How one professor changed the culture of mathematics for his students
September 26, 2021 7:19 AM   Subscribe

Later, as a professor, he noticed a pattern. Ardila’s Black, Latino, and women students who went on to Ph.D. programs also told stories of isolation and exclusion…so Ardila…set out to create, in his own classroom, a new kind of math environment.
Federico Ardila-Mantilla, SFSU professor, has strived to create a new culture in math. One that is more inclusive from the first day of class (excerpt from “The End of Bias: A Beginning”).
posted by sp160n (30 comments total) 66 users marked this as a favorite

I'm glad to read stories like this and see techniques I use in my own classrooms. Not pretending I'm Arcilla-Mantilla, of course, but at least I'm not a complete loss.

Pissing off white students is real -- been there, done that -- but I've chosen a side on that one and I'll stick to it.
posted by humbug at 9:48 AM on September 26, 2021 [3 favorites]

This is so good, especially the procedural hacks he used to elicit participation as a group rather than individual contribution. The numbers of math PhDs and later professors coming out of his classes at the end completely floored me — SFSU is not any kind of powerhouse university.
posted by migurski at 10:22 AM on September 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

Watery eyes at several points reading this.
posted by Verg at 11:06 AM on September 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

I love this. Thank you for posting it. I once attended some multi-disciplinary meetings as an English faculty rep. We were all expected to attend a group workshop on how to implement a more welcoming classroom. As I was walking to the session, I heard some math instructors complaining that this workshop had nothing to do with teaching math—it was fine for the humanities faculty, but why did the math instructors have to attend? I wish I could send them this article.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:18 AM on September 26, 2021 [6 favorites]

Great post. It's also very worth reading Ardila-Mantilla's paper CAT(0) geometry, robots, and society if you're interested in mathematical ethics; TFA is about creating inclusive/just mathematical settings, the robots article is (partly) about the related question of justice in how mathematics interacts with the rest of the world.
posted by busted_crayons at 12:08 PM on September 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

This is beautiful, thank you for posting.
There's a bitter-sweetness to stuff like this. It's heartwarming that he's had such positive effect, but sad that it takes remarkable people to serve corrective roles against the banality of the status quo.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 12:42 PM on September 26, 2021 [5 favorites]

Thanks for posting this. It will be put into use in class this week.
posted by mumimor at 1:04 PM on September 26, 2021 [3 favorites]

Oops, I just realized I misspelled Ardila’s name in one spot in the top post, if someone could correct it. His name is Ardila-Mantilla , not Arcilla-Mantilla.

Also, I probably should have included a link to the book the article is an excerpt from, “The End of Bias: A Beginning”
posted by sp160n at 1:47 PM on September 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

SFSU is not any kind of powerhouse university.

I know what you mean, but I disagree: we have to get to a place where "successfully launches scientific research careers for students who MIT or even UC would never consider admitting" is part of the definition of "powerhouse university."
posted by escabeche at 2:24 PM on September 26, 2021 [27 favorites]

As someone who teaches mathematical physics, I do have a slight comment on this statement above:
As I was walking to the session, I heard some math instructors complaining that this workshop had nothing to do with teaching math—it was fine for the humanities faculty, but why did the math instructors have to attend? I wish I could send them this article.

I think part of the problem there is that such sessions often do actually have nothing to do with teaching math. Because they are focused instead on the much more obvious concerns that come up in discussion in a rhetoric class, or a psychology class, or etc. That's a flaw in the sessions though -- as this article explains (and as the commenter above seems to already understand) --- STEM classes definitely have cultural concerns. Everything from examples that show up to ways to facilitate group work and group interaction that are nontoxic.

But if the only examples presented are about humanities classes, then of course STEM profs won't think it applies to them. That's fixable-- as this article shows.

So I guess I'm advocating not only showing this article to the STEM faculty, but perhaps even more importantly, to the session designers.
posted by nat at 3:15 PM on September 26, 2021 [21 favorites]

Ardila's teaching methods should become a baseline for education, especially in countries with overwhelming discrimination against other cultures.
posted by bendy at 6:07 PM on September 26, 2021

I really enjoyed reading this article.Wish we have more teachers and professors follow his example to encourage students from different backgrounds to participate in the class discussions and projects.
posted by SunPower at 6:23 PM on September 26, 2021

SFSU is not any kind of powerhouse university.

This should be one of the metrics that is used to distinguish a powerhouse University:
"60 percent of his [Ardila's] students come from ethnic minority groups. Nearly half are first-generation college students."

Also, SFSU "created" ethnic studies.
That's some people power right there! ;)

But yeah, maybe not a powerhouse university in the elite, staid, uptight, traditional sense of the word...
posted by nikoniko at 6:45 PM on September 26, 2021 [8 favorites]

In typical school settings, students who can do well on tests or solve problems quickly are labeled the best
Goodness yes, this was my experience of the last time I ever studies maths, as a teenager. High school mathematics was a set of rote-learned formulae to apply in turn to textbook problems that would be set in exams, and only those problems, in order. I, of course, being a teenager, didn't give a single shit about things that weren't immediately interesting or applicable, so got bumped down into the stupid maths classes—and it's only in my forties that I realise that mathematics is a technology of metaphors (that is, using human language to refer to abstract concepts) rather than simply a meaningless list of memorisable equations of contextless letters. I don't ever recall, for instance, in calculus, being told that the letter delta referred to the concept of change, it was just a letter in a process that didn't have to make sense to be right or wrong.
Math, after all, is personal, emotional. “Anybody who does mathematics knows this...
Absolutely. The entire planet has had a nasty education in statistics over the last two years and the value of R is something we can all feel pretty hard. Maths is legitimately a humanities subject, and should be introduced as such.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:02 PM on September 26, 2021 [10 favorites]

In case anybody missed them in the text of the "first day" PDF, here is the live performance of Quítalo del rincón that he mentions, and here is the version by Carlos Embales.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 7:17 PM on September 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

So much of this is about getting to know your students as people, and making a subject relatable rather than abstract. My high school math texts were full of useless problems like filling up a leaky bucket (plug the leak, you idiot!), and also there was one really bizarre multistep problem, I think on the final exam, about a shooting a bull elephant that charges at you on safari. Like, wtf. I don't remember what math principles were being reinforced by these utterly awful word problems; it's little wonder that I stopped taking math as soon as I could.

Whereas the exercise Ardila-Mantilla did about bringing in a can to illustrate the volume to surface area thing is so simple but brillant. Fantastic demonstration of the intersection of math, marketing, and cultural identity. I bet those students remember the lesson way better than I remember the leaky bucket/bull elephant ones.
posted by basalganglia at 7:27 PM on September 26, 2021 [3 favorites]

SFSU is not any kind of powerhouse university

Probably a large percentage of very intelligent students can't afford a "powerhouse" university. You don't have to be rich or smart to deserve an excellent education.

Probably the perception of the top 100 "powerhouse universities" ignores the fact that there are thousands of other universities that a person can graduate from and lead a happy and successful life.

In my opinion a university where Ardila can be open and upfront about his teaching practices that strive to - and succeed - at giving students an intelligent perspective on culture and bias is absolutely a "powerhouse."
posted by bendy at 10:26 PM on September 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Made those changes, sp160n. To get a moderator's attention quicker, you can flag your comment, or contact us and we can fix things up right away!
posted by taz (staff) at 11:16 PM on September 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

Mathsemantics by Edward MacNeal. It's about how even math-savvy people's math skills go pear-shaped when problems aren't presented on squared paper: they can do 5 + 3 no problem but go south when the task is 5 oranges + 3 apples. The book has a chapter riffing on the results for each question as they move from pure-enough math to real world problems. The eye-opener for me was Q15 "would it affect the number of trips of 500 miles or more which would be made if the local airport were 10 miles further away from the prospective passengers?" of course not, said I [bzzztt]
posted by BobTheScientist at 2:44 AM on September 27, 2021 [5 favorites]

So far I’ve just read the “first day” excerpt, and I’m pretty amazed. There are ideas in there that I would like to try to use, and areas where things and ideas were brought up that I’ve never considered. I’ve been teaching for most of the last twenty years, and I’m embarrassed that, to a good extent, I haven’t really understood how much I make my classrooms a comfortable space for myself, and assume, most likely wrongly, that what’s comfortable for me is comfortable for my students.

It’s something that I’m still working on, and taking way too long to make any real progress, but I am trying to take as much of myself out of the class as I can, but I’m also coming up against some difficult truths about myself in the process, and how suitable I really am for teaching, and if I’m actually providing the best education I can be for my students.

Both the survey responses he provided (especially the student who said they’d stopped attending because they felt it was a waste of time) and the later response, with the student upending things and saying they’ve never felt microaggression as acutely as in this class, it’s not even my class, but I felt gutted to see that. I also get the feeling that this teacher will do and is doing a better job of taking that kind of response as a challenge to do better, where, at least at first, I would likely feel attacked, which, yeah, isn’t what’s needed in that space.

I’m looking forward to digging through the rest of this. There is a ton to learn, and I owe it to my students to become better equipped to handle their needs.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:40 AM on September 27, 2021 [9 favorites]

Mathsemantics is a delightful book, but more exactly, it's about how some people have math problems connected to their ability to make sense, and other people don't.

It's about a test that was part of the hiring process for a company which needed people who could make sense out of math, and what answers people got right and wrong and their explanations of their thinking.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 5:19 AM on September 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

This was an excellent and thought provoking read, thank you.
posted by freethefeet at 5:51 AM on September 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

SFSU is absolutely a powerhouse in placing students from underrepresented groups into PhD programs, at least in my field. They have a research masters program in biomedical sciences that has just amazing placement and completion statistics. Nearly all of their students who enter PhD programs after their research masters go on to complete a PhD. Way, way, higher completion of PhD rates than any other program I'm aware of.
posted by lab.beetle at 8:21 AM on September 27, 2021 [6 favorites]

"How one professor changed the culture of mathmatics for his students some of his students."

[This paper] does not reflect my experience in your classroom and lacks nuance about who gets to safely bring their humanity into the classroom. I faced more sexism and microaggressions in your classroom, than anywhere else during my time at SFSU, but this might just be because I’ve learned how to deal with it now. The more feminine I was, the less I was taken seriously. You’d never notice. As a woman, I do not get to bring my humanity into the classroom and succeed.

As Ardila-Mantilla himself says, it's important not to romanticize the rehumanization of mathematics.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:26 AM on September 27, 2021 [5 favorites]

DarlingBri: It’s a good point, no environment is likely inclusive of everyone, esp as the number and diversity of participants grows. The next paragraph in that quote adds important context:
Even though that class may have been awful for me, you’re onto something really important with the way that you teach. You were the first person in the education system who acknowledged to me that we do not all have the same privileges. I have my own classroom now, and do my absolute best to create a space where my students can engage in mathematics without having to “check themselves at the door,” as you had put it.
If we set the expectation that it’s very hard-to-impossible to make everyone feel included in all situations feedback like that moves from the realm of unwelcome criticism of failure to constructive feedback. It makes it easier for feedback to be given, received, and acted upon. Ultimately the goal is change, and change requires more exchanges like this, and fewer barriers to those conversations.
posted by sp160n at 9:58 AM on September 27, 2021 [4 favorites]

Ghidorah, I just want to let you know that your journey is the journey lots of us educators are on, myself emphatically included.

We learn, we try to do better, some of it sticks. That's what we should expect of ourselves -- not, I hasten to say, immediate (or even eventual) perfection.
posted by humbug at 7:34 PM on September 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

I liked this article and find the feedback from the feminine student really interesting. In my experience, attending an all-girls high school was one of the best things that ever happened to me intellectually. Though I went on to co-ed college and grad school, having my formative years take place in a context where girls were good at everything — sports and math and English and art — and taken seriously in each endeavor gave me a certain reservoir of faith in myself that I drew on quite a lot in subsequent situations. It just laid bare the lies, you know?
posted by dame at 6:31 AM on September 28, 2021 [4 favorites]

Just want to report back from class: I was only able to minimally open the subject, since I still haven't had the time to read the main article for reasons I will complain about on another thread. But after the introduction where I invited all students to bring their own experience and identity into class, and highlighted the differences everyone can see, I could feel a very different (in a good way) atmosphere during supervision hours. I hope to be better prepared next time. For me, as a white woman, addressing questions of class, race and gender in class was very challenging. I was surprised at how positively it was received.
posted by mumimor at 6:11 AM on September 29, 2021 [5 favorites]

What a timely article for me. I am currently in the middle of my student teaching assignment as I prepare to become a high school industrial technology teacher. As I read the article, I thought about how my experience would be different if my cooperating teacher had incorporated some of the strategies Professor Ardila used to start the year. Much of what he writes in his paper is considered best practice for teachers (at least, as it was taught to me), so I didn't feel what he wrote was new but he definitely humanized the results of his pedagogical approach.

As it is, I know how I will be starting my first classes and you can bet it will feel very similar.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 12:32 PM on October 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

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