Part 1: Identity: Who is a mathematician? 

(Good morning and welcome to Math Syllabus Bootcamp! This is Part One of a five part Emergent Math mini-series. Today’s topic is on how to incorporate and welcome diverse identities from the very outset of the school year. Be sure to check out the other parts of this miniseries as well another Emergent Math miniseries: Routines, Lessons, Problems, and Projects.)

Vivienne Malone-Mayes wrote that while she was attending the University of Texas at Austin for her graduate studies one of her professors wouldn’t allow her to enroll in his class because, “he did not teach blacks.” She was also denied a teaching assistantship (which is ironic because she would eventually be voted most outstanding faculty member at Baylor University a few years later).

Students (and adults) have an idea of what a mathematician looks like in their head. Often it defaults to a white male. And if you’re a white male math teacher, there’s a good possibility you can reinforce that mental model unless you explicitly represent mathematicians with diverse identities. This can and should happen on day one. It can even happen on your syllabus.

Among the first things a student sees when he or she enters your classroom are you, the physical space of the classroom and your syllabus. When you consider those three things, what will students see? Will they see themselves represented? 

Thankfully, we’ve never had a more robust set of resources freely available to promote mathematicians of diverse race, religion, and gender. Here are just a few

Go through some of the resources above and think about who your students should know about upon entering and exiting your class. Consider adding a brief biography of, or a resonant quote by, one or more of these mathematicians. Continue to reinforce the diversity of the mathematics community throughout the year by continually promoting mathematicians via pictures, posters, biographies, quotes, and research assignments. 

I grew up and taught high school mathematics in Austin and graduated from Baylor University and I’d never heard about Vivienne Malone-Mayes until recently. To my great shame, I never shared the biography of Malone-Mayes with the hundreds of students that graced my classroom over the years. She was a genuine hero and could have been so to many more. That’s an opportunity I missed due to my own ignorance and systemic erasure of minority mathematicians. Most teachers miss it. More importantly, students miss out on it.

And while providing examples of diverse identities in math doesn’t complete your anti-racist teaching, it’s a start. 

This has been Part 1 of the Math Syllabus Bootcamp Mini-series. Here are future editions.

  • Part 1: Identity. Who is a mathematician?
  • Part 2: Smartness. What does it mean to be a mathematician?
  • Part 3. Norms. What are the expectations for quality collaborative work?
  • Part 4: Anchor Problems. A Hilbertian Approach to Curriculum Mapping.
  • Part 5: Putting it all together. Additional nuts & bolts and an example syllabus

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