Applications requested for Editor-in-Chief of the Inclusion/Exclusion Blog

The AMS invites applications for an Editor-in-Chief of the Inclusion/Exclusion blog. This blog increases awareness of the experiences of marginalized and underrepresented groups in the mathematical sciences, with the goal of building a more inclusive, supportive, and diverse mathematical community.

The role of Editor-in-Chief requires excellent communication skills and a commitment to posting or soliciting posts once or twice a month,. Given the Editor-in-Chief’s central role in providing leadership and vision for the blog, mathematical scientists who identify as members of marginalized or underrepresented groups are especially encouraged to apply. The Editor-in-Chief is assisted by contributing editors and writers. Editors are asked to commit to a three-year term, with an opportunity for both the editor and the AMS to review the commitment each year. AMS blogs are hosted on and maintained in WordPress, and familiarity with WordPress or a willingness to learn is required. Each blog has an assigned AMS staff liaison to promote awareness of the blog and to provide documentation and other support, as needed.

Sponsorship of blogs allows the AMS to provide editorially-independent platforms to amplify the voices of members of the mathematical community on issues of common interest and concern. Building community furthers the AMS mission of creating connections among mathematicians and advancing research. This blog is one way to work toward an environment in which all mathematicians can contribute their talents and ideas to the research enterprise.

With sincere thanks to the current Editor-in-Chief of the Inclusion/Exclusion blog, applications for a new Editor-in-Chief will be reviewed beginning on October 26, 2020. To apply, please submit a writing sample from a blog or a piece written for a similar audience, a CV, a biographical sketch of no more than 200 words, and a statement describing your reason for interest in this role and your vision for the blog (such as examples of topics for blog posts). Applications and questions should be submitted to

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Building equity-minded online programs

Guest post by Justin Lanier and Marissa Kawehi Loving

This article was written for the Early Career Section of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. It will appear there in the January 2021 issue. We are sharing the article as a preprint in the hopes that it will be useful for folks this fall as they work to build equitable online spaces during the ongoing pandemic. Thank you to Angela Gibney for inviting us to write this piece for the Early Career Section and thank you to Brian Katz and the other inclusion/exclusion editors for giving us the chance to share it early via this blog. 


Building equity-minded online programs

So you want to start a program to help build and serve the mathematical community. And you want your program to be effective, inclusive, and equitable—and these days, probably online. What should you do?

Two years ago we were in this exact position. We knew how isolating the start of grad school can be, and we wanted to start a program to help connect first-year grad students online to combat this isolation. And we knew that this experience of isolation can be especially acute for students belonging to groups historically excluded from our mathematical communities.

The resulting work-in-progress is the SUBgroups program (, now in its second year. We’d like to share with you the lessons we learned and the toolkit we developed as we worked to design an online program that serves its entire audience—a task that requires meeting the particular needs of minoritized participants. We hope our experiences can be useful to you as you plan and organize your own initiative.


A year of change

Two seismic shifts have hit the world this year. In May, police officers killed George Floyd. The inequalities entrenched in our institutions came into sharp focus during the national Black Lives Matter protests that followed his killing. In the wake of the uprising, many mathematicians are reckoning with the racism pervading our academic institutions and are being energized to effect change within their departments and research groups. We want to get involved to make change, to do something!

This renewed focus on racial justice takes place against the backdrop of a global pandemic that has upended our lives. We have shifted so many of our academic activities online in an unprecedented way: teaching, conferences, seminars, research meetings, thesis defenses and more. This collective move of our professional lives to an online setting, combined with an increased need for virtual connection to combat physical isolation, has stoked interest in creating new programs, forums, and opportunities.

In this moment, there is a great possibility for positive change, but our efforts must be accompanied with care and foresight. Whenever an activity is moved online or a new online initiative is started, there is a real danger of recapitulating the inequitable and harmful structures that often already exist in our departments and fields. Heightening this danger is the speed at which our mathematical lives have shifted to online settings. The ease of starting new online programs can bring with it a “move fast and break things” ethos; this can lead to harm, especially to the well-being and professional lives of our most precarious community members. We must take steps to create mathematical programs and communities that serve all mathematicians.


A toolkit

Building a new program of whatever size is a long-term process. It involves choosing a need to address, designing the structure of your program, and then carrying out your plans. It is important to bring the same care and judgement to designing your “broader impacts” that you use to craft your research program: we must choose which problems to work on, understand the literature, and find some initial insight on how to tackle the problem—an “edge”.

Here are a few items to reflect on as you get started. Some of them we had in hand when we began our work together, while others are lessons that we learned along the way. We hope you’ll find them to be useful tools for building online programs with equity in mind. In the next section we’ll use SUBgroups as a case study to give examples of how to use this toolkit in practice.

1. Don’t just do “something”. The first step in starting a new initiative, online or not, is to pause and think critically about what you are trying to accomplish. Who are you trying to serve? What explicit need are you attempting to address? What experience are you aiming for your participants to have? Remember, your intentions aren’t what drive outcomes—your decisions are what drive outcomes. Beliefs need to be turned into working structures. Because of a sense of urgency, it is understandable to want to put your first ideas into action. But it’s important to pace it out and think about what individuals will be served by your program, and how. You need an intentional plan—an “if you build it, they will come” mentality will not suffice!

One pitfall is addressing problems only superficially, rather than at their root. Or providing a resource but not thinking through how individuals will be able to access it. Another pitfall is letting the professional pressure to obtain funding shape your approach. While funding, prestige, and advancement are all interconnected—and this can be a challenge to navigate—there are often many ways of addressing a problem that require little or no funding. Don’t ignore these!

2. Do your homework. It’s possible and even likely that other people have previously worked to meet the same need that you wish to address in the math community. Find out what structures are currently in place. Can you borrow ideas or structures from these programs? Are there aspects of the problem that existing structures don’t yet address? Just as when you are doing math research, understanding the landscape of a problem can help you to define and refine your goals and plan of action. It’s also important to build relationships with individuals who can give you input based on their experiences and expertise; they might also become a part of your team. It can also be useful to search for programs or approaches that address similar needs in other STEM fields.

3. Undo harm. In setting up structures and norms for your program, it is easier to imagine and scope out the experience of the majority. If you design a program with a “default” user in mind, your program can appear to function well while excluding or harming individuals with less access, prestige, or privilege. To draw on a familiar aphorism, you may think your rising tide is lifting all boats, but this same tide may be sinking some of your participants. There need to be explicit mechanisms and strategies established to avoid and mitigate harmful hierarchies and power structures within your program. For example, in theory any new platform where anyone can participate and discuss will benefit everyone equally; but in practice it will serve and amplify the voices of those who already have power and privilege unless care is taken in how the platform is structured.

4. Leverage scale effectively. Creating a program that will happen online allows for it to scale where the logistics and resources required for in-person programming would be prohibitive. This capacity is why there should be more online activities even in non-pandemic times! If your online initiative is not local to your institution, be prepared to take steps to support a bigger audience, just in terms of logistics, workflow, and technology. Make sure that you are advertising your program in ways that reach the wider audience that this new scaling allows for. On the flip side, the scale of the internet also means that it’s important to consider who’s listening. The same language and structures that make sense and are welcoming in the “local” setting you are used to might come across as alienating or unwelcoming to the much larger and more diverse audience that life on the internet brings. For example, an all white panel for graduate students on navigating the job market isn’t exclusionary if your department doesn’t have any students of color in it, but it sends a clear message about who your panel aims to serve if you advertise more widely.

5. Actively solicit feedback. Once your program is up and running, it is important to get feedback about how it’s going, especially from the most marginalized people that your initiative aims to serve. It is important to distinguish between feedback that is formative and feedback that is summative—one provides information that can help you to modify your program as you go (candid reactions), the other allows participants to give more holistic feedback as they reflect on their experiences with some distance (considered criticism and deserved praise). It can be useful to solicit them separately. Avoid asking for “anonymous” feedback that also collects demographic information. Again, using multiple feedback instruments can be helpful here. Finally, remember that opportunities for feedback don’t have to be uniform, just as the experiences of your participants will not be uniform; without being burdensome or tokenizing, reach out to minoritized participants to better understand their experience of your program.


A case study: SUBgroups

SUBgroups is an online peer support program. Each participant is either a first-year math PhD student, a first-year math master’s student considering a PhD, or a student in a math post-bacc program. Each SUBgroup is composed of three to five participants. A group meets regularly over the course of a semester or quarter for a video chat that lasts approximately an hour, once every two weeks on a fixed day and at a fixed time. Ahead of these meetings, participants are asked to reflect on their week and to come up with a positive experience, a negative experience, and some math that they’ve encountered recently and that they might choose to share in their SUBgroups meeting.

In fall of 2019, SUBgroups had 60 students participate from a diverse collection of programs across the country and beyond. As we are writing this, we are just starting our fall 2020 program, helping to support over 200 first-year students in what will certainly be a stressful academic term. This fall we’re also excited to share that a group of junior physicists is running a program for first-year physics graduate students that is modeled on SUBgroups, called SU(5).

We now give some examples of how we used the five tools outlined above to help shape SUBgroups.

1. Addressing isolation through virtual community. We knew we wanted to address the tough experience of being a first-year grad student—an experience we both encountered first-hand. We chose as a focus the isolation that comes with being a beginning graduate student, when it can feel like no one really understands what you’re going through. We knew of lots of ways of finding social connections on a campus or within a department—and we’d heard all the advice about joining an intramural league or going to departmental tea. But the core idea of SUBgroups was that it could be really powerful to put first-year students in touch with each other, in a way that a single department couldn’t coordinate on its own.

2. Programs existed only at the local level. We knew of attempts to provide support within individual departments, such as pairing beginning and more senior grad students. This can be a positive support, but the fact that it is local leaves a worry that any negative comments or experiences shared with a peer mentor might “get back” to other people in the program. So in surveying what kinds of supports were in place for beginning grad students, we did not find an example of a program like we had envisioned in SUBgroups. At the same time, SUBgroups wasn’t designed in a vacuum; we relied on our many experiences in small group facilitation. We built into SUBgroups norms and routines to ensure more equitable participation in discussions, such as prompting participants to do some reflective writing ahead of meetings.

3. Disrupting isolation through participant-tailored groups. We recognized that if we just brought students together and randomly assigned them into small groups we would likely end up reproducing many of the conditions that led them to feeling isolated in their programs to begin with. In particular, some students might once again be the “only one” in their group—the only woman, the only Black student, the only queer student—and this experience is compounded for people with multiple minoritized identities. To address this, we asked for demographic information as part of registration and also asked students if they had any requests regarding the composition of their group. This required extra work and care in order to comply with privacy laws like the EU’s GDPR, but we knew that this information would help to make functional and difference-making group dynamics possible.

When deciding on the structure of the SUBgroups, we debated whether to provide each group of first-year students with a more senior grad student mentor to help facilitate the group meetings and answer any big picture questions about math grad school. Ultimately we decided against doing so since it introduced an unequal power dynamic into the group which we felt would inhibit honest and open sharing of experiences between participants. This decision wasn’t without drawbacks. There were a couple of groups which unraveled after their first meeting or two without a senior point person to coordinate meetings and help with rescheduling. This year we are modifying the way that meetings get scheduled to help build agency and responsibility for participants up front to avoid this consequence of our decision about mentors. At the end of the day, there is no way to ensure a perfect outcome. Still, it’s important to think critically about the impact that even these (superficially) purely logistical questions can have on meeting your goals.

4. Advertise! Advertise! Advertise! We believed we could leverage scale in the online space to help address this collection of problems: isolation felt by graduate students, the claustrophobia of the first-year experience, and the compounding “only one” challenge. Of course, one concern we had during the organizing phase was that we wouldn’t have a broad enough swath of students participating to accommodate students’ requests for their group composition. Our solution was to advertise as extensively as possible. We reached out directly (with individualized emails) to the graduate directors and chairs at about 200 math graduate programs in the US and Canada. We also advertised in community Facebook groups that are focused on various underrepresented groups in math as well as advertising through the NAM newsletter and the AMS grad student newsletter. This fall we also specifically contacted a number of minority-serving colleges and universities, to raise awareness about SUBgroups among underrepresented minority students who will be starting graduate programs in the next few years.In addition to far-reaching advertising, we have aimed to make SUBgroups as inclusive as possible while still being focused enough to address the specific needs we outlined. For instance, we’ve received a number of inquiries about whether applied math students or students who plan to pursue teaching-focused positions can participate in SUBgroups, as well as inquiries about whether our program is a good fit for students in statistics, math education, or bridge-to-PhD programs. We have added language to our website to clarify that all of these are within the program’s audience.

5. Disaggregating student feedback. Asking for feedback is one area where we definitely still have room to grow in running SUBgroups. We asked for feedback from SUBgroups participants after the first meetings and again at the end of the program. It was all fully anonymous. We did get some good early feedback that reassured us that groups were functioning and that people were generally having positive experiences. The response rate was not as high as we would have liked, however. Our closing survey gave us several choice quotes that felt good to read and were helpful in further advertising the program; it also pointed out places in the program that could use improvement. In addition, since our surveys were anonymous we had no way to ensure that we were hearing from minoritized individuals to better understand that our structures were meeting their needs and expectations. This year we will gather additional feedback from our underrepresented participants on their experiences in SUBgroups.

There are lots of social, human, and structural problems within the math research world that are either unaddressed, or not widely recognized, or not even clearly identified. These problems need to be worked on creatively, energetically, and thoughtfully—and it’s never too early (or too late) in your career to get started! We hope that the toolkit we’ve outlined can help you to think critically about how you develop initiatives to meet these needs.


Justin Lanier is an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Chicago. His long-term goals involve building inclusive and flexible mathematical communities, especially ones that connect K-12 educators and mathematical researchers. Find him on Twitter: @j_lanier

Marissa Kawehi Loving is an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Math at Georgia Tech. She is invested in addressing issues of equity and justice in the mathematics community. Find her on Twitter: @MarissaKawehi

Posted in graduate school, introduction, mathematics experiences | 1 Comment

Todxs cuentan: building community and welcoming humanity from the first day of class

Guest post by Federico Ardila–Mantilla

(Note: This paper was written for the upcoming book “Proceedings from a Workshop on Professional Norms in Mathematics” edited by Mathilde Gerbelli-Gauthier, Pamela Harris, Mike Hill, Dagan Karp, and Emily Riehl.)


Everyone can have joyful, meaningful, and empowering academic experiences; but no single academic experience is joyful, meaningful, and empowering to everyone. How do we build academic spaces where every participant can thrive? Is that even possible?

Audre Lorde advises us to use our differences to our advantage. bell hooks highlights the key role of building community while addressing power dynamics. Rochelle Gutiérrez emphasizes the importance of welcoming students’ full humanity.

This note discusses some efforts to implement these ideas in a university classroom, focusing on the first day of class.

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Remembering John Lewis, by Karen Saxe

With this post, we are amplifying a tribute to Congressman John Lewis by Karen Saxe of the AMS.

From Karen Saxe:

Karen Saxe is Associate Executive Director at the AMS and heads the Office of Government Relations in Washington, DC. There, she advocates for funding for mathematical research and education in the mathematical sciences, and for policies that broaden participation in higher education generally and in mathematics more specifically. She writes the AMS Capital Currents blog: Her July 23 post commemorates John Lewis. Congressman Lewis was very proud of the achievements of the colleges and universities in his district, including HBCUs Morehouse College, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, Morris Brown College, and Morehouse School of Medicine. He kept his website up-to-date with announcements about constituents who received federal funding for their research, and his staff offered grants assistance and workshops to explain the federal grants process. He was, generally, a great proponent of higher education and fought in Congress for affordable post-secondary education for all, believing “that no matter a person’s income or zip code, access to an excellent education should be a right.”

Mathematics as a discipline is not central in Saxe’s blog post (though it contains a compelling context for discussing social justice mathematics), but I think that the connections to justice and education in Lewis’s legacy make a strong connection to our goals here at inclusion/exclusion. Moreover, I draw inspiration from Lewis’s admonition to “get into good, necessary trouble” as I think about the ways we must continue to #DisruptMath.

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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 | 10 Comments


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.

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Posted in Black Lives Matter, ShutDownSTEM | 5 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

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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.

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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:

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.]


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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 (, 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.

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