It Takes Community
The following blog post is part of the Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics, hosted by Hema Khodai and Sam Shah. It appears as a conversation with my friend, Hema Khodai.
How do you highlight that the doing of mathematics is a human endeavor?
How do you express your identity as a doer of mathematics to, and share your “why” for doing mathematics with, kids?
H: We can’t remember how we first “met” and we certainly didn’t take the time to get to know one another. From the very start, we dove heart-first, with little preamble, into intense conversations about mathematics, the human experience, and the lack of humanity in mathematics education. We were committed to redefining mathematics as a human endeavour for every one of our students before we even met in real life.
Our blogpost is a glimpse into a typical Marian-Hema conversation.
M: Thank you for these thoughtful questions. I think I would like to begin with the second question about the “why”: specifically why we do math with kids. The most powerful mathematics I have been a part of began with my father. We would “do math” at the kitchen table for hours. Math was magic, math was the best puzzle to solve. But math was (and is) also love. The love that came from him through the math was palpable - not figurative, but material. I could feel it, name it, touch it. So, my why when I first began teaching was to recreate this for children, wanting them to experience what I had.
H: My why for the learning and teaching of mathematics hinges on safety, stability, and belonging. At fourteen months, I was a refugee fleeing a war-torn motherland. By the time I was five years old, I was a displaced child seeking a common language to enter and belong in new places and spaces. Math then became something that gave me comfort, I was good at it, I could do it alone, on my own, while my parents worked to ensure our survival and safety, and eventually led to acceptance from teachers and admiration from peers. I built my identity around my ability to do math.
M: This really moves me. You speak of math almost as your companion and confidante. I wonder how many students see it that way. I think I want them to see it as relational, but I had not considered that the relationship between themselves and math may not include me at all. You now have me wondering if I have ever given space for that possibility: math as refuge.
H: Math as refuge. As a graduate student, completing courses toward a Masters of Mathematics for Teachers, I continue to immerse myself in new learning and find solace in understanding modular arithmetic, resolution in solving Diophantine Equations, and productivity working with Gaussian integers to solve familiar problems. This spring, my professor urged me to continue on, despite the extenuating circumstances of excruciatingly painful losses in my life. It was a reminder of a whole wide mathematical world out there that is unknown to me and awaits my arrival.
M: That unknown world. What worries me a lot is that the mathematics of my ancestors, like the languages they may have spoken, is unknown to me, and unknown to the world. How will I ever really know the math that has been denied me? How will my children and students ever know?
H: If I truly believe mathematics to be a human endeavour, then I accept that the mathematics of our ancestors is not lost to us. It is there to be reclaimed.
M: But how will I know it is mine? I want to know. Need to know.
And yet...your mention of belonging has me in my feelings, too...we have talked so much about how some math spaces don’t make us feel as though we belong. What a paradox that the inanimate mathematics signals belonging and community, yet when some humans are added, that same safety can disappear.
H: Ooooh. So it is not mathematics in itself that closes doors. It is the self-appointed keepers of the gates that create exclusionary climates in spaces of learning and dictate terms in places of doing. The systems of oppression that are enacted in institutions to dehumanize the experience of mathematics for some.
M: Well, are they self-appointed or do we, all of us, give that permission away - to those who think themselves good stewards of knowledge, but who lack the larger body of what truly is mathematics?
H: I don’t know if we ever truly gave it away as much as it was wrested away from us and colonized. Like our lands, our bodies, our minds, and our cultures.
M: It’s the not-questioning, though. There was a time where I just took the information as given, never questioning its source, and whether or not it was valid. I am on a journey to know...
H: I think that’s the journey. That awakening of the critical self that peels away layers of oppression and reveals the network that confirms we each belong with mathematics. Thus also belonging with one another.
M: Which brings me to another question: How will we all come to that understanding? You and I have these talks often, but do others? I know we are in conversations with others all the time, and I try to have faith that if there are enough of us, we can make a difference, but sometimes, it’s just hard to imagine.
I like to think that all of us “do” mathematics already. Math seems so natural to me, like breathing. Adults and children, in expressing their disdain for mathematics, sometimes don’t see their mathematical actions and thoughts as such. I want to help bring those endeavors to the fore.
H: For my students, I want to highlight that there are a myriad of ways to “do” math. If you are thinking, you are a doer of mathematics. If you are discerning, you are a doer of mathematics. If you are making decisions, you are a doer of mathematics.
I want to highlight that the Eurocentric curriculum that informed my mathematics education is ONE way of thinking about and exploring mathematics and not the only way.
M: Absolutely! When I think of Jazz, soul food, hip hop, the sky hook...the contributions, the inventions of Black people in the face of an oppressed reality are ingenious. And mathematics lives in every one. Yet, what is recognized as mathematical is often Eurocentric, mainstream, and considered the mathematical canon.
H: This has me wondering about indigenous ways of knowing; the fisherfolk in Jaffna, Sri Lanka who feed entire villages and know to sustain marine life, the agriculturalists who worked the land for generations and built homes (without engineers) to raise their families. These ways were lost to Tamil folx as they migrated from the NorthEast to the capital city for a formal education that would allow them to participate in the politics of the nation and ensure representation in government. A national politics that was residual of colonization. Rochelle Gutierrez writes about the need for mathematics teachers to have knowledge; content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, knowledge of diverse students, but also POLITICAL knowledge. Math is not neutral and math teachers are not apolitical.
M: I wish you could see me finger-snapping right now! Chills...this is the conversation of our day. When has it not been, really? We seem to be in a moment, and these moments have occurred in history, but if we get it right, we could really restore mathematics and its pursuit to what I believe it was meant to be - done in community, as natural as breathing, not a distinct endeavor of its own. Computational and instinctive, written and verbal, visible and not yet manifested. All happening simultaneously, harmonically. For all to partake as needed.
I know you well enough to know that you enter into things with great intention, so I would like to ask your “why” about why you agreed to embark on this virtual conference project. What drove that decision and what are your hopes?
H: Sam and I met for the first time at OAME 2019 in Ottawa, Canada. There was an instant connection; we share a true love of mathematics and vulnerability in allowing ourselves to be seen. My "awakening" a few summers ago was quite rude (and not at all gradual). I realized that I had not been seeing myself as an Educator of Colour and as a result was permitting a TON of self-harm but also doing a grave injustice to my students. How can a fractured educator teach a whole student?
When Sam approached me with the idea of this Virtual Conference and we agreed on the theme of mathematics as a human endeavour, I knew this was my opportunity to co-create a space of learning and model equity and inclusion in a visible way. We need to do this self work and ironically require a community to do it well.
The post above is the first keynote blog of the Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics . You can visit the rest of the posts there.
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Reflecting is good for the soul. Doing so in public is terrifying and exhilarating.