My Favorite Nerds on Television Wednesday, Sep 27 2017 

Speaking as somebody who has been a nerd since long before that was a thing, these last 30 years have really been a trip as far as the way the word “nerd” has changed in the public sphere. I was a kid in the ’80s. Back then, nerds in pop culture meant short goofy men, usually named Louis, who couldn’t get it together under any circumstances. Now we have Zac Efron, Chris Hemsworth, Mila Kunis, Karlie Kloss, Michael Fassbender, and Selena Gomez all identifying as nerds on the record.

This is a real shift. It’s a juicy sociological question why and how. I don’t think anybody doubts that the ascendancy of Silicon Valley, e.g. the kingmaking of Mark Zuckerberg, had something to do with it. I’m inclined to believe that the internet had a more democratic role to play as well: the birth of virality allowed us, the people, at least briefly, to start declaring what was awesome without corporate mediation. Suddenly everybody’s private nerdiness had a mechanism to go public, and when it did, we crowned things that the arbiters of the pre-Youtube media landscape would have dismissed instantly, if they had even noticed them. Remember Chewbacca Mom? How about Chocolate Rain? Nerdiness has been validated by visible numerical strength. Well, anyway, I’m not trying to do sociology here, I’m just speculating. But something has really changed.

But it also hasn’t. But it has, but it hasn’t, but it has, but it hasn’t. The highest-rated non-sports TV show of the 2016-2017 season was The Big Bang Theory, which this fall will enter its 11th season. (I’m not presuming Nielsen ratings are still definitive of anything, but clearly it’s at least a big deal.) I feel like I’m supposed to like this show, but it’s always rubbed me wrong. It’s 2017 and “nerd” still means overgrown child? Female nerdiness is still essentially secondary and nonwhite nerdiness essentially tokenistic? Brainy people can’t aspire to social maturity and socially mature people can’t aspire to braininess? Maybe I’m being unfair to the show but that’s how it makes me feel.

Nonetheless, the more democratic side of nerd ascendancy has furnished us with a wider variety of screen representations than I could have imagined back then. So I want to take a moment to give some props to three + two of my very favorites.

Quick disclaimers: (1) I do not watch a ton of television. I’m sure there are a bunch of awesome nerds I don’t know anything about. (2) Spoiler alert! Information about these characters is freely discussed. You’ve been warned.

Ok, without further ado, and in no particular order,

My favorite nerds on television!

Willow Rosenberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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C’mon, y’all, of course! Buffy’s shy, self-effacing, brainiac-hacker-turned-sorceress bestie is the first time I think I saw a nerd on TV get to be a whole person. This show was written into nerd canon the moment in the very first episode when Buffy, courted by mean-girl Cordelia, decisively sides with Willow instead —

and its place was sealed in episode 2 when Willow quietly sticks up for Buffy, and then for herself —

But Willow wouldn’t have been part of the inspiration for this post if things had stayed where they were early in season 1. The thing I love about the portrayal of Willow was that she got to be a multidimensional, changing human. I’ve seen seasons 1-5 and part of 6, and over the course of that time Willow investigates many different sides of herself and ways of being — group belonging vs. autonomy; sexuality and partnership; power, creation and destruction; selflessness vs. ego. A really wide range of self-experience is part of being human, but they never used to write nerds this way.

Case in point: when an ’80s / ’90s nerd obtains some swagger, it’s usually due to some sort of magical or science-fictional intervention, cf. Stefan Urquelle. (Drugs and alcohol can serve the magical purpose as well, cf. Poindexter.) The entertainment value is the contrast between the magic/science/psychotropics-enhanced version of the character and the swaggerless everyday version. Buffy plays with that trope too — in a classic episode in season 3, an evil vampire version of Willow shows up in town, rocking leather and taking absolutely no sh*t from anyone.

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But in the Buffyverse, this is an opportunity for the character to grow. A plot device occasions the real Willow to have to impersonate her evil vampire twin, and she’s forced to try on some unaccustomed ways of being — assertive; fear-inspiring; fearless; sexually confident. They feel weird and uncomfortable to her in the moment, but they also resonate — indeed, it was a shy but defiant experiment in power and danger by real Willow herself that (accidentally) brought evil twin Willow to town in the first place. And without doubt, the whole experience opens up new avenues of selfhood for Willow to explore.

Seymour Birkhoff, Nikita

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I don’t know why the CW’s reboot of La Femme Nikita wasn’t more of a thing. A and I were totally obsessed with it. And one of the (many) reasons was Seymour Birkhoff, the Star-Wars-Lord-of-the-Rings-quoting black-ops technology specialist.

In a lesser show, Birkhoff would have been a purely instrumental character, there to solve plot problems. “We need to hack into this network — where’s Birkhoff?” In this show, he’s a principal, and his relationship with the other leads, especially Michael and Nikita, are at the heart of the whole thing.

(Spoiler warning if you’re not in season 2 yet!)

Like Willow, over the course of the show’s 4 seasons, Birkhoff gets to be a whole person. Fearful, brave, valorous; selfish, loyal; supportive, needy; a truthteller and a deceiver. Powerful and vulnerable.

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Like Willow, this range of experience never compromises the legit nerdiness. It’s a different flavor than hers: a familiar awkward cockiness coupled with a constant stream of references to canonical nerd material, from the aforementioned Lord of the Rings and Star Wars to Harry Potter and X-Men. Including, at the risk of a spoiler, literally my favorite use of “may the force be with you” in all of film, including the OT.[1] At one point he almost gets himself killed with a poorly chosen Mr. Miyagi quote, but it’s not a joke at his expense. He reads to me as a “for us, by us” representation — if the writers and/or the actor don’t identify as nerds, somebody is really convincingly faking it.

Jane Gloriana Villanueva, Jane the Virgin

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I conceived of this post when I was still in season 1 of Jane the Virgin. Even though I relate to Jane as a fellow nerd, I wasn’t completely sure it was right to claim her this way publicly. Whereas Birkhoff and Willow are clearly delineated by the scripts as their respective shows’ Designated Nerds — Birkhoff is literally nicknamed “Nerd” by Nikita — Jane is not explicitly so constructed. Was I “calling her a nerd,” then? (This used to be rude.)

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Season 2 fully cleared that up as all the relevant features of Jane’s personality came into clearer focus. Between her late-night informational internet binges, her anxiety around school success (she’s working on a creative writing degree), her urgent need to get everything right, her tendency to overthink things, and her not even playing it a little bit cool around her father’s celebrity friends (see below), it was settled. And then, oh, right, she’s a virgin, deep into her twenties.

All of these are important aspects of Jane’s story and/or personality, but none of them pigeonhole her.

I think that’s the unifying theme of this blog post. Being a nerd is not a limitation on what’s possible in terms of the range of human experience. Nerds are not a homogeneous bunch — we are not even homogeneous internally as individuals. TV doesn’t always recognize this, but when it does, it’s glorious.

Runners up!

Cosima Niehaus, Orphan Black

While for me Cosima doesn’t quite meet the “for us, by us” standard set by Birkhoff, it still feels worth celebrating that we now have an earnestly-geeked-out-on-science character who is also “the hot one”.

Brian Krakow, My So-Called Life

My So-Called Life is a classic show for a reason. Every one of the characters had an interior life that was more richly and empathetically rendered than any prior teen show that I know of. From Angela Chase (to this date, Claire Danes’ greatest work imho) to Rickie Vasquez to Rayanne Graff, Jordan Catalano, Sharon Cherski, and the resident nerdy neighbor Brian Krakow, nobody was denied a point of view.

It’s not possible to overstate how much I identified with Brian when I was 18. I kind of felt like he was literally based on me. I’m putting him here in the “runners up” only because I’ve changed so much, and my historical identification with Brian reflects limitations in how I saw myself.

I guess that’s the point of all of this. Nerdy or not, humans are infinite. May TV reflect this infinitude.

Notes

[1] (a) Do not look this up on Youtube! It needs to be appreciated in context. If you’re curious, watch the entirety of season 2. (b) I suspect there are those who would question my nerd cred for suggesting that my favorite use of MtFBWY occurs elsewhere than the OT. Now, I forcefully reject the notion of “nerd cred.” An exclusionary posture about nerddom is both limiting (cf. the rest of this blog post) and a singularly bad look on people who have ever felt excluded. Nonetheless, I am happy to establish mine. Saying your favorite MtFBWY occurs outside the OT is kind of like saying that your favorite lightsaber fight is RvD2. You say it in the full acknowlegement that whatever you’re naming as your favorite owes its whole existence to the OT. Happy now? 😉

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BEAM in the NYT! Saturday, Feb 18 2017 

A paragraph I was not expecting to read in the NYT today:

Even as movie audiences celebrate “Hidden Figures,” the story of black women who overcame legally sanctioned discrimination to perform critical calculations in the race to put a man on the moon, educators say that new, subtler obstacles to higher-level math education have arisen. These have had an outsize influence on racial prejudice, they contend, because math prowess factors so heavily in the popular conception of intelligence.

Another one:

“Fundamentally, this is a question about power in society,” said Daniel Zaharopol, BEAM’s director. “Not just financial power, but who is respected, whose views are listened to, who is assumed to be what kind of person.”

Anyway, big ups to Amy Harmon and the NYT for this beautiful article about Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics, which is one of my all-time favorite places to teach.

This blog and the nation Sunday, Jan 22 2017 

I have been relatively inactive on this blog for a while now. This has been due 100% to the necessity to focus on my schoolwork and other offline pursuits, and will continue to be true for a few more months at least. (Btw, I’m on twitter now! But won’t be using it much for the same few months.)

Also, the scope of this blog, while broad (I think) within the general umbrella of math and education, has never ventured out from beneath this umbrella.

But the sea change in our national political context is on all of our minds, certainly on mine, and there are a number of themes and ideas that I want to explore with you here, relating to the state of our union and our democracy. Some of them are related to math and education directly; others more obliquely.

Much of the writing I intend to do will have to wait at least the above-referenced few months. But I am going to commence a pair of hopefully pretty short blog posts now, entitled Visibility / Invisibility of Brown Brilliance, concerning the way that some recent exciting pop-cultural events have thrown into really stark relief for me the doggedness and obstinacy of our refusal, as a culture as a whole, to acknowledge the power of our black and brown citizens’ intellectual contributions to our nation.

I hope the relevance to the political moment is felt, but I don’t want to draw explicit connections here because I don’t want what I’m going for to get drowned out by partisanship, mine or anyone else’s. I hope to steer clear of self-righteousness (and please let me know if I’m unsuccessful). These posts are intended to invite introspection — I’m aspiring to the dental hygiene paradigm of race discourse. When I talk about our refusal as a culture as a whole to acknowledge brown brilliance, I mean all of us – me and you and all of us. Not “the bad guys” / “the others”.

Anyway. Look for a pair of posts on this theme in the next few days. I hope you’ll find them useful.

What It Comes Down To Monday, Jun 13 2016 

I was just reading A. K. Whitney’s piece in The Atlantic about the Hacker-Tanton debate. She gets to the heart of the matter.

Actually, not just the heart of the matter of the Hacker-Tanton debate, but, like, The Heart of The Matter in math education.

Is math for everybody?

I have come to feel like I can hear this question somewhere in the background of almost every debate about math education and math education policy that I encounter.

Almost everyone will say “yes.” But do they mean it? Or more precisely, what do they mean?

Is ‘rithmetic for everybody but that abstract stuff is just for eggheads? Is being put through the paces of the corpus of school math for everybody but enjoying it is just for dorks or smartypants? Is having to take tests for everybody but math as a tool to exercise agency is just for white and Asian men?

Or is all of it for everybody?

Notes from the Learning Lab: How to Dull My Curiosity Friday, Dec 14 2012 

I know I say this kind of thing a lot but I’m sitting here studying for a final, and this truth is just glaring and throbbing at me:

If you want to dull my curiosity, tell me what the answer is supposed to be.

If you want to make my curiosity vanish completely, do that and then add in a little time pressure.

There is nothing as lethal to my sense of wonder as that alchemical combination of already knowing how things are going to turn out (without knowing why), and feeling the clock tick.

This Is What Democracy Looks Like Sunday, Sep 16 2012 

The Chicago Teachers Strike

The Chicago Teachers Strike

Technology Advice Request Tuesday, Apr 19 2011 

So I am going to begin a PhD in math at NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences in the fall.

(Congratulations me! EXCITED.)

Do not for a second think this means I am abandoning Team Teacher. K-12 education 4eva. More on this another time.

Anyway, for a math teacher blogger I am sort of a luddite so I could use some internet advice.

I’m trying to start a study group for my cohort at NYU. (We have to pass a written exam during the first year of study; a lot of folks e.g. me want to get it done in the fall.) So far nobody who’s written back is going to be in New York over the summer, so an online study group seems indicated. Question: what’s a good platform for an online study group?

We need to be able to ask, answer, and reason through stuff. We need to be able to write stuff. My thoughts so far:

Idea A: a group-authored WordPress blog. I have never done anything group-authored on WordPress so I don’t know how to think this through, but it supports LaTeX so we can typeset stuff. Somebody can post on a question or problem they’re struggling with and other folks can answer in the comments. Drawbacks: everybody needs a WordPress account, right? And writing a post is not the most user-friendly thing compared to commenting. And we’d need to be deliberate about how to make it easily navigable.

Idea B: somehow get our hands on the platform used for MathOverflow and Stack Exchange. It’s already set up for questions and answers and also has full LaTeX support. Drawbacks: how will we get our hands on the platform? Also, the “reputation” part would be bad for our purpose – can we omit it?

Idea C: One of my classmates suggested a Facebook group. I’ve never used a Facebook group for anything and somehow the idea seems lame to me, but I don’t have a valid basis for that. Do you have experience with them? What are they good for?

Okay, do you have other ideas for me? Do you have any additional thoughts/advice about these ideas?

Thanks for real.

UPDATE 4/20:

To clarify what I think we need (although if you have experience with online study collaboration, I want to hear what you think we need too) –

We need to be able to ask, answer and discuss math problems. I think that means we need to be able to typeset math, so LaTeX support is a plus; we need to be able to have back-and-forth discussions, so support of comment threads or the like is a necessity; and we need to be able to participate in multiple conversations at once, so some sort of easy-to-navigate organizational structure would be nice. (The last of these is the primary drawback of a WordPress blog as I see it.) Also, the ability for multiple people to contribute content in a user-friendly way would be nice.

UPDATE 5/2:

When I sensed this turning into a much bigger project than I intended, I went with WordPress. I got lots of great suggestions that I’m looking forward to learning more about when I have the time.

Bob Moses in NYC Thursday, Apr 7 2011 

I just found out that one of my heroes, Bob Moses, founder of The Algebra Project, and an important leader in the civil rights movement (specif. the SNCC voter registration movement), will be speaking at NYU this afternoon, and I can’t go. GRRR. Maybe you can.

The title of the talk is:

Working the Demand Side: Mississippi, SNCC and the ’60s struggle for the Right to Vote. The Algebra Project, the Young People’s Project and the current struggle for a Quality Public School Education as a Constitutional Right.

The info:

Thursday April 7, 4:00-5:30pm
King Juan Carlos Center Auditorium (NYU)
53 Washington Square South, 1st floor

The talk is sponsored by The DOE History in the Classroom Project and NYU’s Department of Teaching and Learning. Bob will have a book signing afterward for his two books Radical Equations and Quality Education as a Constitutional Right.

I don’t have time at this second to properly introduce you to Bob Moses’ work if you aren’t already familiar with it but let me at least say that if you are interested in the relationship between math education and democracy, there isn’t a deeper thinker on the subject anywhere.

Still Here, Still Learning Friday, Mar 11 2011 

I last posted in October. I wrote a review of Waiting for Superman that generated more traffic than I’d ever seen before on this blog. Since I had been intending to continue my series on the idea of mathematical talent since the summer, I decided not to post again until I was done with the next installment of that series. But because it involves some research, and I care about it a lot and want to get it just right and tend to get kind of obsessive about things like that, and because there’s been a lot of other stuff going on so I haven’t been working on it consistently, this has kept me from posting anything at all for 4.5 months. So maybe it was time to revisit that agreement with myself?

And a few days ago, JD2718 wrote me an email to the effect of, “yo, what happened to you?”

So, here’s a partial answer –

a) I learned a lot about leadership. One of my jobs this year has been to facilitate the weekly math department meeting at a high school, and plan the agenda for this meeting. This has gotten me involved with the communication channel between the department and the principal. I feel really grateful to have had the opportunity to do this. It has caused me to start to develop a completely different skill set than I’ve ever had to use before. (To give you a whiff of what I mean, it inspired the following facebook status: “Ben Blum-Smith thinks it is important to be a straight-shooter and a diplomat, and that you do each better by doing the other one.”)

b) I learned a lot about training new teachers. Another of my jobs this year has been as a faculty member of an MAT program. In the fall, my colleague Japheth Wood and I taught a “math teaching 101” typed course for our cohort of 12 preservice folks; this winter we taught the “math teaching 102” installment. They’ve been in apprenticeships for 9 weeks and we’ve just gone through observing them actually teach a few times, so now on my mind is – what am I happy with in their teaching? What’s missing? And what implications does all that have for our fall and winter courses?

c) I’ve continued to design and implement a graduate course on algebra and analysis for the faculty of a high school. This has been both awesome and very challenging. We chose to organize the course to culminate with the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra. At the beginning of the year I thought this was a reasonable goal and the course would not feel hurried. Now, 2/3 of the way in, somehow I’ve found myself feeling pressure to go through significant chunks of material at breakneck speed. That tension is of course absolutely part of the lives of all the participants in their own classrooms, so in a way it’s cool that this is parallel; but still. I am implicitly making a case with this course for the principles of math teaching I believe in, so I’d better be living those principles in my teaching of it. A few of them I feel like I’ve been 100% consistent with:

* Every day I will bring you questions that are worth your time, questions that even I think are exciting to think about even though I already know the content.
* A math course should have a plot, with beginning, middle, end, dramatic tension, resolution. (Math teaching as storytelling.)
* Central to learning math is the interplay between formal/rigorous thoughts, definitions etc. and intuitive notions. I will always stress the connections between the two.

Other principles I feel like I’ve nailed some of the time and totally let slip away other times in my concern to make sure we get to the content:

* Honor your dissatisfaction.
* (Closely related) The most powerful certification of new knowledge is consensus of the learning community, the same way new knowledge is certified in the research community.

3 classes ago I had them prove the irrationality of \sqrt{2}, spent the whole period on it, left them all the heavy lifting, noticed and brought out points that were bothering people, and generally aced these last two principles. The last two classes have felt the opposite way. I think I was talking 80% of the time in the most recent class. Lots of questions never got answered because they never got aired; lots of productive thoughts never got formed because they never had time to. Anyway, getting this course right will continue to be an engaging challenge.

d) I applied to doctoral programs in math. Now I need to decide where to go. The choices are NYU, CUNY and Rutgers. I feel very excited and torn.

e) If anybody remembers the ellipse problem that Sam Shah brought back from PCMI, and which I wrote about back in August… Japheth and I have completely solved it. I am going to tease you with this tidbit and not the solution itself because we wrote a manuscript on it which we hope to get published.

f) Okay this doesn’t fit under the rubric of “what happened to me” but here are some links you might enjoy:

* A Teacher Story by Anna Mudd. Anna’s blog, Drawmedy, is a beautiful kind of writing which I won’t try to describe. It’s not an education-themed blog so I was delighted to see her take on her experience as a teacher.

* This gem from Vi Hart: Wind and Mr. Ug

* Taylor Mali’s What Teachers Make. This poem is definitely amazing, and if you’ve never seen it, I think you won’t be sorry if you watch it before reading the next sentence. <pause>Pause while you watch the video.</pause> It brings up some ambivalent feelings in me too – these are a story for another time, but here’s the short version: It’s related to the tone of the current national conversation about education, which is all about how the incompetent slovenly dumb*sses in front of our children are f*cking everything up. In this context, Mali’s piece is an eloquent testament to the value of our work, but it also makes me uncomfortable. Mali appears to have been amazingly happy with the job he was doing as a teacher when he wrote and performed this. But I don’t think that (especially in light of the current climate of the conversation) feeling like you’re doing an amazing job should be in any way a requirement for testifying to the value of your work; especially since most of us do not feel that way, most of the time.

* Speaking of the current national conversation about education, a new study by the National Education Policy Center came out on New York City’s charter schools, which are often touted as models for the nation.

* It’s weird to experience yourself as an unwitting participant in a historical zeitgeisty trend, but I do. I have the strong feeling that the traditional distance between the mathematics education community and the mathematics research community is closing, and I, a classroom teacher and teacher trainer entering into a math PhD program, am like completely an example of that. Another is the latest issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, which is the research community’s professional association. It is devoted to education. You can download it for free.

(Thanks, JD2718, for making me write all this.)

Kate Nowak Is Such a MF Bad*ss and Other Stories Friday, Sep 17 2010 

Kate is walking the talk.

And writing about it, which, because it’s Kate, means she’s writing about what makes it hard, which means she’s putting into words the core of maybe the biggest obstacle I can see to the improvement of math education in this country.

I haven’t used the Regents exam as a threat, not one time. I casually mentioned it on day 1. I’m doing my best to ignore it.

Problems like Solve: x + |2x – 4| = 4x – 8 just piss me off to an alarming degree. Only if you tell me what x represents and what relationship those expressions describe and why you think they are equivalent, NYSED. Then maybe I’ll solve your equation, but right now I think it’s too uninteresting.

Nothing about what I just wrote does not provoke anxiety.

And then she’s tying her thoughts together with a nautical metaphor?

Oh right. She used to be in the navy.

* * * * *

I am working on the Talent Lie series but I don’t think I’ll have anything up for a good long while. I’m teaching two courses for teachers this fall, one for inservice folks and one for preservice folks, and I foresee a need to actively reflect on those courses, so if you hear anything from me in the next month it’ll probably be about that.

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