Saying Something

I took this the morning of November 8 because the Schuylkill river was so exceptionally still and peaceful. I was walking to the train station and looking across the river towards UPenn. The feeling in the city has changed dramatically, with many protests occurring in Philadelphia in the days since. UPenn as well as my own campus have been sites of acts of intimidation in the last weeks.

I took this the morning of November 8 because the Schuylkill river was so exceptionally still and peaceful. I was walking to the train station and looking across the river towards UPenn. The feeling in the city has changed dramatically, with many protests occurring in Philadelphia in the days since. Both UPenn and my own campus have been sites of acts of intimidation since the election.

I said nothing to my students this week about the election outcome. I just had no idea what to say. I was (and am) a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton. I know that many of my students and colleagues were also. Campus was subdued and literally dark on Wednesday the 9th, as it poured rain all day and many people in the Philadelphia area were dressed in black. My classes don’t meet on Wednesdays, but I wondered how my students were doing. Some of them were certainly very let down, fearful, and upset. Many are far from their families and some don’t have good networks of friends at college. What was the atmosphere like in the dorms? I have no idea. Once again I realized that though I feel like an integral part of the University where I work and spend many hours, in some ways the students live in a world apart.

On Thursday things had lightened a little—it was actually sunny outside, for one thing. I thought and thought about what to say to my classes. They are fairly small, and I know many of the students well. I like them a lot and I think that we have really good relationships, with lots of trust and respect. I have strong political beliefs. I also deeply value my relationships with my students and do not want to alienate those who vote differently from me, of which I know there are a few. I’m sure there are things I could have said to try to bridge the gap between the disappointed and the victorious, but as I looked in my heart for the right words I found nothing. Perhaps I myself was too disappointed. I mostly forgot my disappointment and enjoyed teaching on Thursday, as I almost always do, and I tried to be extra kind to my students. I felt that they were also being extra kind to me.

Racism and sexism are real forces in America. It is easy to think of campuses as idyllic places where these forces are held at bay. On the contrary, our students and campuses are at the center of these larger cultural conflicts. Locally, a group of over 100 black first-year students at the University of Pennsylvania received hateful racist texts on Wednesday, apparently from another college student at the University of Oklahoma. At Villanova, we received an ominous email on Saturday from our University President about “reports of members of our community using our nation’s political process as a justification for behaviors and language aimed to intimidate or humiliate other people.” This email seems to stem from an incident reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer in which one of our black female students was knocked to the ground by other students who were shouting “Trump! Trump! Trump!” This was reported on my own campus, where I have the highest regard for our students, and where I have only witnessed positive interactions among students.  This has happened since I last taught, and I am left again thinking and thinking about what to say.  I have not figured it out.

Huge racial, gender, and class disparities exist within our field, despite the fact that no mathematician I know would ever intentionally discriminate on these bases. STEM education is a social justice issue. We need to consider the disparity in numbers of women and other underrepresented groups at all levels of math, to read and debate studies about issues like stereotype threat and bias in evaluations, and think about the implications of having some groups fall behind in math in a world where STEM skills are essential to so many well-paying jobs. Academic mathematics is often perceived to be a meritocracy, in which case the numbers send a message about the relative “merit” of various groups. Math is at the center of this national discussion. This month’s issue of The Atlantic asked Why So Few Women Mathematicians? Last week’s episode of Radio Lab, entitled The Voices Inside You, discussed the work of Claude Steele and others on stereotype threat and its effect on black and women students in mathematics.

While my students may face these issues in their own lives, many have never heard of stereotype threat, had a discussion about implicit bias, or considered how strongly academic and math achievement is linked to opportunity (in both directions: more opportunity means more achievement, more achievement means more opportunity). These are issues that I believe have a place in the mathematics classroom, because the classroom is one place where these phenomena are occurring. As a professor, I have the honor of providing definitions, ideas, data, and analytic tools to my students, and helping them to ask questions and form conclusions about the world. That’s my job. I have no desire to convert my students into similar-thinking minions or to treat them differently based on their political views. I do have a strong desire to give them the information and scientific/critical frameworks to make the best informed and reasoned decisions possible, both for themselves and for the larger world. I still do not know what to say to my students about this election, or maybe more importantly about this recent reported incident on my campus.  I want to tell them that I care about and value all of them, that we need to treat each other with respect, and that we all belong here–this is our university, our community, our world.  However, I have not yet found the right words.  I am their math teacher, how can I start this conversation? Perhaps there is a conversation that begins with math and leads to all of these difficult, important places.  Or perhaps it starts with me saying simply that I care about them, and leads to how math matters in the world.  In any case, I am strengthened in my resolve to talk with them about how larger social issues can play out in the mathematics classroom, and how what happens in math classrooms affects all of our lives going forward.

I would like to emphasize that the views here are my own and not necessarily those of the AMS. I would also be very happy to hear everyone’s opinions on these issues in the comments.

Addendum:  I did finally say something to my class.  I had to write it out on paper first, because I knew I would need that crutch.  This owes something to the comments on this blog–thank you to everyone who shared there, please continue to share your experiences!  Anyway, here is what I said:

“Three years ago I moved across the country and left my family and friends behind to come here to Villanova, and do exactly this: talk to you about math.  I am not Catholic, but I believe deeply in the values that this institution espouses: love, truth, and unity.  I believe in respect for all people. in loving and caring for one another, for reaching out instead of walling ourselves off from others.

“I also care about and believe in you guys.  Not just because you’re my students, and not, despite what I just said, because of anything institutional.  Because you are beautiful human beings, alive, just as I am, lit by the same flame.

“Last Thursday, I didn’t say anything to you about the election.  I will tell you now that I was bitterly disappointed by the outcome.  I was saddened, and worried that so many of you and others in America would feel afraid, devalued, and pushed out–truly marginalized–by this outcome.  I believe that most people who voted for Donald Trump did so with no hateful motivation.  I believe that most people who voted for Donald Trump would not want this to happen.  However, reports of people across the country, and on our own campus, intimidating and disrespecting others while cheering for Donald Trump have been deeply painful and damaging, both to those targeted and to our entire community, which is left poorer and more divided for these acts and words.

“The fact that acts of intimidation have been reported on our campus breaks my heart, and I am compelled to speak now so that you know that I do not condone, and will do anything in my power to stop, acts of cruelty, hate, or disrespect.  I don’t care who you voted for.  I care about you.  If you feel afraid, pushed out, or disrespected, I care about that.  I am here if you want to talk.  If you voted for Donald Trump but you despise acts and words of hate, I care about that.  I am here if you want to talk.  At a University, we have the great privilege and honor of being around people who are not like us in many ways, who come from different backgrounds and have had different experiences.  This is an incredible opportunity for us all to grow as people and to learn about the world.  Veritas–knowledge, truth–is right here.  Will we stay walled off, or reach out to each other?  We truly have nothing to lose and everything to gain by treating each other with kindness, compassion, and respect, now and everyday of our lives.

“Freedom of expression is the most basic of all our freedoms.  Peaceful protest is a truly patriotic act.  If you feel moved to protest, I support you.  If you support Donald Trump and want to express that respectfully, I support you.  In fact, I urge you to start a Trump voters for love and kindness movement.  But above all I ask all of you to bend over backwards to be peaceful and non-violent.  Please be passionate, please speak up about your beliefs, but please be kind to each other.  Thank you for your time and attention, today and every day.”

Then, to bring it back to math, I showed them The Parable of the Polygons, by Vi Hart and Nicky Case, kindly posted in the comments by Anne Ho.  Thanks again for sharing.

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11 Responses to Saying Something

  1. Anne M. Ho says:

    Thank you for your post! I’m involved in the Social Justice Research Initiative (SJRI) at CCU, so I have a few ideas (by the way, I am the only mathematician in a group of sociologists, but SJRI welcomed me with open arms because social justice issues are relevant to everyone). I did briefly talk to my students about the election on Wednesday, but all I said was that no matter how they felt, they should remember that we have a special opportunity to be surrounded by people of different backgrounds at a university, so we can engage in dialogue with different people more easily, and that we should take advantage of that.

    Secondly, my colleague and I have modified to be a Math Teachers’ Circle session as a way to use math to engage people in conversations about diversity, segregation, and inclusion. We’re running it on 12/1 and also presenting at the JMM. Let me know if you’d like to see our activity and presentation material!

    • Beth Malmskog says:

      I think that your response was really nice. And I love your Polygons link! I am relinking it just because it is great. Seeing the polygons segregate themselves just by having a slight bias for shapes like them was really interesting. I hope I can see your presentation at the Joint Meetings!

  2. Greg Friedman says:

    As regards your statement that “I still do not know what to say to my students,”
    I think you just said it beautifully! If it’s too difficult to say it in person, why not e-mail them all a link to this post?

  3. Tosin says:

    I recommend uniting to go ‘extreme defense’ on the whole trump thing. It has to go away or it will be the fault of every single person who sat by and let it grow. That’s why I posted this on my math/edu blog: link

    You’re not muslim are you? black? latino? gay? young? poor? different in any way? That’s possibly why you’re not so sure about the priority this takes. You’re not very high on the victim list. But everybody loses.

    Here’s an opposite viewpoint: , that everybody should calm down, you know?

    • Beth Malmskog says:

      I am not advocating keeping quiet. I am just searching for the right thoughtful and caring response for my classroom. I want to think very carefully about it because I take respect very seriously in my classroom, and I think that, from a place of frustration and anger, it would be easy to give a response that could be hurtful and divisive, when I want exactly the opposite.

  4. Heidi Goodson says:

    Thanks for sharing. It’s been s tough week got both my students and for me, which makes it harder to be supportive. Or maybe it makes it easier because I can relate? I’m not sure. Here’s what I emailed to my students:

    “On a non-mathematical note, I know that this has been an exhausting and trying week for many of you. This presidential campaign was more divisive than usual, or at least more divisive than what I’ve experienced in my years of voting, and I’ve found that it’s helpful to talk with others to try to understand what our paths as individuals and as a community look like as we move forward. I hope that you will continue to consider ways in which you can support others in our and your communities, especially those who may feel the effects of a changing political landscape more than you will. Please don’t hesitate to come talk to me — I would love to chat with you about any of this, regardless of your political views.”

    Good luck!

    • Beth Malmskog says:

      Thanks, Heidi! The comments here have actually helped me work on ways to talk to my students about this. Your email is great.

  5. smalec says:

    I’ve been struggling to write a similar post. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Catherine A. Roberts says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful and heartfelt post.

  7. Mike Poris says:

    I assume we are talking about your math students.
    Say almost nothing. It’s time for a pop quiz on the material presented prior to the election. If you are running a 50 minute class then adjust the number and difficulty of the questions accordingly.
    If you must, urge those that have to, to run down the block to the Poli Sci building, enter the nearest occupied classroom and vent with other like minded students.

    Let me wish everyone luck with their pop quiz and hopefully everyone will get the same grade.

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