## 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.