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Mathematics and Stats for Social Justice

This interview was conducted during the 2020-2021 winter break.

Q. How did you transform your teachings to focus on social justice?

...One of the data sets was about military spending. So I had the students make out a map of the world, each country shaded by how much they spend in the military. Or you can do a version where you shade by how much you spend on a military per capita or things like that.

And then they had to write a letter to a congressperson, either saying we need more or less military funding based on the data. We had one [data set] about teacher evaluations and how the student evaluation data can be very biased against female professors and professors from underrepresented groups.

And so I had the student analyze that and it was the first time that I ever had them take on a little bit of implicit bias. So once I started teaching that way, then I started to do research that way. I continue to do some research in peer math, but lately I've been doing more and more research in applied areas.

For example, in the summer of 2019 with some students we wrote a couple of papers about the opioid epidemic in Ohio. So then I was reading all this stuff about epidemiology and about addiction and about policing and which kind of social structures work for helping people who use drugs to get out of a state of addiction versus which social structures are not helping, like throwing people in prison basically doesn't really help.

And then I did some research related to gun violence. So I started a paper about that, that we haven't finished yet. And I did some research on diabetes and things like that. So I've been doing more statistics research. During the summer when we were all under lockdown, I thought, okay, I know a little bit about the epidemiology. Granted, it's the opioid epidemic. It's not a pandemic, but at least I can lead some of these COVID papers and, inform people cause I have a ton of Facebook friends and I like to teach and I'm stuck at home. So I would write these posts that were designed to teach people a little bit. Teach them about whether or not mask wear is going to work, teach them about you know, the importance of social distancing and things like that.

And then over the summer, after George Floyd, then there were all these protests and I thought I know a little bit about police stuff. I can write some posts about which actions by police can be good for communicating with communities who are suffering and which actions by police are bad. Unfortunately, what we saw mostly was bad like tear gassing people. But there is a science of policing that.

If the police were trained in [the science], that they wouldn't have, or if they followed what the science says, they wouldn't tear gas protestors, and they wouldn't show up, right? Those things don't actually work to take the tone of protests down. They make the protest more violent and then you have the escalating cycle of violence.

So in the Fall I was doing more posts about my teaching. I got really interested in trauma informed pedagogy. At one moment there was a scholar strike. So this was back in probably end of August or early September. And a bunch of academics said we should all go on strike for a day.

And so I got in touch with some of my wise colleagues. We have a faculty reading group that meets by zoom every week. And I said to them, what do you think? On the one hand, it's good to have sort of solidarity. We want to model for students what it means to be an informed citizen of a democracy and to have principles. On the other hand, if we just cancel class, students are not going to get the message.

As a collective faculty, the group of us decided to do what's called a teach in. So the notion of a teach in goes back to the sixties at least and probably earlier, but it was one of the parts of the civil rights movement where teachers and professors would actively devote a day of their schedule to a specific issue.

And so in my case, I did a teach in on math and stats for social justice, which is a course that I would love to develop one day. In fact, there are a couple of books now that are doing math for social justice coming out of the Mathematical Association of America and a professor in Pomona, California, Gizem Karaali, she wrote a great book about this. So I'd like to do that, but I'm also interested in statistics for social justice because it's like I already mentioned, we have data on climate change. We have data on police. We have data on systemic bias, right? The median family income for a white family versus the black.

And when students see that kind of inequality and inequity in the data, and then gets to write or to do something about it, like a paper, or we letter do a congressperson or something like that. I think it gets the math across better. They'll better remember the mathematical concept and it also more in line with our mission as a university.

So during this teach in, I talked to them a bit about what I know about that, basically the example I've just given you and it got them using zoom breakout rooms to come up with their own examples of things where they've seen math or statistics and thought, "Oh, this has been used, to kind of push society in a positive direction."

The long, arc that then sort of justice. And so they got to write a bit about that and then share in their groups and share to the whole room.

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