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Mathematician Federico Ardila Dances to the Joys and Sorrows of Discovery | Quanta Magazine
"When you came to the United States, as an undergraduate at MIT, it was your turn to feel like the “other.”

It’s not that anybody did anything to mistreat me or to doubt me or to explicitly make me feel unwelcome, but I definitely felt very different. I mean, my mathematical education was outstanding and I had fantastic access to professors and really interesting material, but I only realized in retrospect that I was extremely isolated.

There’s a system in place that makes certain people comfortable and others uncomfortable, I think just by the nature of who’s in the space. And I say that without wanting to point fingers, because I think you can be critical about the spaces that “other” you, but you also have to be critical about the ways in which you “other” other people.

I think because mathematics sees itself as very objective, we think we can just say, “Well, logically, this seems to make sense that we’re doing everything correctly.” I think sometimes we’re a little bit oblivious as to what is the culture of a place, or who feels welcome, or what are we doing to make them feel welcome?

So when I try to create mathematical spaces, I try to be very mindful of letting people be their full human selves. And I hope that will give people more access to tools and opportunities.

What are some of the ways you do that in your teaching?

In a classroom I’m the professor, and so in some sense I’m the culture keeper. And one thing that I try to do — and it’s a little bit scary and it’s not easy — is to really try to shift the power dynamic and make sure that students feel like equally powerful contributors to the place. I try to create spaces where we’re kind of together constructing a mathematical reality.

So, for example, I taught a combinatorics class, and in every single class every single student did something active and communicated their mathematical ideas to somebody else. The structure of the class was such that they couldn’t just sit there and be passive.

I believe in the power of music, and so I got each one of them to play a song for the rest for us at the beginning of each class. At the beginning it felt like this wild experiment where I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I was really moved by their responses.

Some of them would dedicate the song to their mom and talk about how whenever they’re studying math, they’re very aware that their mom worked incredibly hard to give them the opportunity to be the first ones in their family to go to college. Another student played this song in Arabic called “Freedom.” And she was talking about how in this day and age it’s very difficult for her to feel at home and welcome and free in this country, and how mathematics for her is a place where nobody can take her freedom away.

That classroom felt like no other classroom that I’ve ever taught in. It was a very human experience, and it was one of the richest math classrooms that I’ve had. I think one worries when you do that, “Are you covering enough mathematics?” But when students are engaged so actively and when you really listen to their ideas, then magic happens that you couldn’t have done by preparing a class and just delivering it.

Mathematics has this stereotype of being an emotionless subject, but you describe it in very emotional terms — for instance, in course curricula you promise your students a “joyful” experience.

I think doing mathematics is tremendously emotional, and I think that anybody who does mathematics knows this. I just don’t think that we have the emotional awareness or vocabulary to talk about this as a community. But you walk around this building and people are making these discoveries, and there are so many emotions going on — a lot of frustration and a lot of joy.

I think one thing that happens is we don’t acknowledge this as a culture — because mathematics is emotional in sometimes very difficult ways. It can really make you feel very bad about yourself sometimes. You can be pushing on something for six months and then have it collapse, and that hurts. I don’t think we talk about that hurt enough. And the joy of discovering something after six months of working on it is really deep."
federicoardila  math  mathematics  music  combinatorics  teaching  2017  education  inclusivity  inclusion  culture  accessibility  howwweteach  community 
january 2018 by robertogreco

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