Friday, August 18, 2017

Charlottesville, Courage, Starter Steps

I've been meaning to post again on regular IBL topics, but current events have left me in a state that I have never felt before.  I needed time to process all the thoughts and emotions swirling through my mind and my heart in the aftermath of Charlottesville, and the responses by various people and groups since last weekend.

To be clear, as Director of AIBL and on behalf of the IBL community, I state emphatically that we are against hate, racism, sexism, discrimination, and white supremacy in all its forms, either overt or implicit.

It's time that all teachers, math teachers included, rise up from our old practices and engage in new ways to deal with the current threats to our institutions and society. Although we are teachers of Math classes, fundamentally we teach students. And ignoring issues that are tearing the fabric of our democracy apart is immoral. It's equivalent to ignoring climate change, because it's not our subject. While it may seem difficult to have to address these issues, I think the stakes are too high for us to hide behind the misconceived idea that "Math is apolitical."  Sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option.
Courage is the most important virtue, because without courage you cannot practice any other virtue consistently -- Maya Angelou

As I mentioned in my talk at MathFest, we need math instructors to be courageous. Managing discussions about social or moral issues are not things we regularly do or have done historically in Math.  It's hard for us.  But it's time to rethink. Silence in the face of vile inhumanity is quiet acceptance and tacit support. Remaining silent is simply not an option. We need to exercise a little courage to make some small, yet meaningful changes in our teaching.

One practical hurdle we need to get over as Math instructors is that we are not geared up for discussions of social issues in a math class context.  We enjoy the challenge of learning Math, and that has been and will always be the focus of our classes.  While I agree it's a tough challenge, let's put those feeling to the side for now.  I think there exist practical ways to implement small, yet valuable strategies.  Professor Brian Katz has just posted on the AMS Blog on Discussing Justice On the First Day of Class. That post has some some bold ideas that are truly worth the read!

This post is about adding on to Discussing Justice On the First Day of Class with some simple, starter steps we can take as instructors. These baby steps are not sufficient, but gets us off the sidelines and into the game.

Syllabus Statement
Add something to your ethics section!  An ethics statement is usually required in syllabi, regarding cheating and other issues of that type. In your syllabus you can expand on this.  "As your instructor, it is my belief that hate, racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination are immoral and have no place on our campus or in our society.  Our class is one community. We learn together. We work together.  And we will respect one another.  I teach all students, regardless of background or beliefs. All students are equally welcome and valued.  Growth mindset includes our ability to grow together, learn to be more tolerant, and become more compassionate. No one is being asked to leave the table. Everyone is being asked to make room at the table, so that everyone has a seat and a fair chance."

Inclusivity or Diversity Messaging
Another strategy is to show symbols on your slides, handouts, coffee mugs, etc. your support for common decency. This needs to be done tactfully, but there are options.  At Cal Poly, faculty and staff started an inclusivity movement with the words, "Love, Empathy, Respect, #mustangsUNITED". (The mustang is the Cal Poly mascot.) The image can be used to express via a visual symbol the campus ethos.

Additionally, AIBL has "IBL for All" images, which you are free to use on your class slides and handouts. I suggest including  statements like "All students can learn math. You belong!"  To further emphasize the message of inclusion.
A Note on Class Teaching Methods
Teaching methods matter a LOT.  IBL teaching methods are helpful in this context, since we use democratizing methods, spreading opportunities fairly. When we ask students to present and chime in, there exists ways to spread the chances so that all students are involved in the discussions and chances to share.  I won't go into the long list of strategies here, but there are ways to get everyone talking and contributing, and feeling like they belong. This is where the inclusivity beliefs hit the practical ground in math classes.

A point that should be emphasized is that good IBL teaching AND positive inclusive messaging goes a long way. We know from research studies (highlighted here) that gender gaps are reduced or eliminated IBL courses, while still benefitting all students.  The impact can be even greater with positive messaging about inclusivity.

Teachers, especially college math instructors, are respected and have social leverage. By empowering through good teaching and positive messaging, many of your students can see that you are there for them.  That is one of the manifestations of "love conquers hate."  When you show compassion and caring for the wellbeing of all your students, it helps to disarm hate and build a sense of community, so that those who are marginalized are included.

Final Thoughts on the Future
I'll end with a note about the IBL Community Challenges. Challenge 4 Inclusion is the challenge to level the playing field, and in the next 20 years eliminate the gender and minority gaps.  The IBL community is actively working on diversity and inclusion. It's not just something we say to make ourselves feel better, we are working on it for real.  Come join us!

I have so far only glanced at the materials on Teaching Tolerance, which look promising. While focused on the Humanities, my sense is they can be adapted.

More resources on the AMS Blog re-posted HERE