Radical Inclusivity

Christopher Danielson encouraged us to seek out what we love and incorporate more of that in our teaching at TMC15. My answer came immediately: radical inclusivity. To me, radical inclusion involves making inclusion into a mathematical learning community the top priority in my classroom. It is based on the idea that a sense of belonging and connectedness is a prerequisite to students’ learning. I think the “radical” part also involves doing something to actively combat the injustices that exist in our world, and not just assuming that the little bubble of warm fuzzies that I create in my classroom are enough.

My paternal grandfather is Hakka, so that makes me Hakka too. The Chinese word Hakka literally means “guest family.” This subgroup of the Han people supposedly migrated to many different places in the world, making a home for themselves in each new place. Maybe I’m reaching too far back in history, but in our family it has always been very important to make others feel welcome in any situation. When hosting a party at our home, we always make 19 times more food than necessary. That’s just what we do. So, it feels natural to do the same in my classroom.

Having served as associate dean for diversity for the last four years at Harvey Mudd College, I have learned so much about diversity and inclusion in higher education, mainly because of my awesome friend and colleague Sumi Pendakur. You can’t “unsee” injustice once you realize it’s there. Those injustices propel me to want to broaden participation in STEM fields and to make my school and classroom as welcoming as possible to every individual.

My message to all educators: not attending to diversity and inclusion concerns in the classroom is the same as allowing your classroom to continue propagating the discrimination and bias that exists in our society. We have to actively combat discrimination and bias in our work as educators. Here are three reasons why.

1. Racism, sexism, classism, ableism (etc) are alive and well in our society. Our students are exposed to it all the time. Our school institutions mirror these practices in their policies and systems. If we don’t do anything, our students will continue to become indoctrinated in those things.

Example: Though we might wish for our world to be meritocratic, it isn’t. People don’t have equal access to opportunities to learn. In most schools, the demographics of “honors” or “advanced” classes don’t match the demographics of the rest of the school or community. Students internalize these patterns of belonging and that shapes their perceptions of themselves and others.

2. We all have implicit biases. They affect our thinking whether we like it or not. (Read this.) If we don’t keep these implicit biases in check, we risk letting them become manifest in our classrooms and cause students to feel alienated or marginalized. And, when students have low self-efficacy of themselves as mathematics learners, it doesn’t take much to make them feel alienated or marginalized.

Example: A few years ago a colleague pointed out that I tended to call on male and female students differently in class. When a male student raised his hand I was more likely to call on him by saying “Yes?” and when a female student raised her hand I was more likely to call on her by saying “Question?” Ack. The fix was simple. Now I just say “What questions, comments, or reactions do you have?” and I acknowledge students by name.

3. I also believe that our job as math teachers is much more than teaching mathematics. We are responsible for educating students about the ways in which our society is not fair and how we individually benefit from unearned privileges. The mission of Harvey Mudd College is to “educate engineers, scientists, and mathematicians well versed in all of these areas and in the humanities and the social sciences so that they may assume leadership in their fields with a clear understanding of the impact of their work on society.” Surely, understanding the impact of their work on society includes understanding who has access to and power in the American education system. This understanding will empower our students to do good in the world so we can multiply the effect of our work beyond our own classrooms.

I have so much more work to do in my own teaching to make my classroom radically inclusive. I think that in the past I had inclusion as a priority, but it wasn’t the top priority. The question I’m asking myself now is, what would it look like if that became the top priority in my teaching and what effect would that have on students?

I’ll be writing more this semester about my attempts to do this in a course on partial differential equations.

5 thoughts on “Radical Inclusivity

  1. Nice post D. I have trouble connecting my two sides: the outside-of-work side which hates “bad-isms” and the work-side which treads water due to massive classes, programs, etc and a general lack of system-wise recognition of the bad-isms (except for sexism I guess) in my national context (Australia).

    Do you or your followers have any thoughts or advice for people working with large (500+ enrolment) classes and/or overall degree programs?

    • I have zero experience with classes that large so I don’t think I can be of much help. I imagine that student-centered instruction can be really difficult to scale up. On the other had, your potential impact on the world is at least one order of magnitude higher!

      Regarding degree programs: when thinking about programs at that level, maybe the question to ask is what outcomes are desired. If your faculty can rally around social justice awareness and involvement, I think that would be super awesome. I’m not sure our own math dept can rally around that outcome.

  2. I’m a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in Math Education. I will be student teaching next semester at a high school. I really liked this post because I love the idea of making sure that a top priority is making a comfortable community for your students for them to learn. This is something I believe in strongly as well and hope to incorporate in my work as a student teacher during my takeover, as well as in my future career as a professional. What are ways I could do this other than self monitoring my own biases and being self aware of them?

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