An Inside-Out Course on Number Theory (Pt 7)

Link to previous posts: Pt1 Pt2 Pt3 Pt4 Pt5 Pt6

This blog post consists of guest posts by two of my Claremont Colleges students in this course. I asked all of the students to write a reflection at the end of the class. I gave them the option of sharing their reflection on this blog if they chose to. (I edited slightly to preserve anonymity and to improve clarity for audiences outside of the Claremont Colleges.)

This was an incredible experience! When I first heard of the Inside Out program, I thought that it sounded like an exercise in some kind of savior-dynamics that took advantage of the inside students to create some sort of cultural experience for the outside students. We feel privileged to be able to walk in (and out) of the prison, for the incarcerated students, it is a cursed life. The whole idea of Inside Out left a bad taste in my mouth.

I signed up because (a) the math sounded interesting (b) this was the only course at the Claremont Colleges that related to mathematics education that I had heard of. The Inside Out experience was an added–though sort of undesired–bonus.

After my first week, my perspective had changed. It was clear from day one that all the students in the class were there together to practice math–to grow as students and people. For the first half of the semester certain topics were unheard of. We talked about education: what classes we were in, what our aspirations were. We saw each other as humans, students. We chatted and looked for patterns in numbers, but seldom did we discuss the elephantous divide between us.

At some point in the semester that started to shift. Inside students would drop “I have 6 more years here, so I should be able to get a bachelor’s degree before I get out.” It would be a blip in the morale-o-meter, but we would keep working, ignoring what our minds and hearts were actually telling us.

Around that same time, inside students would ask what we were doing on the weekends and instead of our usual vague “nothing” or “studying” we would let slip that we were going to the beach or to visit our parents or something.

It was around Thanksgiving that I felt like I knew the inside students. I could tell their interest in the math, knew what they were likely to rant about, knew where some of them had in-prison jobs, what their personalities were like. They knew that we would go home at Thanksgiving to family and travel.

By the end of the semester, though we didn’t pry for information, inside students talked about their court dates and hassles. I could almost feel bits of my heart breaking hearing these stories. Leaving the prison, I would shake off the melancholy on long runs on a different type of tax-funded land: national parks. I don’t know if the inside students were fairly tried, if their sentence reflects some guilty crime. That is not what Inside Out asks you to consider (though it crosses my mind). Inside Out asks you to consider seeing people you might not normally encounter and without needing to hear their stories to sit and learn together. To share in our collective humanity by succumbing to the unknown and to a pursuit of thought.

In this case that pursuit was working together to identify patterns, the malleability of numbers, the interesting feats of special cases of numbers (primes / square numbers), and to block new concepts together. What I had thought would be the crux of my Inside Out classroom experience was tangential to learning about beautiful, human relationships and an oppressive, not uplifting system.

As you look back over the problem sets and work that we have done, what are some things that you have enjoyed learning about the most? The way everything we had been learning about in this course came together on the last day of class was close to mind-blowing. It was amazing to feel like I understood encryption from the ground up–what had felt like basic math in previous classes suddenly became important building blocks for a complicated encryption system. This was one of the first times that I felt like I truly understood a complicated concept in math beyond just plugging things into equations.

What were some of the most challenging things that you encountered in this course and how did you face those challenges? I think the most challenging part of this class was the power dynamic between the inside and outside students. Every week the guys I’d work with would assume that because I’m attending the Claremont Colleges that I’d be better at understanding the problem set for the day than they’d be, when in reality, when we got down to it, I was often one of the last people to have it click. Also, I had several conversations where my inside classmates would be surprised that we got class credit for the course because to them it seemed that we were just volunteering. I forget who said this on the last day of class, but someone joked that this class might actually be an anthropology course for the outside students. I think what these guys were picking up on was very real–it feels uncomfortable that I can just choose to take a class in prison to see what prisons and the people inside them are like, and then just leave. A large part of what drew me to this class was the fact that I could learn in an environment I’d never been before and have classmates I normally wouldn’t have, and I think that the guys on the inside could sense that motive. I don’t know how I or anyone else in the Inside Out program can avoid this dynamic.

What have you learned about yourself in relation to mathematics as a result of this course? This is going to sound so corny, but I learned it doesn’t really matter if I’m good at math, it matters that I’m having fun. And I was having fun!! Perhaps another way of looking at it is, if I’m having fun while doing math, it doesn’t mean I’m not learning. This class was the first math class I’ve taken that didn’t make me feel “good” or “bad” at math. I was just doing it and not taking away any personal value judgments from that. This class inspired me to take another related math class next semester.

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