Math, Democracy, Equality, and Classroom Culture

This is a contribution to Sam Shah‘s Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics.

As a secondary matter, it fits into my series of posts exploring the relationship of math to democracy.

One aspect of this exploration has been experimenting with explicitly framing mathematical knowledge building with students as a democratic process, analogous to being part of a democratic polity. In a democracy, at least according to the ideal, the direction of the polity is determined by its members, all having an equal say. In the same way, I’ve been striving to build a way of working with students in which they see the knowledge as determined by themselves engaged in a collective process in which they are all equal participants, substantially inspired by Jason Cushner and Sarah Bertucci’s Consensus Is the Answer Key.[1]

My interest is in having students walk away from mathematical experiences knowing that math is nothing more mysterious than communities of humans trying to figure things out together; that the process that led to all mathematical knowledge is something they, and anyone, can participate in; that they can be the authors of such knowledge. That they are entitled to a say in what the community they are part of believes about math, and that their own sense of what to believe benefits by being part of a community thoughtfully working together to try to figure things out.

I hope these overall goals give you a sense of why I wanted to write about this as part of the Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics: while math is often seen as some kind of disembodied and strangely history-less ancient wisdom handed down by specially-anointed priests (“math teachers”), themselves entrusted with it by an even higher priesthood (“mathematicians”), the truth is that it is nothing but the product of humans trying to figure things out together, and I want this to be what students experience it as.

While I do plan in the future on writing about the specific instructional protocols I’ve been exploring to accomplish this, I’m going to keep the scope limited here, and tell you just one story, about a time when the frame of “democracy” unexpectedly gave me a new resource in handling a situation to do with classroom culture that I priorly would have found challenging.

In 2017 I tried my first experiment building a whole learning experience around the math-knowledge-building-as-a-democratic-process metaphor. (It was a course at BEAM.) On the first day I explained that mathematical knowledge is democratic in character[2] and that they would be working democratically as a community to decide what’s true. They bought in.

They were working through something, I no longer remember what. C asked a question or made an argument and A replied. A’s reply was mathematical and on topic, but his tone was a little condescending. Just a little, but it was there.

This is a type of situation in which I’ve historically found it a little hard to exercise my authority to move the classroom culture in a positive direction. I don’t want a room in which it’s okay for people to be condescending to each other. That’s a recipe for the class to start to feel emotionally unsafe. On the other hand, I’ve often had trouble finding a way of intervening in this type of situation that would have felt fair to A. If I said, “that was disrespectful,” well, perhaps it was, a little, but it was also on topic and advanced the conversation, and, well, “disrespectful” is a powerful word. Furthermore, this intervention would not have been very actionable for A: the thing I didn’t like was not located in his choice of words, but in a subtle tone thing. If he felt defensive at all (and who wouldn’t?), it would be difficult for him even to perceive what he had done that was being criticized; how would he correct it?

I think some teachers deftly handle this type of situation using light-touch humor, but that has always been a difficult tool for me to wield when being corrective. I’m too earnest; it’s hard for me to get that dial just right.

I’ve found myself in situations like this countless times, but this was the first time I had encountered it while teaching a class that had explicitly bought into the idea that they were a democratic community. I found myself, quite to my surprise, with a confident new move:

“A, you’re saying something very interesting, but your tone of voice is a little like you’re the teacher and C is the student. In a democracy, you’re equals. So can you try making that exact same interesting point except from one equal to another?”

And what was beautiful was that he completely, happily, undefensively took it on. In fact, he seemed excited to try. And, he did it! He said the exact same thing, except from one equal to another. The conversation proceeded with a new foundation of safety and mutual respect established.

I knew I wanted to teach them that math was something humans make by coming together as equals and trying to figure stuff out together. I didn’t know this would also give me new moves to support the development of a healthy mathematical culture. Retrospectively, maybe I should have.

Notes

[1] Sarah wrote an essay on this pedagogical principle which unfortunately has never been published, but the link above is a nice description of a session she and Jason and their students led at the Creating Balance conference in 2008.

I’ve been working to develop a community of educators interested in this “math-as-democracy” pedagogy. I facilitated a minicourse and a professional learning team at Math for America this past year on the subject, and James Cleveland, who was part of both, led a session at TMCNYC19. This fall I am co-facilitating another professional learning team on instructional routines, one of which is democracy-focused. If you’re interested in thinking about this circle of ideas with me, get in touch!

[2] I explained the underlying philosophy here, and also see the first minute or so of my TED talk.

My Favorite Nerds on Television

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.

Addendum 6/14/19: Chidi Anagonye, The Good Place

I wrote this post before I had ever watched The Good Place, but I had to come back here to give props to the first TV character that ever legit reminded my philosophy professor dad of himself.

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? 😉