Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity Criteria for College and University Faculty Reappointment and Promotion (continuously updated)

Many colleges and universities say that they value diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI), but don’t always live out those aspirations in their institutional policies and practices. One common place where the rhetoric about DEI and institutional practices deviate is the set of criteria used when evaluating faculty (of all ranks and types) for reappointment and promotion.

As the adage goes, we assess what we care about. If an institution has goals relating to diversity, equity, and inclusivity, then activities that further those goals should be considered, among others, when determining if a faculty member will be recognized, retained or promoted. Moreover, this issue disparately impacts many women faculty and faculty of color, because of the invisible labor that many of us put in to mentor students, revise our courses to incorporate content related to equity and justice, create more welcoming learning environments, serve on committees, etc. If we can get these activities to “count” toward reappointment and promotion, that might help more of us to be retained and recognized at our institutions.

In the United States, the practice of asking candidates for open faculty positions to submit some kind of statement relating to their interests in and efforts on expanding access, inclusivity, diversity, justice, etc., is becoming more widespread. Whether or not you agree with that practice, if your institution asks for such a statement, then presumably certain DEI-related activities are valued by the school. Again, the question is whether those activities count in one’s annual evaluations and/or reappointment and promotion decisions.

At the moment, some of my Mudd colleagues and I are serving on a committee to help our campus revise its faculty notebook language around reappointment and promotion. To prepare for this work, we are looking for examples of colleges and universities who have incorporated DEI-related criteria in their reappointment and promotion procedures.

On this Juneteenth, I’m trying to start a campaign to raise awareness of this issue. At the moment, my idea is to maintain a list of campuses that have incorporated DEI.

If you know of a higher-ed institution that has successfully incorporated DEI-related criteria into its reappointment and promotion policies, please get in touch with me. I would love to speak with the people who helped champion those changes in an effort to spread what was learned around our institutions. I will try to keep some notes from these conversations below.

Link to Spreadsheet: https://bit.ly/DEIRPT
Acknowledgements: Nancy Lape (Harvey Mudd College), Jeff Groves (Harvey Mudd College), Helen Kim (Whitman College), Claire Gibbons (Pierce College), and many others. (Note: If you notice any errors and omissions, please let me know.)

In my conversations with campus leaders at other institutions so far, these are some common themes that have emerged about the process by which those campuses incorporated these DEI-related criteria in their reappointment and promotion policies.

  • The policies and procedures around reappointment and tenure are sacred at many institutions because they get at the heart of what is valued at an institution. These policies and documents are often very difficult to change; usually full vote of the faculty is required to revise these documents. Efforts to change reappointment and promotion criteria to include DEI-related activities seem to be more successful when campus leadership initiate robust and sustained conversations around these topics so that faculty can weigh in and feel greater ownership about proposed changes before voting on them.
  • There are other possible changes to reappointment and promotion policies and procedures besides changing the criteria; for example, hiring practices, policies around leaves, annual assessment mechanisms, etc. Institutions who want to make changes quickly might start at some looking at those issues first before changing reappointment and promotion criteria.
  • Special consideration is needed for pre-tenure faculty and VITAL faculty for whom changes to reappointment and promotion criteria are important and anxiety-producing. Care should be given to how these faculty are able to participate in these conversations.

Favorite time saver: Custom searches in browser address bar

Now for something different: a time-saving tech tip!

Most modern browsers allow for custom searches to be issued right from the address bar. I use these shortcuts many times a day. Read how to set these up at https://www.howtogeek.com/114176/how-to-easily-create-search-plugins-add-any-search-engine-to-your-browser/.

If you find yourself going to the same web site often to perform a certain kind of search, this tip allows you to go to the site and initiate the search in one step. This tip, combined with keyboard shortcuts for opening new tabs (ctrl-T on Chrome) and putting the focus into the address bar (ctrl-L or alt-D), can really speed up your browsing.

Here are some custom browser searches I’ve enabled:

d = google dictionary search

ga = Google Address book

gd = Google docs

gd0 = Google Drive search (acct 0)

gd1 = Google Drive search (acct 1)

gk = Google Keep

map = Google Maps search

scholar = google scholar search

w = wikipedia

y = Youtube search

yelp = yelp in Los Angeles

An Inside-Out Course on Number Theory (Pt 8)

Link to previous posts: Pt1 Pt2 Pt3 Pt4 Pt5 Pt6 Pt7

Last Friday was the final meeting of this class. The outside students from Claremont were not present as it was finals week.

The inside students wanted to do a bit of math and just chit chat. We spent about an hour thinking about Fermat’s theorem on the sum of two squares (the only odd primes that can be written as the sum of squares of two natural numbers are the ones that are one more than a multiple of 4). We wrote out a whole bunch of prime numbers on the board and then we all attempted to write them as the sum of two squares. Then, we looked at our work and tried to figure out which ones could be written as the sum of two squares and which couldn’t. It was pretty satisfying!

After we concluded our work on that problem, we chatted a bit about mathematics and how the students envisioned mathematics being a part of their lives. One student is leaving prison in just a few days. He said that he will be taking more classes to try to finish up his bachelor’s degree. Another student said that he intends to enroll in college when he gets out and work toward a degree in mechanical engineering. Another will parole in a few months and he wants to be a mathematics teacher. The inside students also had a lot of questions for me about what graduate studies in mathematics was like and what kind of research I do, we so chatted about that.

It was intensely sad to say goodbye. I really enjoyed spending time with each and every person in this course and we got to know each other in a way that rarely happens in my usual math classes.

In retrospect, I think the thing that I will take away the most is the way that this particular pedagogical approach (working in groups with very little direct instruction, letting students’ interests drive the course) felt so right for this setting (a course with both traditional college students and incarcerated students in a prison). It felt re-humanizing, joyful, and fun. My thoughts now turn to why I’m not also using similar strategies in my usual Harvey Mudd College classes.

What’s next for Inside Out at the Claremont Colleges? One unfortunate issue about our Inside Out program at the Claremont Colleges is that we’re limited right now by who is trained to teach Inside Out and who is available in any given semester. (For me, teaching Inside Out was something that I did on top of my regular teaching load, but others are able to get their Inside Out course counted as part of their regular teaching load.) The consequence is that the courses form a strange patchwork of unrelated courses.

One exciting development is that the Claremont Colleges are working toward the ability to offer inside students a bachelor’s degree in organizational studies starting next fall. The reason for the choice of organizational studies is that a community college that also is working in this facility is offering several associates degrees in psychology, politics, and business. So, this organizational studies BA would build on all three of those pathways nicely.

It would be great to be able to offer more advanced mathematics courses, but both sides of the supply and demand for such courses is not robust enough. So, for now, I will look forward to the next time that I get to offer this class again inside.

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.

An Inside-Out Course on Number Theory (Pt 6)

Link to previous posts: Pt1 Pt2 Pt3 Pt4 Pt5

A lot of feelings today, which was the day of our last class in which both outside (Claremont) students and inside (incarcerated) students were together. Next week is finals week for our students, so our outside students don’t attend class.

We were able to successfully get through all of the mathematical machinery that we needed to understand the RSA cryptosystem, and we spent the day going through some examples, encrypting and decrypting messages (for very small numbers, since we only had four-function calculators). Fun times! It felt so satisfying that RSA was such a nice way to tie together everything that we had been doing. I had no idea that this was going to be the “goal” of the class when we set out. It was an off-comment that I made one day about how number theory can be used in cryptography that seemed to be interesting to students, and so I plotted a course for us to end with RSA.

But the most meaningful moment today was this: One of our inside students has not been able to attend class for the last few days because he was reassigned to some other kind of vocational class (against his will) that met at the same time as our class. Nevertheless, we have been exchanging work so he has been keeping up with the class. Today, in his packet of work he included a written reflection and a note that he wanted me to share it with the whole class.

In this reflection, he explained that he originally signed up for a lot of classes but didn’t get into any of them except this number theory course. He was not excited about it. He said that he avoids social contact with anyone and considers it a good thing if he can get through an entire day without talking to anyone. Coming to this class and being forced to work with other people was initially a big challenge for him. But, over time, he found the interactions with other students really enjoyable and he grew to love coming to class and working with others. He concluded his reflection by thanking all of us in the class for helping him grow mathematically and also socially. Was hard to read his reflection today without crying.

The outside students said their goodbyes to the inside students and vice versa. They shared their appreciations for each other. One guy on the inside thanked us for helping to restore his faith in people “on the outside” because we interacted with him as fellow human beings.

So many feels today. Next week will be my last week with the guys inside.

An Inside-Out Course on Number Theory (Pt 5)

Link to previous posts: Pt1 Pt2 Pt3 Pt4

Class is going really well, at least from a mathematical perspective. Next week is our last class meeting and we are on track to be able to wrap up the whole class in which we use all of the tools that we’ve been building up over the entire semester to explain how the RSA cryptosystem works. (This book by my colleague Mohamed Omar has been super helpful.)

Today, we took care of the final two mathematical tools that we’ll need to understand the RSA cryptosystem.

(1) We learned about how to use the Euclidean Algorithm to find the greatest common divisors between any two numbers. The students were particularly enamored with the “square-cutting” visual (see below) that I learned from Bowen Kerins as we have co-taught the math course for the Teacher Leadership Program at IAS/Park City Mathematics Institute.

(See http://projects.ias.edu/pcmi/hstp/sum2018/morning/darryl/day03-summary-notes.pdf for an animated version.)

(2) We also learned how to solve problems of the form “ax=1 in mod n”. We learned the conditions under which such problems will have a solution.

And, a few students got to the fun part, which is that while (1) and (2) seem unrelated, it turns out that you can use (1) to help you find the answer to (2).

Finally, I just got a copy of Mathematical Outreach: Explorations in Social Justice Around the Globe, edited by Hector Rosario. In it, Robert Scott makes some great observations about teaching mathematics in prisons. One quote has been resonating in my head since I read it:

“A math pedagogy premised upon following the rules, accepting that there is only one right answer, and relying on practice/repetition in order to habituate oneself to pre-determined axioms would seem to reprise the culture of incarceration itself.”

Robert Scott, “Math Instructors’ Critical Reflections on Teaching in Prison”, page 213 of Mathematical Outreach: Explorations in Social Justice Around the Globe, edited by Hector Rosario, 2020

An Inside-Out Course on Number Theory (Pt 4)

Link to previous posts: Pt1 Pt2 Pt3

Not all of the staff who work in prisons are supportive of prison education programs. This can pose challenges for anyone who teaches inside a correctional facility.

I have a colleague from the Claremont Colleges who teaches at the same time that I do, in an adjoining classroom at CRC. Both of us had a new correctional officer (CO) overseeing our two classes last Friday. This week, that CO made several allegations about us to the warden, including a claim that our students were passing their phone numbers to the inside students and touching/hugging them in class. These allegations are completely false, but have caused quite a bit of trouble for us.

Normally, the CO has very little interaction with our class. The CO unlocks a gate and lets us all into a small compound with several “portables” where classes are held. The CO usually never comes into the classroom during class. The CO comes in at the end of the class to dismiss the incarcerated students. Since the CO does not watch us interacting with each other, there would be no way for the CO to make these kinds of allegations.

Last week, I asked this new CO to watch my class for a few minutes as I needed to turn in my attendance sheet to an administrator in the next portable building. I was gone for no more than a few minutes. During that time, my students were working in small groups on some mathematical tasks. When I came back, they were still working. The CO said nothing to us at that point. We only learned about the allegations afterwards from our Justice Education program coordinator, who had been helping to diffuse the situation.

I have absolutely no doubt that everyone conducted themselves appropriately while I stepped out of my class, just as they have during every other class so far. No one passed each other phone numbers or hugged during that time. Why in the world would they do that when a CO was present? Yet, I have no way to prove that they didn’t do so.

When the CO lodged these complaints to her warden, she didn’t say whether it happened in my class or in my colleague’s class. Either way, neither of us allowed anything inappropriate to happen. I have no idea why this CO would make these allegations. Perhaps she was genuinely concerned about our safety (we have been told repeatedly that these guys are smart and are master manipulators), but I wonder if maybe she just doesn’t want us to be there. One inside student explained it to me this way today: some people who work at the prison are angry that incarcerated students are getting these college classes for free when their own children don’t get those classes for free. I can see why some people might find that jarring, but it’s a rather short-sighted view to take on incarceration and education.

As it’s the day after Thanksgiving here in the U.S. today, our regular college classes are not in session. But, my colleague and I went to the prison anyway. As one incarcerated student said, “Of course we’ll be there on Friday [after Thanksgiving], It’s not like I have other places to go to or things to do!”

I had brought some donuts for the incarcerated students (that is what they wanted), but due to some trouble with paperwork, they wouldn’t let me bring in the donuts. That was a big disappointment for both me and the inside students.

The absence of donuts and the allegations by the CO sparked a vigorous discussion today about prisons. Many of the guys shared how they feel aggrieved by the criminal justice system and the prison staff. Some expressed a deep distrust and skepticism that things will ever change for the better. To them, the prison industrial complex is a system that reproduces itself through nepotism and relies on people re-offending and returning to prison–there are few incentives for the system to reduce recidivism.

And yet, we still did great math today and shared a lot of laughs. That joy melted together with other feelings: the frustration of being donut-stymied, the anger of being accused of something we didn’t do, and my gratitude for the stories that had been shared.

An Inside-Out Course on Number Theory (Pt 3)

Link to previous posts: Pt1 Pt2

I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching about this Inside Out course lately because of a growing dissatisfaction that I’m having about the class and also that some students are expressing.

One of the things I really wanted to do was to create a mathematics class that rehumanizes rather than dehumanizes, and I think that while students are generally feeling very positive about the class, I do feel like I am slipping into prior habits about teaching mathematics.

In previous class sessions, we have been sitting in four groups of 4-5 students and I have been visibly randomly assigning students to the groups for the purpose of having students work with each other and recognize each others’ mathematical talents.

This past Friday, one of my students suggested that we sit in one large circle instead of smaller groups. The result of that was that students generally still worked with the people that they happened to sit next to (there were still about 5 6 clumps of people) but there was also a small number of students who were quicker than the rest in making mathematical connections who were talking across the whole room. That increased interaction added another layer to the small group interactions because it helped to spread ideas faster across the room. It also, however, had the effect of reinforcing a particular kind of mathematical competence in the classroom–the kind where mathematical competence is associated with being quick or fast at getting answers. And, that is something that I’m really trying hard to break away from–I want students to be able to see themselves as being mathematical brilliant in lots of different ways, not just being quick and fast.

I cannot blame this narrow view of mathematical competence on this large circle classroom arrangement. Certainly a lot of it comes from the larger society and the way that many of us learn mathematics in schools–we are taught to value speed and accuracy and to associate that as being smart. But, I also take responsibility in the way that I have been designing the tasks that students are doing.

The materials I’ve been creating for this Introduction to Number Theory are derived from the 2009 Park City Mathematics Institute Teacher Leadership Program morning mathematics class (book version). Because of the mathematical preparation level of the students in the course, I have removed many pieces of the original PCMI course materials so that the main thrust of the work that we’ve been doing has been to tabulate various number-theoretic functions, determining if they are multiplicative or not, and looking for patterns.

The problems in and of themselves, are not group worthy. They can be done by individuals working on their own, and they are presented in numerical order so there is a sense of completing problems in a sequence, one by one. The design of the materials, therefore, reinforces the very thing that I am trying to avoid: a perspective on mathematical competence that values speed and accuracy. Some students in the class get farther along than others in the course, and it’s become clear who those students are. Other students turn to those students for help, which is great, but I don’t see the reverse happening as often.

At the end of each class, I have been spending about 15 minutes in a whole-group discussion in which students share out their mathematical observations and questions, and give gratitude to each other. I was trying to steer students in pointing out the different ways that we all are mathematically competent. Most of the comments lately have been along the lines of “I’m really grateful to XX for explaining YY to me so clearly.”

All of this is really not germane to teaching a course in a prison; this kind of thing happens in math classrooms all around the world. I’m hyper-focused on creating a more humanizing course mainly because I’m teaching in what might be the ultimate dehumanizing environment: a prison. But, the reality is that we need to work toward more rehumanizing classrooms all around the world.

So, what to do? One way to make a classroom more rehumanizing is to listen to your students and find out what they want and need. I did that last Friday by asking them to answer three questions anonymously: (1) What mathematical connections are you still wondering about in this class? (2) What can I (your instructor) do to make this class more awesome? (3) What can you do to make this class more awesome?

Generally, students’ comments about the class were positive. However, there were some comments about the course feeling repetitive (we keep doing the same kind of activity over and over again) and people wondering what the point of this mathematics is. Both of those I will try to address in this Friday’s class. Not sure yet how as it’s only Tuesday. 🙂 Stay tuned.

Another thing that I have heard from students in this facility is that there are other mathematics courses that are being offered by a local community college, but they are often very introductory courses. Some students are ready for and are yearning for more advanced courses. I have inadvertently compounded this problem by adding yet another introductory course (in number theory), because I assumed that there were students who would not be ready to dive more deeply into mathematics. There definitely are students whose mathematical preparation is not sufficient for them to dive as deeply into this course as I originally intended, but then they are others who are ready for this course and more.

I think I will need to be rethink the course a bit. I will probably shift the course material away from the PCMI materials and incorporate other materials related to number theory. I will need to include more practical applications uses of the mathematics that we’re learning. And finally, I think I will need to more explicitly address the idea of mathematical competencies, perhaps by providing a partial list of the ways that students have been mathematically brilliant in the class.

An Inside-Out Course on Number Theory (Pt 2)

Link to previous post: Pt1

Teaching a math course inside of a prison is surprisingly unremarkable. Once we get into the classroom and starting doing mathematics, it’s easy to forget that you’re in a prison. We’re just a bunch of people learning mathematics together.

There are only several real complications I’ve encountered so far: (1) logistics, (2) limits on what we can learn about each other, and (3) much greater heterogeneity in my students’ prior experiences with and attitudes toward mathematics.

There are some significant logistical issues to figure out. My “outside students” and I have to drive from our campus to the prison each week (costs covered by Harvey Mudd College), make sure we’re dressed accordingly, don’t have cell phones or any other contraband, have proper identification, and follow any rules dictated by the prison.

There are some limits on what we can learn about each other. My outside students and I never ask for sensitive information from our inside students: the length of their sentences, what they did to wind up in prison, etc. It’s wonderful if an inside student choose to share that kind of information, but we don’t inquire. Both the inside and outside students are asked not to use their last names in this class. This is so that outside students aren’t tempted to look up information about the inside students, and the inside students don’t continue having a personal relationship with the outside students after the course is over (a rule of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program).

This past week, I was reminded about the great heterogeneity of mathematical experience that exists in our classroom. As you can imagine in any group of adults, there were are some people with positive attitudes toward mathematics, and some with negative views. Some of these stories came out during our first class meeting when we shared our experiences with each other about mathematics.

This past Friday, I got a bit of a shock. A student asked me, “What’s that little number next to that number?” He had not seen an exponent before. I was taken aback, not by his lack of experience with exponents, but that I had been so oblivious to that up to this point. There have been some exponents that have appeared in the course materials so far, but this question didn’t come up yet. We quickly talked about exponents and the student was fine and continued working. But, I was a bit shocked and still am a bit unsettled.

In the description for this number theory course, I wrote that some fluency with high school algebra would be required. It could be that some people are taking the class anyway, even if they aren’t fluent with high school algebra. Or it could be that some students have taken high school algebra in the past but have forgotten it. Either way, the reality is that there are students in this course that have very different experiences with mathematics. Some are just (re)learning about exponents and others are making sophisticated connections about what they’re learning. It’s my job as the instructor to make sure that we are all learning mathematics together regardless of our prior experiences; that is a pretty big challenge, however.

Other complications I’ve experienced so far are not germane to teaching Inside-Out. For example, if a student misses a class, I have to find ways to help them find out what they missed so that they can participate in class. My outside students and inside students have both missed classes for various reasons. Outside students have missed class due to illness or travel. Inside students sometimes cannot come to class because their dormitories are on “lock down” during our class.

There is one more significant difference between teaching courses at the Harvey Mudd and teaching through the Inside Out program. The pedagogy that we use in this course is quite different. As I mentioned in the first part of this post, I am not lecturing in this course. We do mathematics together through carefully sequenced problem sets that take into account what we learn during each class meeting and what students are wondering about. I do enjoy teaching in this way and wish that more of my Mudd courses could be taught this way. The pressure of having to “cover” a pre-determined body of material in a prescribed amount of time prevents me from fully teaching in this problem-based approach. One day, I would like to figure out how to teach in this humane way in my Mudd courses.

An Inside-Out Course on Number Theory (Pt 1)

This semester, I’m teaching a course entitled “Introduction to Number Theory” through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. In short, what that means is that every Friday, I take a group of students from the Claremont Colleges (the “outside students”) with me to the California Rehabilitation Center to join 15 incarcerated students (the “inside” students) in learning some introductory topics in number theory.

The California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) is a medium-security state prison for men, located in Norco, California. Here’s a painting of CRC by Sandow Birk (held by the Pomona College Museum of Art).

“For [this] project I visited every one of California’s 33 state prisons and painted a picture of them. The idea was about the changes that California has gone through over its 150 years–from being seen in the 1850’s as an American Eden, where you could go west and dig out gold out of the ground and eat the oranges from the trees and it was always sunny and warm and you could strike it rich, to becoming the most incarcerated population on Earth. It’s shocking. And the more you learn about prisons the more nasty it all becomes.” — Sandow Birk

For over 20 years, the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, based at Temple University, has brought campus-based college students with incarcerated students for semester-long courses held in a prison, jail or other correctional setting all around the world. What I appreciate most about the organization is the way it approaches education as a collaborative endeavor and not one in which higher education professors and students go to a carceral organization to “help inmates” out of a sense of volunteerism or charity. Our local Inside Out program was started by Pitzer College and is run in part by a group of incarcerated men at CRC who make up our “Think Tank”. The truth is that I and the Claremont Colleges outside students are learning just as much as inside students are, if not more.

How are students selected? All students (inside and outside) are asked to fill out a questionnaire to find out why students want to take this course and what they hope to gain from the experience. There are several Inside Out courses that the Claremont Colleges offer each semester, and all of us instructors figure out how to allow the greatest number of students as possible to take our courses.

What are the goals of this course? While I do want students in this course to learn some interesting mathematics, the underlying goal of this course is for students to learn something about themselves and others through doing mathematics with each other. In particular, I am hoping that students in this class will have a more nuanced and complete understanding of what it means to be mathematically brilliant so that they can recognize that in themselves and others. This is one of the ways that I am hoping to create a rehumanizing mathematical experience for me and my students.

What is the course like? The Inside-Out Program is very particular about the kind of pedagogy we are to use. Lecture-based courses don’t provide for the kind of mutual engagement and co-learning that the program is trying to encourage. Therefore, I’ve structured my course using materials based off of my work with Bowen Kerins, Al Cuoco, Glenn Stevens in 2009 at the IAS/Park City Mathematics Institute Teacher Leadership Program.

On the first day, I tell students that this course is likely to be very different from any other mathematics course they’ve taken. The class is designed so that students learn from and with each other, not directly from me; I spend almost no time lecturing. Instead, the students work in small groups on a set of mathematical tasks during each class period. I’ve designed the tasks to pique curiosity and encourage students to make conjectures and look for patterns—in other words, the tasks are designed to engage students in doing mathematics the way that professional mathematicians do mathematics.

We basically spend almost all two hours of our time together doing math. I interrupt the work from time to time to facilitate students sharing their observations with each other. We close out the time by having a whole-class discussion and share-out about the (1) questions that we’re still wondering about, (2) interesting mathematical observations that we made, and (3) our gratitude toward one another for the contributions that they made to our learning.

Why number theory? Number theory is a wonderful area of mathematics that has a low threshold for entry and high ceiling for exploration. I have designed the course materials so that only experience with high school Algebra is required. Also, I am not at all an expert in number theory, so that allows me to approach things with a fresh perspective and to be surprised along with my students.

What’s it been like so far? We’ve already had four class sessions. We started by looking at the divisors of numbers and we’re currently thinking about modular arithmetic. Both the inside and outside students have been fantastic. Everyone seems to be deeply engaged in the mathematics and in working with each other.

Ideally, I would have had an equal number of inside and outside students, but right now I have 4 outside students and 15 inside students. We have been arranging ourselves in four groups of 4-5 students. This has worked out really well so far.

Unpredictable things happen all the time that prevent people from attending class. For example, during the first class session, parts of the prison were on lock-down so some students were not able to get to class. I have to be flexible and find ways to fold in students when they are able to attend class.

I hope to write more about my experiences throughout this semester. These are just some preliminary thoughts that I wanted to jot down.

This teaching and learning experience would not be possible without (1) the training and support I received in May 2018 from the Inside-Out Program, (2) support from administrators at the CRC, (3) the amazing students that are currently in the course, (4) and logistical support from the Claremont Colleges, made possible in part by a grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

Next… Part 2