Friday, October 19, 2012

Teaching math (?maths) is complex

     In the midst of a teaching career in Bloomsburg University I spent a year in an administrative position -- the school needed time to search for a proper provost and I was deemed good enough for the interim.  My good fortune during that year was to work closely with Kalyan, a highly competent man, born in India, who went on (as I did not) to become a college president.  Kalyan and I liked each other and early in the year we shared our views that we were both from "work twice as hard" categories.  That is, a woman or a dark-skinned man needs to work twice as hard as a white man to achieve recognition as the performance-equal of that white man. 
     With my own experience in mind, I am not surprised by an article in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences reporting that identical resumes were rated lower (by faculty raters of both sexes) if they bore the name of a woman. Women must offer more proof -- nearly everywhere, to nearly everyone -- to be accepted.
     My preceding remarks are indirectly related to the poem "Teaching Practice" by British mathematician and poet Michael Bartholomew-Biggs.  In the poem, as in the evaluation of the resumes above, a teacher faces decisions beyond the subject matter, beyond how well the student has learned it.  Teaching is an ultra-complex activity -- requiring not only subject-knowledge but also keen assessment of human nature; we need to see beyond historical and cultural biases and to be fair. 

     Teaching practice     by Michael Bartholomew-Biggs
    
     Suppose that in the first row
     of a year-ten maths class
     there exists a student with a folder
     whose cover sports, in colour,
     an A4 fully-frontal nude.

     Is it necessary and sufficient
     to use only body language
     to eliminate this element?
     Or should there be a formal proof
     to justify its cancellation?

     I’d like you all to pause
     and try this as a worked example.
     Substitute yourself
     into the standard formula
     and see what answer you obtain;
     and then attempt the problem once again,

     with extra data. Let g, the student’s gender,
     equal female; with s, the model’s sex,
     quite positively male. Now in this case
     does your result come out to be the same?
    
This poem is found in Bartholomew-Biggs' collection, Uneasy Relations (Hearing Eye, 2007).   The Anerican-British variation in the abbreviation for mathematics -- I teach math but he teaches maths --  is addressed in this commentary on language.

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