meep (meep) wrote,
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Teaching Social Justice Instead of Math is an Injustice

I came across three math-related pieces recently and was going to combine them into one post, but it got waaaaay too long.

So I'm splitting it into three posts. Here's the first of the three.



Penn State math course covers 'imperialism' and 'cultural intolerance'

A professor teaching a general education math course at Penn State University included pages of his personal opinion on politics and social justice issues in exams.

Campus Reform received copies of exams, including a midterm, from an anonymous student who was concerned by the political nature of the course material when they took Professor Marc Fabbri’s math class last spring. The course material contains large portions of political opinion that have little relevance to the course topic.

The course, “Finite Mathematics,” is designed for non-science majors and fulfills a general education requirement. The course is described by Penn State as an “introduction to logic, sets, [and] probability,” however, the take-home tests Campus Reform received appear to contain the professor’s personal opinion and few math problems.



You can go to the link to follow the inanity, but here is the deal.

There are various math classes that aren't intended to be terribly difficult for non-math-minded people, but are math-y enough to give the cover of actually being college-level courses.

Finite mathematics is usually seen as being "easier" due to the "finite" part -- no messy infinities as you can get with even precalculus (asymptotes??! What?!). People see it as concrete. It encompasses quite a lot, and is often crossed/conflated with "Discrete Mathematics". For what it's worth, these (either finite or discrete or a combo) can be extremely rigorous courses for math majors, but usually they give them different course numbers and syllabuses.

I don't have an issue with injecting political material into a math class, especially if you're looking at official stats. The problem this teacher has, ostensibly, is just barely connecting any of it to math. And then not doing anything with the students where they think about the numbers critically. If you've already decided the conclusion, there's not much to learn about process.

In a similar general math requirement course I taught at NYU called "Quantitative Reasoning", I used to bring in news articles that were stuffed with numbers that were intended to make arguments. When we were talking about statistics - anytime averages were mentioned (or medians) - I asked: does it make sense to use this statistic? I pointed out when standard deviations or confidence intervals weren't mentioned -- and showed them two different data sets with close means... and very different standard deviations. And made them think about what exactly that meant. [this will be relevant in the second post of the series]

In real life, most of these people are not going to be generating statistics themselves, but may be "consuming" them as part of the news or political argumentation, or whatever, and it helps if they actually can think about those numbers and what they really mean. It is not useful to say all stats are bullshit (which is obviously not true), but it is also not useful to uncritically absorb politicians shouting stats when neither the politician nor you understand those stats. I think "math in politics" or "math in media" would be excellent classes, and wouldn't even be bad as fulfilling a general education requirement for non-STEM majors.

But it requires a teacher who actually says more about the math than the politics. Because the students need a lot more help with the math - that's why they're taking such a basic math course in the first place. If they can't reason about the numbers at all, they are easy marks... even for political arguments opposed by that teacher. If you don't give them tools they can use, other people will just use them as tools.


I understand that lots of people don't like thinking about quantities, but they are often extremely key. On my explicitly political blog, I do a deeper dive into numbers on public finance issues than many people really want to think about. In my case, I'm trying to figure out where there are real problems, and sometimes, I find that supposed problems are overblown.

Most of my arguments do not require a deep understanding of higher levels of math, and when I'm talking about something I know won't be familiar to people, I try to explain them. But the most complicated things I usually talk about are compound interest and probability (sometimes both together!) If you can't understand percentages or percentiles, you're going to have a hell of a time thinking through some of this stuff... and if your pension (or taxes... or both!) depend on these, you need to be able to understand, qualitatively, what is going on.

Back to the instructor

The issue is that this person is probably an adjunct, just as I was at NYU and at UConn. They linked to the guy's syllabus page... but the most recent link was from a course from 2010... and all those links are dead. Hmm, he's a 'teaching professor' and not in the faculty list. So, I don't know his status re: tenure, but it sounds like "long-time adjunct" to me. Looking at a job posting for a different 'teaching professor', the "non-tenure-track" pops out. They may be full-time employees... but still contingent.

In any case, a lot of universities really can't be too picky about their adjuncts. There is only one salary listed at glassdoor for teaching professor, and the amount looks okay, but it's nothing like what the research profs get. Anyway, I got paid about that much...15 years ago. When I started as an entry-level actuarial student. And I'm not inflation-adjusting.

(aside: Want a Six-Figure Salary? Here Are the 5 Most Valuable College Majors of 2018 -- #1 is actuarial science)

The point is that math adjuncts generally don't get a lot of oversight, and even if they do, the universities are in a bit of a bind in terms of getting qualified adjuncts at low prices...especially when there are more pleasant and more lucrative jobs for people who are qualified.

So you end up with the sort of people who would rather get underpaid for their skills instead of working a corporate job. When I adjuncted at UConn, most of us teaching actuarial science courses weren't full-timers, but people who enjoyed teaching and didn't mind getting paid low for the job on the side. Some were retired actuaries, who just liked to keep active. But full-time? Ha. No.

The politics aren't concerning, the emphasis is

So, this could have been a good class. That one addresses political issues can make the math more interesting, but you need to make sure the students are actually learning some math that can transfer to other topics as well.

Teaching "social justice" instead of the math is a real injustice to students who should be given the math tools to be able to confront future math-related issues, many of which are political.

That's generally the downfall of teaching the "Social Justice" of useful subject ABC instead of subject ABC itself. People don't learn ABC, and then they are still easy targets for those who take advantage of that ignorance.
Tags: #1, academia, education, math
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