Working on Feminism in Math Class

My college adviser in math, Professor Bonnie Shulman, has been one of my biggest influences in my math education career. She inspired me as a teacher who could help s35dd7datudents find the excitement and joy that mathematics could bring them. I had entered Bates as a relatively young first year student, definitely over-confident, and with no real idea for what I would do with my life – probably become a doctor since I liked the idea of helping people, and it seemed like it would be a nice challenge. After my first semester, I realized that I really didn’t like chemistry and there would be a lot of chem required for pre-med, it would be hard for me to not major in music after having devoted so much of my life to writing and performing in various ensembles, and most significantly, that math wasn’t just easy for me – it was actually a lot more interesting and fun than I ever gave it credit.

Much of Bonnie’s focus was how to get more girls and women involved in math and science. As I started my teaching career, I made a conscious decision to give all of the girls in my math classes the most encouragement, the highest expectations, and the best future in STEM careers. And I failed miserably. Well, maybe not miserably, but I didn’t have them leaving my class and going straight into prestigious colleges and universities and graduating with math and science degrees. And I was sure the problem wasn’t me, because you know what I found? None of my female students had confidence. At least, that’s what I saw. When I asked a question in class, they didn’t raise their hand. If I called on them anyway, they would mumble, or say they didn’t know. If they did answer, they did so in a questioning voice. And what would I tell them? “Speak up! Speak confidently! Don’t answer with a tone that keeps going up!” And that fixed none of the problems. That is, maybe they would answer in that moment with a louder and less questioning tone, but their lack of confidence hadn’t really changed.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t issues of confidence that these girls had learned over the previous 8, 9, 10, or 11 years of classes before they got to me. And yet, despite my best intentions, all I was doing was pointing out their lack of confidence. Any progress that they were making in improved confidence was incremental, and probably being undone by my pointing out how they weren’t being enough like the male students.

I don’t pretend that I have all the answers now. I still have high expectations for my students, regardless of gender (male, female, trans, non-binary, fluid), and I make every effort to let each student know that I believe in them. But I don’t call on students when they aren’t volunteering. I don’t demand that they answer with confidence. In fact, I now relish the questioning, since doubt allows us to develop deeper and more interesting explorations into the mathematics. And with more time for reflection, I’m sure that I could figure out other things that I do that help.

One thing I do know is that I am surrounded by Dr. Johanna Nelson at SLAC's SSRL synchrotron facilityamazing girls and women in my life, many of whom absolutely love and appreciate math and science (including a large number of my previous students). I am also grateful for having my wife in my life, for many other reasons of course, but for the purpose of this post, because I find myself talking about a woman who is a successful physicist on probably a weekly basis in my classes.

Now, sixteen years after having started my teaching career, I have two (very different) young daughters, and a whole new lens to look through when I think about how I approach my teaching style for my non-male students, and also for my male students. I want to encourage all of the positive behaviors that students can have, regardless of their gender and regardless of gender stereotypes. I also want to remember to meet each student where they are, and to do everything I can to help them see the exciting things that math can tell us about the world and ourselves. Or sometimes, show them how we can just have fun with math.

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