this important yet discouraging conversation ensues, I have to ask myself do the AMS and MAA actually care? Are they doing anything to challenge the status quo? Note, this is a different question from asking whether they promote inclusion. For instance, inclusion/exclusion is hosted by the AMS, but they officially have no stance on what we say here, and it’s certainly very easy to be a mathematician and not know about our blog. It is my personal opinion that the AMS and MAA and a large number of mathematicians are more or less supportive of our goals, but are simply not willing to take risks in the name of justice.

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Posted in conferences, joint mathematics meetings, racism, sexism, social justice, women in math | 7 Comments

Karen Uhlenbeck: Congratulations and Thank You

Dr Karen Uhlenbeck is the 2019 Abel Prize winner for “her fundamental work in geometric analysis and gauge theory, which has dramatically changed the mathematical landscape. Her theories have revolutionized our understanding of minimal surfaces, such as those formed by soap bubbles, and more general minimization problems in higher dimensions” [Hans Munthe-Kaas, Chair of the Abel Committee, photo credit Andrea Kane IAS].

Uhlenbeck is the first woman to receive this award, though “it’s far from the first time she has broken through a glass ceiling” [Erica Klarreich, Quanta Magazine]. In a NY Times interview about this award, she claimed Julia Child as a role model, which seems like a perfect comparison to me because both Uhlenbeck and Child are bold and original thinkers who changed the world simply by insisting on being themselves in it and by knowing that the world needed to grow space for them to be.

I do not know Uhlenbeck particularly well, but she was a powerful voice in the department when I was a graduate student at UT Austin. I first noticed something distinctive about the department on my campus visit as a prospective student. Compared to my other experiences, the graduate program seemed significantly more diverse and supportive. In particular, I got a sense on that first day that women and people of color felt more at home in the department than at other programs and that (all of) the graduate students valued and felt bolstered by this diversity. The department was and is by no means perfect, and I’m certainly more sensitive to some marginalizing factors than others, but I could tell that something was different here. Building and sustaining this kind of culture takes many factors and agents acting together, and Uhlenbeck was a central pillar, like a force of nature for growing this community.

As the UT News piece about her award identifies, Uhlenbeck was part of creating multiple, ongoing, formal programs that support the mathematics community. But Uhlenbeck also did this work through all of her informal relationships with us as graduate students. When I heard of this award, I was immediately reminded of the ways that these former graduate students continue to mention the impact that Uhlenbeck’s support had on them over the years, so I asked them to contribute reflections. In what follows, you will find stories of the profound good that she did through both subtle and explicit acts of human decency. I hope readers will feel challenged to be the kind of advisor and mentor Uhlenbeck was to each of us.

Karen, thank you, from all of us. –Brian P Katz (BK)

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Posted in introduction | 3 Comments