A mathematical journey of culture, community, and collaboration

Good morning! It’s 9 AM and there are plenty of people out here to see the Friday MAA invited address. Alicia Prieto Langarica, who we saw at the session she organized yesterday (lots of posts: Equity in the Mathematics Classroom, Facing the Mirror, Undergraduate Research as the Greatest Equalizer, Math Mama Stories, and LATHISMS) gave a warm introduction of the “frankly astounding” Williams College professor, Pamela Harris.

Shoot, I accidentally sat right next to Anna Haensch, who was also planning on blogging and who co-writes the great AMS Blog on Math Blogs.  Well, I’m taking it.  Also, it was nice to meet Anna!  We’ve talked on the internet but haven’t met before. And Adriana Salerno, the editor of this blog, live-tweeted the talk.


Pamela’s Mathematical Journey

Pamela started by telling us about her early years and the remarkable coincidence of being born 3 days apart from Alicia in the same city of Guadalajara in Jalisco Mexico, but meeting her in Connecticut at a MAA Project NeXt event.

When she was 8, Pamela and her family emigrated to San Diego, but then returned to Mexico and then moved to Milwaukee, WI when she was 12.  Pamela has an incredible memory and gift for tactile, relatable details.  She taught us the rubber band trick to keep up knee socks as a child in school uniforms.

All business

After high school, Pamela, then an aspiring art teacher, as a Dreamer was worried about how to get into college. She ended up using her parents’ federal tax ID number (which they’d requested when they’d first gone to California) to get into Milwaukee Area Technical College.

At the time, Pamela had 7th grade level mathematical skills. She ended up loving math, while she started with intermediate algebra, college algebra, trig, calculus, and eventually ran out of math classes as she went to her Associate’s degree.

It’s not about not being good at something, it’s about building yourself to be better at it.

Maybe not an appropriate reference here, but whatever, this next quote from Pamela reminded me of my favorite movie, Step Up 2 the Streets, which is purportedly about Baltimore, our host city.

Sometimes you have to start where you’re at, and you go from there. Don’t let anybody discourage you along the way.

During an audience question about remedial math, she said that we should just meet students where they’re at.  Her teachers didn’t shame her for not knowing that numbers multiply and add to different numbers, and they never used “remedial” or implied that she was far behind.

There’s a way in which we teach which is also oppressive.  Figuring out how to dismantle those systems in hard work.

She struggled with the registrar at her next university, trying to merge her old records of her associate’s degree with her new plan to get a bachelor’s at Marquette University. At this point she was married to a U.S. citizen and got a Social Security Number, and she told us about the sinking horrible feeling in her gut when the registrar asked her how she could know that Pamela hadn’t stolen someone’s identity. After a horrible week, she received a letter saying that the records were merged! Not necessarily what happens for every immigrant.

She had a daughter in April 2006; her husband had been deployed February 2006 for a year-long tour to Iraq.  He did get to come home two weeks after their daughter was born, but this was right before she started graduate school at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee that fall. I can’t imagine doing this- I had two kids during graduate school and it was very, very rough, and my partner wasn’t in another country in mortal danger. Everyone was in tears during this part of the talk, including her.

Her advisor told her,

Just focus on the math.

She was annoyed, but then realized that math was the only thing she could control at that point, so she did focus on it while the rest of her life was so difficult (I editorialize this as a person who went through the newborn baby phase twice, with a partner).

She received the GAANN fellowship at UW, and then the Marquette’s Mitchen Fellowship. She made a shout-out to Upward Bound, Talent Search, and Student Support Service programs for underrepresented students.

Look around your schools and you might have students in your classes in the same position as I am, and you might be that mentor for them.

Building Community

Project NeXt (New Experiences in Teaching) was a huge step for Pamela- she talked about collaboration and the joy of having a cohort.

She next talked about her many collaborations with Erik Insko, her first collaborator. She had eight papers listed on the slide, and talked about an upcoming book she has with Erik, “A resourceful guide to undergraduate mathematics.”  So be on the lookout!

Next Pamela started listing very rapidly the very many things that she’s done to help build up community, which we audience members could do in our institutions.  She and Erik split a grant for Minorities in Mathematics Speaker Series, and threw all of those speaker videos up on the internet! The speakers got to have lunch with students, collaborate with her and Erik, give talks, and be a part of the representation that was so missing from her life.  She encouraged us to do a similar speaker series at our institutes.

Mathematical Collaborations

What do collaborations do for us? They make a small community within the mathematics community where you can feel that you actually belong.  It can create equity and it can make a sense of purpose and belonging.

She has three tips for making collaborations work:

  1. Set clear expectations: let people know your time commitments and any times when you’re unavailable to work on the project.
  2. Be accountable and build some trust- if you say you’ll do something, follow through. People are counting on you. “Cuentas claras, amistades largas”
  3. Have fun. “If I’m not having fun, I won’t work with you.” It’s really important to work with people you like

She then showed us so many slides of her having fun with her collaborators- karaoke, parades, juggling, hikes, bourbon, etc.

There are small-scale ways to replicate those big collaboration programs:

There are so many benefits of collaboration, but perhaps the most important for Pamela was:

I stopped feeling so much pressure to deliver my own individual ideas. It was a team effort. I started feeling really happy with my place in the mathematical community.

Changes in pedagogy

Now she wants to duplicate that feeling for her students. She wants to instill mathematical confidence in her students and foster an environment for students to want to continually improve and help take responsibility for each other- not just your own success, but pulling up the people around you.

Our students are phenomenal, but they can be even better if they work together.

She cited a publication from the National Academies: Undergraduate Research Experiences for STEM Students: Successes, Challenges, and Opportunities from February 2017. This said that undergraduate research experiences can help all students, especially ones from underrepresented minorities.

To incorporate this research into her life without running huge people-power REUs, she incorporated projects into each course.  She wanted to focus on professional development, and provides edits for drafts to improve student writing skills, and she has a session with talks at the end of each semester and invites her department to improve their presentation skills.  Specifically:

  • A representation theory course was a group project with applications to different fields (chemistry, physics, engineering, voting)
  • Combinatorics course: projects exploring open topics not covered in the course
  • Research courses: exploring group projects in the field

These students are people. They have dreams… it was so much fun to struggle together and it was so much fun to realize that just because I was a professor that didn’t mean I had all the answers.

She’s worked with 30-some students during her 3 years at Williams, and she showed us photos of them and a huge list of publications that were co-authored by students over the past three years. She said that it was never the goal to publish, but all she did was make this environment for students to thrive and they ended up doing this!

Even if we can’t incorporate research directly into a course, we can incorporate other people’s research in those courses.  Yesterday, Chad Topaz said “All good research sometimes starts on Facebook,” and Pamela did that, making a facebook callout for her friends to send a few sentences about how they use linear algebra in their research.  Then in a linear algebra course, she started each day with two slides of a headshot + sentences by those friends.

She plugged womendomath.org, mathematicallygiftedandblack, and lathisms.org as ways to find a diverse set of people to feature.

You can connect with a larger community, and diversifying who you feature and who you work with can really change the community of mathematics.

Here’s a shot of the crowd around Pamela after her incredible talk which made us all laugh and cry:

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