Are you qualified to judge schools and teachers?

I have a few hard-and-fast rules in my life. Exfoliate daily and wear sunscreen is one of them. Another one is never fight about social issues with people on the internet – especially people I don't know. But hell, rules were made to be broken (occasionally). And so it was that I spent a useless 90 minutes fighting online this weekend. 90 minutes that I can never get back, and that I might otherwise have used to exfoliate and apply sunscreen.

What was I fighting about? Education, of course! Who did I fight with? Parents, of course!

Tom Nichols, with whom I do not always agree, has written about "The Death of Expertise." And in this case, I do agree with much of what he says. Climate-change deniers and anti-vaccinators have gotten traction in part because we have a modern, collective, destructive idea that everyone is entitled to her/his opinion irrespective of facts and evidence. Nichols clarifies his thesis, stating "I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields." You know who else is comparable to doctors, lawyers, and engineers, in terms of having specialized knowledge? Teachers and school administrators. Sadly, there is an active group of people in this country – I am not sure of its size – who are quite happy to deny it.

Here's my view on parental involvement in schools. Unless you have training in pedagogy, curriculum, public administration, or public policy, you should basically shut up and not meddle with what schools and school systems are doing. Some of you are already irate, saying "what about a teacher who abuses their students," or "what about a school district that is corrupt and has a superintendent who embezzles hundreds of thousands of dollars for Hawaiian cruises and sports cars." Obviously, I am not talking about these extreme cases. Also, for the record, I am not talking about lobbying schools to follow through on services that they promise to offer, and/or are legally obligated to offer. Those are important services.

What I am talking about is the 99.9% of schools in this country that are staffed by well-intentioned and trained administrators and teachers, but who nonetheless deal with a barrage of parental lobbying for adding programs, subtracting programs, changing teachers, changing pedagogies, changing curricula, not changing curricula, and so forth.

Here are two things that set me off this weekend. First: this article. The schtick is that – oh no – one eighth grader's schedule looks unappealing to his father. The article's author is very happy to support and amplify the father's view. I encourage you to read this article (despite the clicks it will yield this piece of claptrap) and consider the following questions:

  1. Can you tell what a course will include by its one-word title?
  2. Can you tell how effective an instructor will be by a course's one-word title?
  3. What is gained and lost by having a schedule that cultivates persistent effort on core subjects? (There are empirical answers to this question. Opinions don't matter.)
  4. Is it obvious that "Google Hacks" is an awesome opportunity that we should be all be pursuing for our kids?
  5. What is the basis of expertise on which the father is qualified to judge this schedule?

My questions certainly don't constitute proof that the boy's educational experience is good, but I think, or at least hope, that they lead you to believe that the published article is basically non-information. None of us, including the father (unless he has a whole lot of additional information that he did not mention in the article) are in a position to judge the quality of the educational experience from the meager evidence provided.

Here's the second thing that set met off: a Facebook debate (I know... I am smacking my head repeatedly for getting caught up) about pushing a school to offer more resources to gifted kids. You know who thinks their kids are gifted? Many upper-middle-class (and usually white) parents I know. You know what else? I do not like the designation "gifted." Not one tiny bit. It communicates intelligence as a fixed characteristic. I stand more with scholars like Carol Dweck of Stanford, whose years of psychology research say, basically, that it is very hard to know the innate limits of a kid's intellectual potential, that few-to-no kids are even approaching their limits, and that what we need to do is instill a growth mindset in ALL students that teaches them they can learn through persistent effort. What effect does the typical conversation about giftedness have on kids who do have high early childhood achievement? What effect does it have, god help us, on those who do not?

In the course of this debate, a smart and savvy friend very fairly asked me: "what would you tell your daughter if she were bored in school?" Here's my answer, which is easy for me to say, I admit, because she isn't bored in school. First, I would tell her she could be using some of her time and effort to find a socially and interpersonally appropriate way to help peers who were struggling. Second, I would tell her that if she is so awesome that she is bored, she should use some of her awesomeness to figure out how to cultivate interest on her own. For example, for school kids identified as math whizzes, the vast majority of them cannot explain why 1 +1 = 2. To do so requires a bit of advanced math that most young math whizzes do not have at their fingertips. In short, if your kid is so gifted that they are truly, massively, completely bored in school, they might also be gifted enough to find a way of not being bored by always asking themselves "why?" at deeper and deeper levels.

I wish parents would stop lobbying and pressuring our school systems. There are two reasons for this. First, teachers and administrators are experts. They have specialized training that qualifies them to do what they do. Second, and crucially, they have a bird's-eye, institutional view of their classes and schools that you do not and you cannot.

I get the instinct to advocate for your kid. It comes from a good place, and I am glad we have parents who care about their kids. But when you start tampering with the school system, you are likely messing with what the system has carefully determined is an optimal allocation of resources. School is not there to do the best for your kid. There. I said it. School is there to do the best it can for a big messy collection of kids who often have competing needs. Sure, maybe you and your kid want more gifted and talented services. But in an under-funded system, what other part of the system is going to pay the price? Can you find it in yourself to trust the system to serve the collective good? Or is your kid more important than other kids? Do you even actually know what is best for your own kid, or do you just think you do? Being a parent does not make you an expert in, say, learning theory, even if you think you know how your kid learns.

In short, don't make judgments about school unless you have real expertise that qualifies you to do so.  And here's a thought: what if instead of telling teachers and schools "do what's best for my kid," we supported them to do what optimizes the collective good?

My not-R1 research life

In which Chad puts on public display some of his worst human qualities: insecurity, narcissism, bitchiness, the tendency to generalize from anecdotal experience, and self-pity over academic problems that are fairly one-percenty.

For the typical college or university faculty member, most of one’s work consists of teaching and research. The relative proportions of effort spent on these endeavors depends to a large degree on one’s institution, to some extent on one’s departmental culture, and to the degree possible, on one’s personal preferences. In my own field of mathematics (but I suspect in others as well), there’s an ambient and vague or sometimes not-so-vague notion that research is higher on the pecking order. This bugs me. People who consider research their primary avocation should be grateful to those who devote time and passion to training students at all levels. Sometimes the prejudice goes the reverse way, though, so I must also say that people who are primarily teachers should be grateful for the world of research, which stimulates and guides what we can and should teach to our students.

I work at Macalester College, a liberal arts college in Minnesota. My own ideal balance between research and teaching is approximately 50/50, with wiggle room in either direction. Those of you in academia will recognize that it’s fairly difficult to find an institution where one can strike this balance. Many research institutions find me far too teaching-y. And for my tastes, many institutions that have teaching as their primary mission have teaching loads so intensive that they would really preclude my preferred minimal pace of research. I feel very lucky to be at Macalester where, while I don’t strike my ideal balance with bull’s-eye precision, I come pretty damn close.

In the following anecdote, I’m going to anonymize some information because I don’t want the other party to be identifiable. At the time I’m writing this blog post, I’m at a conference. A dude from the U.S. Department of X, who may well have had good intentions, looked at my name tag and said "Macalester College... I think I've heard of that before" (he then proceeded to confuse it with Carleton College). I looked at his name tag, looked him in the eye, and said "Oh yeah, Department of X… I'm not sure I... oh, wait I think I might have heard of that once."

Many of us at liberal arts colleges have to constantly fight uphill for legitimacy in the world of research. I swear I am not just having a chip on my shoulder here. My lived experience is that people at big universities, research institutes, think tanks, governments, etc. tend to assume I don't know anything mathematical because I am not at a huge name school. Now here’s where I will be slightly obnoxious. I actually do have a research profile. I mean, I am not winning a Fields Medal or Abel Prize anytime soon ever, but I've had continuous grant funding since 2006, I publish papers in good journals, I have won a few very modest research prizes and honors here and there, and my papers even get cited... sometimes a lot.

Let’s get back to the chip that is, or is not, on my shoulder. I am curious to know if others out there feel like I do. Because when I go to conferences, I feel like I see it happen in real time. People look at me, look at my nametag, read the info, register a “huh?” on their face, and then move on to the next guy (and yes, the next one is usually a guy). Also, if we want to move up to the large sample size of n = 2, a former student of mine in an excellent Ph.D. program reported to me that an undergrad said to them “nobody should ever go to a small liberal arts college if they actually want to be a scientist.”

Being dismissed in research settings is annoying not because I think research is somehow globally more important than teaching and thus feel slighted, but rather because I, for a wide variety of reasons, have chosen to devote half of my professional efforts to it. I perceive inherent privilege in being at an R1 school.

In case you are not someone who thinks about privilege a lot, let me interpret. It's not that I don't have people who respect me and my work. I do. But the most common default assumption an academic stranger makes about me is that I have no research chops, whereas the default assumption about an R1 researcher is that s/he has a good research profile. As far as privilege deficits go, I fully admit that this is a tiny one. I am a white, male, cisgender, able-bodied, upper-middle-class, educated guy. I don't have a lot of inherent privilege deficits. I recognize what the cosmic role of dice has given me. Still, while I can put my minor challenges in perspective, they are still my challenges. Even though I am not at a research institution, like most scholars, I just want to interface with others, share my ideas, hear their ideas, and forge connections and collaborations so that I can make better contributions to the world.

Women in Math, but not on the AMS Notices cover

I've written about representation of women in math so many times (here's my favorite) that I am actually getting tired of hearing myself on this subject. But I feel compelled to note that the June/July 2015 cover of the American Mathematical Society Notices is covered with 13 photos depicting mathematicians all of whom present as male, and most of whom present as white. They are featured because of their association in a particular mathematics project. I am sure they are lovely people, and brilliant too. But what message is the AMS sending by making the totally voluntary choice to devote their cover to these images?


American Mathematical Society / Math in Moscow

Readers who are AMS members: I hope you will help protect the rights of sexual minorities by writing the AMS about this issue (below). You are welcome to use/adapt the text of my letter if you wish.

Dear American Mathematical Society,

To my dismay, I just opened up the April Notices to see a full 1/2 page devoted to the Math in Moscow program, with this announcement directly credited to the AMS Membership and Programs Department. As you probably know, human rights offenses against LGBT people are now state-sanctioned in Russia.

I know that with regards to AMS meetings, the policy is:

"The Council of the American Mathematical Society wishes to reaffirm the commitment of the Society to the human rights of mathematicians. The Society bears a particular responsibility to provide the participants at meetings of the Society with an environment which is supportive of these rights.

Therefore, the Council resolves that the AMS will make every reasonable effort to schedule its meetings in localities which respect the participants' human rights, including freedom from discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, religion, age, sexual orientation, or disability."

Does this policy extend to other activities besides AMS meetings? To me, it seems difficult to claim support of AMS members' rights and yet at the same time be actively pushing a program in Russia. What's even more concerning to me is that the audience for the Math in Moscow program is young people, and they might be less well-equipped to understand the risks they are undertaking when traveling to Russia.

I hope the AMS will consider ceasing its support for this program. What would be even better is if in doing so, the AMS could use its voice to further protect its members by loudly and actively speaking out against the human rights offenses against sexual minorities in Russia.

Chad Topaz

Metaphors for learning

This post will be both ironic and trite. Ironic, because I am going to use a team sports metaphor in relation to learning, when I in fact have never been a team sports guy (I am a cardio and yoga guy). Trite, because thousands of people before me have used team sports metaphors in relation to learning.

Nonetheless, indulge me.

Here at Macalester College, our semester starts this week. As many faculty do every term, I am thinking about how to strike the right opening chord with my students. While I believe that teaching them math is important, my experience at a liberal arts college has convinced me that my even greater charge (a superset, if you will) is to teach them something about how to learn. This semester, I decided that to add on to my previous efforts, I should show an incredibly clear visual image on the first day of class that encapsulates the most important messages I have for my students. Here is my attempt.

A colleague of mine recently coined the brilliant term "anectotally," meaning, essentially, "with vehement conviction based on my completely anecdotal evidence." So anectotally speaking, most students begin my class subscribing to a metaphor for learning like the lefthand image in the link above. (Anectotally, and perhaps without realizing it, some faculty subscribe to this as well.) The professor is the bottle of water, each student is a glass, and learning takes place by the professor pouring knowledge (typically, via lecture) into the students. If learning is unsuccessful, it is either because the bottle isn't full enough or the glass isn't big enough.

Thanks to learning science research, we now know that this is not really an appropriate metaphor. The components of a successful learning environment are not a mystery. A wonderful, free book from the National Academies takes a scientific look at how people learn from multiple disciplinary perspectives. A wonderful chapter in that book discusses the design of learning environments. In the future, I'll post in much more detail about this topic. But for now, let me move on to the right-hand image on my slide.

I think a more effective metaphor -- and one that is anectotally surprising to many students -- is that of an athletics team. In the pouring water metaphor, the professor is the main attraction, providing the knowledge. In the team athletics metaphor, the student team is the main attraction. The professor is a coach who is not even always visible. In the pouring water metaphor, the student acquires knowledge passively. In the team athletics metaphor, the students are in action, sometimes as individuals and often as a cooperative group. The team is often on its own, only occasionally receiving guidance from the coach. The coach scaffolds an athletic experience, but the players go through the training regimen and play the game themselves. It is the players' hard work and dedication that are arguably the determining factors for success.

There are certainly many subtleties to this metaphor, and it should not be used too casually. But I am trying to go for simplicity-in-messaging on the first day of class.

Faculty and students, based on your anectotal evidence, what do you think is an apt metaphor for learning?

Am I crazypants?

I'm writing from 30,000 feet, en route back home from the SIAM Annual Meeting. And more specifically, I'm writing to follow up on this post.

I had the opportunity to speak with a number of people at the conference... some involved in the selection of SIAM Fellows, some not. Regardless of whom I was talking to, I was really struck by how unpopular my own particular ideas about diversity seem to be... even with those folks who are active about such issues.

Here are two things I experienced.

1. Most people I spoke with feel that the solution to the problem of insufficient diversity amongst the Fellows is to get SIAM members to nominate more women and minorities. I somewhat disagree. I think this is an important part of the solution, but not the whole solution. I would like to see SIAM (the SIAM governance, that is) work actively to increase diversity rather than just say "we just need to encourage more members," which strikes me as punting. Many people pushed back directly against my contention, though.

2. Most people I spoke with believe (as communicated through implicit or explicit statements) that the make-up of the Fellows should proportionally represent the field at large. I stringently disagree. I want to see my professional society's Fellows have a more diverse make-up than the field. This way, the field at large gets sent a message. The choice of fellows is aspirational, from a diversity standpoint. In short: SIAM should lead, not follow. When I said this to people, I frequently got the pushback "we can't lower the standards for Fellows" which I find to be extremely offensive. I believe there are way more people qualified to be Fellows than there are slots for Fellows. We should choose a subset of the qualified people in such a way as to represent diversity.

Am I crazypants? Please tell me. I am asking because I really want to know.

Professional societies and diversity

Today's rant -- a letter to my main professional society -- is posted below and needs little introduction. I am grateful to the people who have inspired me to speak up about diversity issues. For those who haven't yet spoken up, I hope you will consider doing so.

Dear President [removed], Executive Director [removed], and SIAM Fellows Selection Committee,

As I am so fond of telling my colleagues, I love SIAM. As a fifteen-year SIAM member, I've attended SIAM conferences; judged SIAM poster competitions; read, refereed for, published in, and edited SIAM journals; and, this year, won a SIAM best paper prize. Obviously, I have benefitted substantively from the excellent opportunities SIAM offers. But because I love SIAM so much, I find it necessary to ask some difficult questions related to SIAM Fellows selection and issues of diversity.

Just like I do every summer, this summer I am advising a cohort of undergraduate research students. It so happens that this summer, all four of my students are women. To boot, they are talented, hardworking, mathematically promising women working on advanced topics such as nonlocal PDE, correlated random walks, and more. These are women who have the interest and the ability to have future careers as applied mathematicians.

Besides working with my students on research, I expose them to other aspects of life as an applied mathematician. Yesterday, I found myself in the awkward position of trying to explain to them the 2013 SIAM Fellows list disseminated in the "SIAM Unwrapped" email I received. As we looked through the list of Fellows, we noted that merely two of the 33 new Fellows are women. One of my students commented "that's pretty grim" -- an assessment met with concurrence from the rest of the room.

Previous years are nearly equally grim. Based on my quick scan of data on the SIAM website, here is a tally of the representation of women amongst SIAM fellows:

2009: 194 fellows, 16 women (8%)
2010: 34 fellows, 3 women (9%)
2011: 34 fellows, 2 women (6%)
2012: 35 fellows, 7 women (20%)
2013: 33 fellows, 2 women (6%)
Overall: 330 fellows, 30 women (9%)

What am I to tell my students? What message are they meant to receive from looking at the Fellows roster? Is SIAM's contention that the dismal percentages simply are not a problem? Is the contention that in 2013, there were really only two women applied mathematicians qualified to be named Fellows? Or that because fellowship depends on a nomination process, there's just nothing SIAM can do if women aren't nominated?

One might have idealistically hoped that the Fellows program would strive to provide a little remedy to the underrepresentation of women in the field at large. It appears this is not the case. Furthermore, while I recognize that it is a dicey proposition to judge diversity based on inferences from a list of names and photos, the SIAM Fellows roster appears to include exceedingly few members from other groups (besides women) that are also traditionally considered underrepresented.

Please know that I am tremendously grateful for the hard work you do on behalf of SIAM. Also, I am in an odd position writing this email as an approaching-middle-aged white guy who has undoubtedly benefitted from the social privilege conferred by those demographics. But still, on behalf of young women and minority students, and with concern for the scientific potential that might be lost when some of them leave a field that appears to pay insufficient attention to diversity, I worry.

In case any of you share my worries and feel like discussing the issues I've raised here, I'll be present at the SIAM Annual Meeting in [location] on [date] and free for most of the day (except lunch).

Chad Topaz
Associate Professor of Mathematics
Macalester College

Empathy, humility, and women in science

This post will eventually come around to the topic of women in science -- a topic about which I am wholly unqualified to write. But before getting to my main points, I will have to tell you about the time I had to tell a bunch of administrators why empathy is bad, I will have to explain why preschool graduation makes me angry, and I will have to have a talk just between us guys (but you ladies can listen in if you want).

For a time, I served on my institution's Student Learning Committee, which was charged with writing this Statement of Student Learning. One of the stated outcomes is that students will "demonstrate empathy by acting in a supportive manner that recognizes the feelings and perspectives of another cultural group." I think this is a nonsensical goal. Maybe my objection boils down to semantics, but to me, the basis of empathy is not "support." Empathy has to do with shared experience and emotion, and perhaps a partial dissolution of the boundary between oneself and others.

For instance, take a person from a cultural group other than my own -- perhaps a latino person. I can try to recognize the feelings and perspectives of a latino person, and I can try to act in a supportive manner, and I can even search for some of my own experiences that might approximate certain aspects of the latino person's, but in the end, I cannot deeply empathize about being latino because I have not had the experience of being a latino person in our country.

I laugh at myself when I recall that committee meeting, in which I found myself arguing passionately against having empathy as a goal for our students (at least, with the phrasing that was proposed and adopted). The people who were in that room must think I am real prince. But I felt -- and still do feel -- that there is a great deal of arrogance at the root of that goal.

I think that what we need is not empathy, but humility. Yes, we need to seek what experiences and feelings we might have in common, but at the same time, we need the humility to say "you know what? I can't know exactly what it is like to be you." If we don't have that humility, there is a real danger that our attempts to provide "support" will go off the rails. After all, I am sure that the imperialist missionaries to Africa thought they were being "supportive."

This is all one long preface to disclaim the rest of this post, in which I will write about women in science. I recognize that I am not a woman in science, and therefore, as I said, I am in some respects unqualified to write about this topic. But it is a topic of concern to me nonetheless.

If you can easily picture me in an academic conference room railing against empathy, then you will also be able to picture me getting irate at a preschool graduation. Recently, my daughter's preschool had its annual graduation for the kids who will move on to kindergarten. My daughter has one year left in preschool, but like most families at the school, we attended the ceremony anyway. During part of the ceremony, each graduating kid had a chance to go on stage, stand in front of a microphone, and say what they want to be when they grow up. Let's just for a moment suspend the overarching absurdity of asking five year olds to state a future profession. I didn't record data (I should have) but to the best of my recollection, there were 12 kids graduating, and about half were girls. Of those estimated six girls, four of them said that they wanted to be ballerinas when they grow up.

Before the ballerina lobby starts sending me hate mail, let me say that I think being a ballerina is a perfectly fine career choice. I have a lot of respect for ballerinas, who work incredibly hard to produce a beautiful art form. But I strongly suspect that the 66% of graduating preschool girls at my daughter's school didn't choose ballerina because they admire the grace and hard work. I'll conjecture that they chose ballerina because society tells them "little girls should want to be ballerinas."

I thought about discussing this with the school, but I can already hear their response in my head: "why are you complaining to us? It is important to let little kids dream about being whatever they want to be." Yes and no. Yes it is important to let them dream. But they are not dreaming in a vacuum. They are dreaming in the real world, where all sorts of messages -- good and bad -- get thrown at them. To me, one of the school's roles should be to provide a sensible and somewhat unbiased palate of options to the kids.

This is why my husband and I have a rule in our household that our daughter is not allowed simply to be "a princess," which society also loves to tell her is her life's calling. "You have to be a productive member of society," we tell her. "So you can be a princess poet, or a princess builder, or a princess teacher, or lots of other things. But you don't just get to sit around and be a princess." She has decided that she is a "princess scientist."

Speaking of princess scientists, I recently met a graduate student who is midway through a Ph.D. at one of the top applied math programs in the country. She reminisced to me that in her youth, her dad had once said something to the effect of  "I always wanted to have a kid who was good at math but then I found out I was having a girl."

On that note, now it is time for me to talk to the guys. Ladies, feel free to stick around if you want. Guys, I know you are scientists, but I assume you still watch Sports Center. Please put Sports Center on pause and put down the remote. You can keep drinking your beer if you want, but please focus on what I am saying. We have a women in science problem in this country. Though this amazing historical anecdote isn't directly about the hard sciences, check it out. Sadly, this kind of bs is equally likely to happen today, though the sexism might be slightly less overt. I hate to be a predictable gay man quoting Madonna as the source of all wisdom, but she sure nailed it -- or at least, part of it -- in the song "(Do You Know) What it Feels Like for a Girl," when she said "When you're trying hard to be your best / could you be a little less?"

Dudes -- when you look around your science departments, do you notice that there are far fewer women faculty? When you look around your science classes, do you notice that there are far fewer women students? Do you ever wonder why studies show that there is a gender gap in scientific publishing with a tantalizingly-nearly-causal link to disparities in financial support, and why female scientific job candidates with equal credentials get evaluated less favorably than male counterparts?

Do you give a crap about this? You should. Because first of all, sexism and gender inequality are ethically wrong. And because selfishly, and closer to home, it might be your friend or your mother or your sister or your daughter who is one day penalized by our unfair system. And because if you care about the progress of science, you should want all the best scientists to be players in field without being held back by systemic bias against their gender.

Guys, you should all be concerned about women in science. So do something about it. If you need a suggestion, start modestly. When you write your next grant proposal, don't look at the broader impacts requirement and groan and think of it as some hurdle that has to be jumped over. Think of it as an opportunity to actually do some freaking good. But before you do some good, talk to every single woman in science you can find and try to learn from them about the challenges faced by women in science, and women-who-might-like-to-be-in-science. And have a little humility, because you don't know what it is like to be them.