Practicing Anti-Racism: Objectivity

 At the Joint Math Meetings (JMM) this year, the MAA-SIAM-AMS Hrabowski-Gates-Tapia-McBay Session Lecture was a moving talk by Dr. Erica Graham at Bryn Mawr College titled "Anti-racism in mathematics: Who, what, when, where, why, and how?". 

I feel like it's going to take me until the next JMM to actually process everything in that talk. There were so many important things shared, and it was a great call-to-action. 

One of the slides that stuck with me right away was a list of characteristics of white supremacist culture from Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun (2001). I feel like this list is something I've been searching for in my work towards antiracism. It gives me a straight line from aspects of our culture that don't say the word "race" but do perpetuate racism. 

So, I've decided to take this resource and weave it into my practice as a mathematician - and as a person in the world, for that matter. Each semester, I'm going to choose one of these characteristics and focus all semester on dismantling it. This semester, I'm focusing on objectivity.

Although this isn't exactly the description that Jones and Okun give, I'm going to work on dismantling the notion that mathematics is objective, separate from and unaffected by societal differences and injustices.

Okay, if I'm totally honest, I'm really just starting with a baby step: the idea that talking about social justice issues has a place in the math classroom, and mathematics students can both contribute to and benefit from these discussions. I am already thinking I'm going to want to revisit this characteristic again in a future semester when I have a better sense of how to address the idea a bit deeper.

The first way I'm going to incorporate this work into my teaching is by addressing it head-on during the first day of class. I'm going to share the four parts of my teaching philosophy with them, and the last gives me the opportunity to open up a discussion about objectivity. I don't plan on lingering on this for long, but I do have the statement "I denounce white supremacy" on that slide. I honestly have no idea how students will react to this. We will see, and I will report back.

The second way I am bringing this into my teaching is by following in the footsteps of so many other mathematicians: incorporating math for social justice activities into my run-of-the-mill math courses. Well, course. 

I'll be teaching two sections of College Algebra, including one that has a co-requisite component for students that need or want extra support along the way. Flipping the class is giving me more time in class to really explore ideas (I'm going to be doing a series of posts on flipping a class soon, so watch out for those). So, I've found 5 class days that I can devote to these extra activities:

Activity 1: Budgeting at a Human Trafficking Victims Shelter

This activity was taken from Dr. Victor Piercey, who demonstrated it during a JMM panel, though I'm modifying it a bit from his version. Before class, students are going to learn about what human trafficking is and then read about a local organization that supports the victims. They'll be asked to write down five expenses they imagine a shelter would have. During class, I'm going to give them a list of expenses, some being fixed costs and some being variable. They'll be asked to model each cost as well as overall costs, graph some stuff, and answer some questions about their model, including some what-if scenarios. I'm hoping it will be a good way to practice what they're learning about linear equations and models, while also discussing a really important social issue.

Activity 2: Election Night News Coverage Simulation

So, this is a bit of a stretch to call it a "social justice" problem, but I hope it will bring these ideas outside of the classroom and into real life. I'm building this from scratch, so I'll probably write a separate post with more details and how it goes, but the basic idea is that the students are going to do some of the basic percentage calculations that newscasters do on election night: how much of the vote is remaining to be counted from county x? What percentage of that outstanding vote needs to go to candidate A in order to overtake candidate B? etc. These kinds of questions (at least, the mathematics behind them) are pretty standard word problems in this class, so I'm excited to give them some more practice with them. Plus, when they watch election coverage throughout their lives, they won't be mystified by the math going on in the newsrooms.

Activity 3: Rising Water Levels

I haven't put as much thought into this one yet, since it comes a little bit later in the semester, but it's going to be based on an activity in the Math for Social Justice book. The goal is for students to learn about how rising sea levels can have profound effects on island nations. The way the original activity is designed, students have to work with composition of functions to explore how different models predicting future sea-level rise will result in different outcomes. I'm definitely going to keep that, and I'm hoping to add in a few other function manipulations as well since this will come at the end of the chapter on functions.

Activities 4 and 5: Exponential/Logarithmic Growth and Decay

Exponential and log functions are the last thing we cover in this class, so I have some time before I nail down exactly what I'm doing for these activities. I have a few ideas, including another from the Math for Social Justice book about growing interest rates and student loan debt. I was also thinking that it would be a good place to talk about compound interest, even though it's not explicitly a topic in the course. Most of these students are 18, so they really need to understand how things like credit card debt work. But I may just talk about that during the day we start talking about exponential functions as part of the regular class meetings. I also thought we could have an interesting discussion about carbon dating so students can practice working with half-lives. And, of course, the thing that's on the news every day: disease spread. Since it's part of our everyday lives now, I am thinking about having an activity where we discuss exponential growth and decay of disease spread. Clearly, there are too many ideas here that I need to sort through and make some decisions, but there's a bit of time left to make those decisions. Maybe I'll even survey the students to see what they want to talk about.

I'm really excited about all of these activities. I hope it will open students up to the idea that they don't need to be doing fancy, high-level math to use it to understand important real-world issues. Just because it's a math class doesn't mean we can't talk about social issues. Math isn't separate from the "real world", but rather it is just one part within it.


Popular posts from this blog

Flipped Classes Part 2: 5 Things to Consider When Flipping your Class

My Teaching Philosophy

Flipped Classes Part 3: Do's and Don'ts of Getting Student Buy-In