Facing the Mirror: Acknowledgment in our Practice: MAA Invited Paper Session on Inspiring Diversity in Mathematics: Culture, Community, and Collaboration, talk #4

I had some technical difficulties and we’ve unfortunately lost the first few minutes of Aris Benjamin Winger of Georgia Gwinnett College, who co-facilitated the program in the last post. I remember that he discussed creating a safe space to talk about race and equity and mathematics on campus as well.

Facing the Mirror: Acknowledgement in our Practices

In his talk, Aris called out the audience (in a good way) to acknowledge our own biases and our own fraught histories with racism, sexism, and treating students in a disparate manner.

We don’t get to pick how people show up in front of us. We don’t get to pick our initial reaction to them.

Aris showed us a slide of three different people, a black man, a white man, and a black woman in six different outfits and styling.

“We treat people differently based on how they look,” he said. “We treat people who are white differently from people of color.”

Aris suggested that each of us write a letter to ourselves being honest, loving ourselves, and admitting our past work of leaving people out. He read aloud a letter that he had written to himself, which started with “Dear Aris, You are awesome.” and ended with “I love you. Love, Aris.” and included a very harsh, frank assessment of the times and people he had ignored in his classroom due to race, due to how they acted, and due to his own past traumatic experiences.

He asked the audience to lift their hands for T/F questions.  The first was that last quote: “Our society treats people who are white differently from people of color.”  Then he asked the audience to keep their hands up, and clicked the slide to the next one. “I treat people who are white differently from people of color in my classroom.”

Connecting to the panel yesterday about how to get people to listen to criticism, Aris used this great strategy of being vulnerable in front of the audience.  We think, ‘Hey, if this guy has thought about this and made all these mistakes, maybe other people, like me, could have done that too.’ (This is Yen, editorializing from themes of the JMM, not Aris discussing.)

He challenged the audience to make the classroom a better place for students.

I don’t teach mathematics at all, I teach people. I used to think about how to teach the law of sines in a way that was good enough, but now I think about Jamal and Khan.  I don’t teach mathematics to people, I teach people mathematics.

The audience discussion was lively and engaged.  Throughout the questions, Aris stressed again and again that when it comes to teaching, we need to focus on people instead of mathematics. Instead of just thinking about the ideal way of explaining some concept in a vacuum, you need to think about how to reach specific people.

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