Math as Witness

Musing on mathematics and social justice from HS teacher Pat Higgiston
Written by HS mathematics teacher Pat Higgiston, the following entry originally appeared on The Theological Engineer blog.
I ended the school year with a surprising burst of energy after the students left for the summer. I slogged my way through two straight days of comment-writing. These can be draining (imagine making 58 short but meaningful phone calls with the promise of near-zero response), but if I can create space for it, they become an opportunity to reflect on my students’ actual experience of my class, contra whatever expectations or descriptions I offered at the outset. The natural move then is to think about what I want them to actually experience next year.

Right on the heels of my comment-writing, I spent two days with a group of colleagues from my school developing a pilot service learning program that we would each enact in our classrooms next year.  I took a smattering of ideas and conversations and threaded them together into a strand that I called, “Math as Witness”. In my math classes, and especially my 11th grade Discrete Math elective, I envisioned a program that started with my students’ attentive presence with a marginalized community, and then moved to their study of Discrete Math topics: voting theory, apportionment (and with it, gerrymandering), combinatorics and probability, game theory, and graph theory. On one hand, this would deepen and give real-world urgency to their study of math; on the other, it would open a space for them to offer their knowledge so as to assist a marginalized population somehow. Transcending both of those goals, the students would come to care for the community, and as an expression of that care, know more of it though the lens of mathematics.

That was the plan after a few iterations, and as plans go it sounds grand. But I needed two things: the community, and the math!
There is no shortage of marginalized communities that might benefit from accessing the conclusions of discrete math, and especially those that are related to the day’s pressing issues. Immigration, voting, representation, income and opportunity, all of which can be analyzed along lines of race, class, gender, or immigration status — these would all be at home in a Discrete Math problem set. But after spending two days talking to colleagues from across the disciplinary spectrum, I needed to really get into the math itself.

And so at just the right time, I went to a math conference! The 2018 PBL Math Teaching Summit (organized by Dr. Carmel Schettino) gathered a group of teachers committed to a problem-based philosophy and practice in math education. While not geared to Discrete Math, service learning, or justice-themed mathematics, the PBL crowd is energized, creative, and committed to classrooms that decenter the teacher in favor of non-hierarchical, student-driven mathematical construction. Throw an allied project out there, and you’re bound to get something back.

Also, if you’re working on a problem of your own, I find that spending time with energized math educators talking about problems is a really nice way to get some juice in your parallel process. I experienced exactly that kind of sideways creativity at the PBL Summit. Alongside whatever I jotted down from presentations, I was scribbling marginal notes about math, service, and justice.

What came from this was not a list of learning objectives or a text or set of problems all ready for September, but instead a philosophical center of gravity for the entire discrete-math-as-witness project: Who counts? and who doesn’t?

The topics of Discrete Math all dance around the question of counting: counting to express the popular will (voting), and the problems of doing so in a representative government (apportionment and gerrymandering); counting the available options from a wider range of possible groupings (combinatorics), and determining the likelihood of some outcomes over others (probability); and the condensation of human conflict, competition, and cooperation into a set of metrics (game theory).

In a service-learning context concerned with social justice, this has to be pushed a step beyond what we’re counting or how we’re counting it. Who in our society counts? Which is the same question as, who doesn’t count? How is that counting or non-counting justified? What do different ways of counting suggest about the decision of who is counted and who is not? And then, was it a decision? Who made it? Why?
Math teacher-talk had me all excited about this, without anyone saying a word about it. It was a good couple of days.

That’s where I was at, and then I went to Alabama.

I’d been to Alabama once before, for a wedding, and now I was going again, for a wedding. I’ll spare you the carpetbagger musings on Alabama in June, except to say Alabama humidity is different than ours. New York summertime humidity is ocean-based, but in Alabama it comes right out of the earth and grass and trees. This has good and bad sides to it. At its best, New York humidity (yes I just wrote that) is salty and fresh; it makes you sanguine. Alabama humidity is all-pervasive. Surrender to it and you become one with it and all it embraces, Whitman-like: red soil, pines, ponds greener than the trees, and the trees are green AF.

At its worst, that salty New York humidity is penetrating and corrosive. In Alabama, it is oppressive and inescapable.

After wedding and family time were over in Auburn, we drove down I-85 to Montgomery to see the Legacy Museum. Physical monuments to black suffering at the hands of (and black resilience in the face of) white supremacy are surprisingly hard to find in this nation established on a foundation of slave labor, even in my dear Yankee homeland. When a brick-and-mortar instance of that witness presents itself to you in the heart of the community that birthed the modern civil rights movement, it’s the right move.

I’m reminded again and again these days about the importance of art in learning and knowing — and with art I will include museum curation and monument design (obviously). I would like to communicate to you my experience of exploring the Legacy Museum (“From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration”), which told me everything I know already but immersed me in it in a way I hadn’t felt before — which meant, of course, I was feeling it rather than thinking it — but the words will fail me. Some combination of sadness, horror, self-consciousness, anger, and sobriety.

More poignant than that, more penetrating and overwhelming, was the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, dedicated to remembering the pervasive terror campaign of lynching that many, but mostly black Americans, were subjected to over the last two centuries. I’ve had a fine chance to keep lynching at an arm’s length for much of my educated life, one of those nice that’s-a-southern-thing habits that my northeastern brethren permit themselves from time to time. The Memorial, with its hoist metal blocks, rusting with the same color as blood and that Alabama soil, arrayed so that we have a sense of their number all at once, makes what was for me a distant abstraction into a crucial reflection of our current situation, and it implicates everyone. The arm’s-length attitude is a privilege, one not afforded African Americans, and one that everyone needs to confront, or else that legacy of violence stays underground, in the water supply, wreaking havoc. Since I returned to New York, I reached for Dr. James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, in which he says:

I wrestle with questions about black dignity in a world of white supremacy because I believe that the cultural and religious resources in the black experience could help all Americans cope with the legacy of white supremacy and also deal with what is called “the war on terror.” If white Americans could look at the terror they inflicted on their own black population — slavery, segregation, and lynching — then they might be able to understand what is coming at them from others. Black people know something of terror because we have been dealing with legal and extralegal white terror for several centuries. Nothing was more terrifying than the lynching tree.
So, after a week in between two years but also its own moment, I woke up in Brooklyn this morning. The chorus from “Ella’s Song” was on repeat in my mind’s ear and I still had a palpable feeling of lowering my head under a matrix of metal boxes in midair. I’m looking at my notes about Math as Witness from less than a week ago, though it seems like longer. I suppose it’s my first day of summer vacation proper, a time to rest but also to read and write and think.

I’m thinking of voting rights, and the contrary movement to restrict them in this country, under the banner of ending (nearly non-existent) voter fraud. I’m thinking of Dr. Cone’s comment about the war on terror in relation to lynchings, and remembering that ICE was founded not so long ago under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security — so we can begin to see how the present crackdown on immigration is a part of this wider campaign against the shadowy, threatening Other, conceived here as the foreigner, there as the entrenched black community, elsewhere (and perhaps throughout) as the poor and powerless. I’m thinking about the fragility of a democratic republic, how easy it can be for a few powerful interests to play the numbers, to determine the rules of counting, and decide the outcome before the question is even asked.

I’m wondering how I can best help my students use math to start asking, and answering, the questions:

Who counts? and who doesn’t? And what do we do about it?