As I have shared in my teaching statement, it has been my good fortune to have experience teaching and learning in diverse environments, and I am deeply committed to fostering an inclusive atmosphere in my teaching going forward as a result. My own mentor Dan Creamer (contact: firstname.lastname@example.org), who has been a role model for most of my life, passed this attitude on to me years ago when I worked with him as a summer camp counselor at the camp ``Fun with Math, Science, and Computers'' at the Temple University Ambler Campus. In this camp, we worked with a very diverse group of students, including many who took a bus to camp each day from North Philadelphia public schools. Educational background and exposure among the students was varied, but the camp ethos was very much "we are all partners in the learning process." Dan's attitude towards shared responsibility for learning developed during his time tutoring math in prisons while working on his math teaching degree, as well as from years of teaching all levels of math in a public school in Philadelphia. I have modeled Dan’s enthusiasm for the subject, and his methodology for helping all students find the joy of learning in a mutually-enriching environment so that they can realize their potential.
More recently, I have made diversity issues central to my identity as a college teacher. The slide deck I gave on the last day of my Digital 3D geometry course spells out in detail many of the strategies I use to foster diversity. Step one for me is having an open door and being a good listener with students should they need any extra help outside the classroom. In the process, I learned about some of the challenges that students face, such as low self-esteem or low self-confidence, that can become obstacles to learning if not dealt with as soon as possible. Working through problems with students outside the classroom in a calm environment helped them to understand the material and believe they could find solutions. For example, as I mentioned in my teaching statement, I helped one of my female students to overcome math anxiety, which was definitely at least partially gender based, and I helped another female student decide to continue with a double major in Math after she had initially decided to withdraw from the program. One of these students also confided in me that a lack of female role models, even at the undergraduate T.A. level, was extremely discouraging to her, and another female student told me about a harrowing job interview experience, which was clearly discriminatory. There are many other issues women in STEM face on a daily basis which I have seen through my students and colleagues, including being talked over in group meetings, not being taken seriously because of assumed inferior intelligence, and receiving harsher reviews on assignments. I have learned much from these students and can validate their frustration both by being a direct advocate and by sharing resources to help them become more empowered learners. This includes anitab.org and the Grace Hopper Conference, whose information and application deadlines I plan to include directly on my syllabi (I did this with SIGGRAPH student volunteers in my Digital 3D Geometry Class).
Besides the lack of educational and job inclusiveness for women in STEM fields, race and class issues are also a major challenge. There are significant external forces that need to be addressed. For instance, most of the students I volunteer with at Lakeland Elementary school in Baltimore have difficult family situations that cause distractions beyond the classroom. An example from a black female seventh grade student in the program illustrates some of the obstacles to unfettered success in the classroom. This young student is absolutely brilliant, but she comes from a home with a dozen siblings. As the oldest, she clearly feels a sense of responsibility towards the family, and she has put enormous pressure on herself to please adults and to be the best (she tries to please by noting that she likes apples as her favorite snack and that she does all of her homework early). I find it admirable and impressive that she's taken such a responsible approach, but sometimes this anxiety can seep into her math learning; that is, if she doesn't get something right away, she gets extremely disappointed in herself and worries that she's falling off track, or disappointing us. Since I'm aware of the root of this issue, I gently encourage her to take her time and to practice patience when we work one on one. Another example is a young Hispanic boy I've been teaching who skipped two grade levels (8 years old going into 6th grade). He has incredible potential, and I've been challenging him to learn as much as he can with extra practice problems outside of our ordinary sessions and extra "homework" that I work through with him over e-mail (he recently figured out on his own how 1/3 has infinite decimal places in binary). But he has a lot of behavioral issues that can get in the way of his growth, so I work very hard to keep him focused and on track, and to check in with his teachers and mother about how we can work together in and out of the classroom.
In addition to my own observations and experiences, I am also continually reading up on diversity issues via books and blogs. One particularly courageous and informative blog I avidly follow is "Alice's Adventures in Numberland" by Alice Sliverberg, a senior professor in mathematics at UC Irvine who managed to make it all the way to the top of the academic hierarchy in spite of obstacles at every step of the way. One of my biggest practical takeaways from this blog is to focus more on topics and less on people when organizing conferences and speaker series, and hence broadening beyond people who have been "grandfathered into" a particular research area, who are primarily those from more privileged groups. I also recently read Claude Steele's book "Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do", which I find very convincing due to its extensive psychological studies and controlled experiments, and encouraged my students to read it on the last day of my Digital 3D Geometry Class. Finally, I always stress with my students an "anti genius" mindset for many reasons, including that the word "genius" is often code for "Great White Men." Rather, I stress hard work, struggling, learning, and collaboration, which are all strategies that have been shown to help promote diversity, and which are key to a "growth mindset" versus a "fixed mindset," a good thing for any teacher to stress.
Clearly, there is much work to be done to diversify the classroom and to make all learners welcome and productive to their fullest potential. I am eager to be part of the conversation and part of the solution. Unfortunately, it is often difficult for me to immediately fix these issues, but I can observe, take my awareness with me, and help to look for new ways to advocate for them from a position of power. This includes advocating strongly via letters of recommendation (which I routinely do), and helping to network. As a recent example of the latter, I went out of my way to introduce a female student I knew to a very senior researcher during the WiMIR (Women in Music Information Retrieval) workshop.
Moving forward, my belief is that diversity issues in academia are at least as difficult as the most difficult research problems, and they need to be treated as such. In fact, if we solve diversity issues, every other research problem will become easier to solve, since varied perspective is the most important factor in creativity. I look forward to continuing to being an active part of the search for solutions that work.
My Outreach over The Years...
Left: Me and Dan creamer with two students at "Fun with Math, Science, and Computing" camp back in 2004 at Temple University Ambler campus.
Right: One of our daily sessions in the computer lab at Temple University Ambler, where we played math games and practiced HTML.
Below: A video about my recent work with students at Lakeland Elementary School in the CyberPatriots program.