A day of work in honor of MLKjr's legacy

You know I’m an academic because my first instinct was block out space for an abstract for this blog post.

Abstract: On MLK day, I, a white mathematics professor, consciously and intentionally dedicated myself to working only in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy. That is, all of my professional activities were focused on social equity, especially along the axes of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. I’m writing this post for accountability, transparency, invitations for collaboration on any of these ideas, and for constructive feedback for those feeling generous. The content? A break down of my day, starting at 9am.

Active Bystander Workshop (9am)

Here are some highlights from this workshop (run by Rhodes Perry and focused on interventions on a college campus).

  • What an active bystander is.

  • Why we don’t intervene even when we know we should: we don’t know how (so we have to practice!), we’re afraid of repurcussions (so we have to understand the difference between being uncomfortable and being unsafe), we’re afraid of escalating the situation (so we have to learn to embrace mistakes, because we’re definitely going to make some mistakes).

  • A 4 Step Approach to being an Active Bystander (“microinterventions”)

    1. Assess your safety (comfort is not safety)
    2. Make the invisible visible (raise consciousness of the commenter)
    3. Educate the person commenting (what matters is the impact of their comment, not their intention – decenter their point of view)
    4. Have patience and expect progress (redirect and educate about harm)
  • What if I mess up?

    • Embrace mistakes and don’t quit
    • Keep trying to build stamina and moral courage
    • If you’re exhausted, you’re probably on the right track
    • Super important to model this on campus where students are watching!
    • Lean into the “active” part of being an active bystander

Further actions for me following this workshop:

  • Fill out personal reflection worksheet
  • Set up a place/time for colleagues to practice bystander intervention together.
    • Send some emails to follow up with interested parties
    • Zoom with colleague who is interested in coordinating this effort to fill in the details
      • Determine a platform
      • Develop some starter scenarios (“Your professional society just announced they will award a [sic] Fellowship for a Black Mathematician to the dismay of potential recipients imagining putting that on their CV…”)
      • Develop process for sharing intervention ideas
      • Develop process for giving feedback on intervention ideas
      • Develop accountability system

Syllabus Review, Modern Algebra (10am)

I initially intended to grab my notes from a webinar on cultivating a liberatory classroom, but I ended up working withSyllabus Review for Equity-Minded Practice (h/t @wrinkle_nancy on the bird app for this awesome resource!), put out by The Center for Urban Education in the School of Education at USC Rossier. (I’m not abandoning the original plan, just triaging it for now.)

From the guide, here are a few introductory ideas.

What is syllabus review?
Syllabus review is an inquiry tool for promoting racial/ethnic equity and equity-minded practice. To achieve this goal, the syllabus review process promotes faculty inquiry into teaching approaches and practices, especially how they affect African American, Latinx, Native American, Pacific Islander, and other racially/ ethnically minoritized students; facilitates a self-assessment of these teaching approaches and practices from a racial/ethnic equity lens; and allows faculty to consider changes that result in more equitable teaching approaches and practice.

What is in the guide?
The Syllabus Review Guide is comprised of six parts that provide the conceptual knowledge and practical know-how to conduct equity-minded self-reflection on an essential document in academic life: the syllabus. Throughout the Guide are examples that illustrate the ideas motivating syllabus review, as well opportunities to practice inquiry and to reflect on how to change your syllabi—and your teaching more generally—so are more equity-minded.

What I learned from this resource so far:

  • You can write stuff in your syllabus specifically to support and encourage students. It doesn’t have to be a boring contract; it can communicate a lot more about the class, including the environment (eg, “joyful exploration”), the support systems, your underlying assumptions (everything from “If you’re enrolled in this class, I assume you have taken these classes and feel comfortable with these topics. If any of those are a little hazy, let’s talk to solidify your foundation.” to things like Federico Ardila’s axioms).
  • This kind of syllabus review seeks to make the hidden curricula of college visible to students. It’s about transparency as much as it’s about what’s going to be covered and how grades are going to be calculated.
  • There’s a lot of stuff in this guide that I think my syllabi already accomplish (or at least, that I have made an intentional effort to accomplish: welcoming students, describing the support structures, describing my role as a partner in their learning).
  • BUT! I have not intentionally grappled with “affirm[ing] the belonging of racially/ethnically minoritized students in higher education by representing their experiences in the course materials and by deconstructing the presentation of white students and white experiences as the norm.” This is where my focus is going to be as I revamp my syllabus this time around.

Further actions:

  • Complete the first worksheet (“Do I Know My Syllabus?”)
  • Preliminary run through my syllabus to target areas that need work (before reading further); jot down ideas with the big BUT! in mind (this is kind of like a pre-assessment to see where I’m currently at in my equity-mindedness)
  • Read on critically: “grade” my self-assessment as I work through the rest of the resource and, of course, improve upon my efforts.
    • Related: Finalize standards for SBG
    • Revamp final paper assignment yet again
    • Work out the blog/vlog/alog (audio log, is that a thing) structure for contributing to the course in a way that doesn’t add make-work, supports student learning, and doesn’t require writing necessarily
  • Call in some pals who will be receptive to meeting to work on this stuff
  • Schedule the zoom for the pals
  • Don’t forget the original plan: dig out notes from “the liberatory classroom” webinar and put them into place!

Final thoughts – I admit that I skimmed the whole resource even though I really intended to give myself an honest self-assessment. Let me share my excitement about the section that helps you deconstruct your syllabus to help clarify who the syllabus serves:

  • the institution – think student learning outcomes, specific institution-wide boxes the course checks, advertising institutional supports like relevant peer tutoring services;
  • the department – think “This class builds on… from [earlier courses] and will set you up to continue on in [later courses]”
  • the academic field – think “This course will expose you to some of the core ideas in modern algebra, like primes, fields, rings, ideals, and groups”;
  • the faculty – think “I’m your partner in learning in all of these ways” (the commitments you make to your students, like how you’ll assign grades, your deadline policies, how you’ll support student learning…

Math in Society (11am)

Context: we have a “Social, Structural, and Institutional Hierarchies” requirement at Hamilton that embeds questions about equity, access, fairness into each concentration (it’s really cool and afaik we’re the only place that does this).

So, in our math department, you can fulfill this requirement in a few ways (through a stats class with focused applications — eg, an age discrimination legal case and how stats can be used to determine there is age discrimination happening; through courses in the education program that deal directly with these issues — many of our students are interested in teaching). We also have the Math in Society Reading Seminar.

The Math in Society course brings in books like The Algebra Project by Bob Moses, Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil; it touches on the mathematics of fairness (gerrymandering, voting theory); and it generates discussions, blog posts, and a final paper. After a couple years of one steadfast colleague offering this course, we’re moving to sharing the teaching of this course in different modules. I’m taking responsibility for a 2-week ethics module to go along with WoMD. (Hello, PredPol!)

Here are some of my thoughts from my work session:

  1. Sharing the Ethics in Math AWM panel (or related video content depending on if this panel is publicly available) with students and discussing it
  2. Weapons of Math Destruction
    • Develop Jigsaw assignment for presenting the chapters after Ch 2 and before Conclusion
    • Develop a short class component featuring ORCAA and the ethics matrix - what is it, examples (where can I find some of these? what’s the name of Cathy’s coauthor in philosophy/ethics, are there papers somewhere to see this work through an academic lens? maybe the philosophy collaborator? This is all follow-up work that I need to break down into actual tasks).
  3. Phi Beta Kappa visiting scholar
    • Coordinate PBK visit, including class visit (relates to the Ramanujan course content)
      • Determine date
      • Determine topic preferences
      • Set up pre-visit conference call to discuss stuff
      • Organize venue stuff (with PBK chapter help)
    • Determine how to advertise public event well on campus and to students in class
      • Identify opportunities for related events

Lunch and a break to go outside and pet cats (12:15pm)

The cats were happy to be the center of attention.

Quarantine Support Introductory Meeting (1:30pm)

I won’t go into too much detail here because this meeting is a little bit of a stretch from my purpose for the day, but I didn’t have control over its timing. I took the Johns Hopkins online contact-tracing course last fall so I could be part of the support group that checks in on students in isolation/quarantine in the spring. This meeting went into some details about all that stuff (logistics, tips, etc). I’m placing a mental flag to be conscious of how inequities manifest for students in isolation/quarantine when I start this work.

Prison Mathematics Project Correspondence (2:30pm)

As of last fall, I correspond with two math enthusiasts through the Prison Mathematics Project, both of whom are on self-guided tours of number theory. I caught up on reading their letters and got a start (but not a finish, damn) on my next letters.

Further actions:

  • Look into getting books to my penpals (specifically Number Theory Through Inquiry)
  • Finish writing back

Break (3:30pm)

More cats, screen-time break, and a very brief walk outside.

Bonus Zoom (4pm)

I clocked out of work for this one, but I want to mention it anyway. I chatted with twitter math friend @Maryamization about practical stuff (how to add a paper clip to a cloth mask to get it to stop fogging up your glasses) but, carried away with the zeitgeist, we talked about math and community, and she also explained Moonshine to me (monstrous, umbral, or other). This was a soul-restoring chat that, in the context of the day, gave me a lot to think about in terms of what I like about math and why that makes the other parts worth doing.

Personal Consciousness Raising and Commitment to Actions (6:30pm)

I’m going to write a separate blog post about this because there’s just too much to say here.

Clocking Out For Real! (8:30pm)

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