Underrepresented Mathematicians Project

Politics of Education Dec 25, 2020

Last year, I had the opportunity to take MATH 470, Mathematics for Secondary Education, at the University of Maryland. During the tail end of this course, I was introduced to a project that intrigued me as an aspiring social justice educator. Donning the name “Underrepresented Mathematicians,” we were asked to list out, as a class, the names of the mathematicians we knew. I remember calling out Ramanujan, who remained as the only mathematician of color on the list. Unfortunately, most, if not all, of these names listed were of old, white men, a historical phenomena which stems from our continued use of a eurocentric curriculum. We were then asked to research and present on a mathematician of our choice who was a minority, either in race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. I chose Shakuntala Devi, born into the family of circus performers who discovered her talent for impressive arithmetic at the age of five and went on to write one of the earliest works in India on homosexuality. Through this project, I learned one small way to decolonize the curriculum I would be teaching in my future.

A few months later, I led my own math classroom of rising ninth graders in Denver, Colorado through Breakthrough Collaborative, an organization aimed at providing yearlong enrichment for students from underserved communities. In the last week of the program, I was brainstorming ideas for a culminating, lasting project. I had chosen a lesson I found and was excited to teach it, but my excitement was short-lived as I  soon realized that the students were not as invested in it as I.

The next day, I overhauled the entire lesson and decided, instead, to implement what I had been so interested in as a student - learning about mathematicians who looked like me. As I introduced the project, I required students to research, in pairs or individually, a mathematician from a list I provided, and create a poster on the information they learned about them. As they fervently got to work on their research, I heard one of my students who had been relatively uninterested, despite my efforts, throughout my class, speak up. “Ms. Lekha, can we present these at GBM (General Body Meeting which occurred every afternoon and included all students, teachers, and administration from the program) today?” I was ecstatic. As she said this, two others called out their enthusiasm to present their posters as well. As I wrote their names down on the whiteboard behind me, I began to understand the subtle impact this had on students, as it had had for me as a student, as well.

Too often, students go through the motions of schooling; learning from a decontextualized, whitewashed curriculum that they disengage in. This is especially present in STEM subjects. Students of color and female students internalize early on that science and math are not meant for them. In a career rife with white women, in a world rife with white leaders in power, it can be difficult for students of color to see pathways to success to reach these same levels. We often talk about the concept of providing “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” for students. Mirrors allow students to see themselves reflected in the content, windows allow students to see the stories and experiences of others, and sliding glass doors provide students with access to their versions of success. By introducing them to mathematicians, teachers, professors, and leaders in the STEM field who looked like them, we provide for them these reflections, these access points to be successful in a subject that they are too often told they are not meant to pursue.

However, this is NOT enough. In classrooms across the country, especially in math classrooms, we often hear notions of colorblind, racially neutral ideologies. We hear teachers and administration touting that race (often covered up as “politics”) does not have a place in the classroom. We see this idea of colorblindness used as a way to perpetuate the long-held belief that not talking about race is “non-racist,” an acceptable way to lead a classroom. However, it is a mark of privilege to be able to simply ignore race.

This is especially an issue in mathematics where there is a noticeably growing gap in achievement. The root causes of this are plenty, emerging from racial and sexist attitudes, as well as methods of gatekeeping in white-dominated spaces. We are surrounded by rhetoric of some students being “gifted” to be able to understand and achieve math success, while others are simply “not math people.” In reality, not only is math an essential tool for our day-to-day living, accessible to and achievable by all students, it is also an essential practice for developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are central to the subject. The racial implications of math education are rarely spoken about. However, we are in a current state of under-serving black and brown students the quality math and science instruction they deserve and are in dire need of critiquing certain reforms and “achievement gap” rhetoric that is couched in problematic and assimilating terminology.

Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breanna Taylor. In a matter of weeks, three cases have become part of the growing statistic of young black and brown individuals targeted every day. We can no longer use our privilege to simply ignore the injustices that permeate throughout the systems our country is built upon. Especially in a field dominated by white males, we need to stop being afraid to use the words race and racism; we need to look into our own biases and realize the privileges that we have. It is essential that we confront the systems that we sit on and benefit from at the expense of human lives. There is no more excuse for ignorance.

As math educators, the initial steps to becoming actively anti-racist and decolonize curriculum in the classroom, whether your classroom may have a few students of color or a majority, may involve activities such as this one. Like this activity, we must empower students by exposing them to people that look like them and have found some level of success in math. We must educate ourselves on the systemic inequities ever-present in our country in order to find ways to overcome them, inside and outside the classroom. We must begin to implement critical pedagogies in our math classrooms, however, that may look in practice. We must educate ourselves and work together to provide a better future for our students.

Silence is no longer an option.

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Lekha Tantry

Graduate from the University of Maryland, College Park with a degree in Mathematics Pursuing her master’s in Secondary Math Education Learning and teaching Sanskritam