Thursday, June 12, 2014

John Adams on the Mathtwitterblogosphere


At the time of our revolution, there were those who advocated for a perfect democracy of the people. There would be one legislative body, there would be perfect and equal ("equal") representation of the nation. There would be no need for an executive branch or any sort of further central organization.
"To Adams this was patent nonsense. A simple, perfect democracy had never yet existed. The whole people were incapable of deciding much of anything, even on the small scale of a village. He had had enough experience with town meets at home to know that in order for anything to be done certain powers and responsibilities had to be delegated to a moderator, a town clerk, a constable, and, at times to special committees." (John Adams, David McCullough)
It seems to me that this tension -- between freedom, equality and centralization -- arises whenever a group of people attempts to coordinate at all. Coordination gets more and more difficult as the number of people involved in the community grows, and things can start to go bad almost unintentionally. Think unregulated markets, or the way crowds can be dominated by majority impulses.

Of course, Adams believed that many centralizing institutions were bad. He just wanted to build better, more perfect institutions.

We are living at a time when it feels natural to be skeptical of the structures of society. There's a longstanding decline in Americans' confidence and participation in our institutions. This cuts across the board: confidence in public schools, congress, organized religions, banks, professional organizations, community organizations, the courts, television news, unions, the presidency has never been lower.


I'm thinking of this because of Christopher Danielson and Anne Schwartz. Danielson recently published a piece titled "Not All White People" where he urges his white readers not to fight back when the conversation turns to race. He notices that when white teachers hear about racism they tend to worry "Am I racist?" instead of "Was what I did racist?". He'd like us realize that these are quite different, and that the relevant question is almost always the latter. He'd like to make a change in the way teachers online participate in and listen to discussions about race.

For her part, Anne Schwartz offered a critique of the selection of keynote speakers for an upcoming conference:
"If you know me you know that I love Dan Meyer, Eli Luberoff and Steve Leinwand. They are three really fantastic white men. But Twitter Math Camp is an outstanding conference run by amazing amazing women teachers, attended by a majority women and almost completely teachers I just wish the keynotes represented that fact. Max Ray said it last year and I echo it this year. More women, more diversity."
My argument is that both Danielson and Schwartz's critiques speak to the need for online communities of teachers to build strong institutions. Their critiques speak to systemic problems, and they call for improving our systems and organizations.

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There's a certain line of thinking that I hear in my discussions with friends and colleagues who are active on the teacher-internet. "What's great and different about twitter and blogs is that it's completely open and decentralized." Since the internet offers a level playing field good ideas end up flowering and being shared widely, allowing progress and creativity to burst forth and spread. Institutions are crusty and boring. Institutions are responsible for textbooks, lousy PD, edu-jargon, lazy teachers. We individuals? We're responsible for amazing blog posts, loose and informal PD and the most committed teachers on the planet.

If what you love about the internet is openness, you might be troubled that it favors white men. (Remember this?)

Like it or not, when you get a bunch of people together you end up with institutions and normative culture. Twitter has a culture. Blogs have a hierarchy. Twitter Math Camp is a gatekeeper. The question isn't whether we should have central institutions or not. The choice we have is whether to build strong institutions or weak institutions. Strong institutions are able to coordinate action, to move a community and make changes. Weak institutions are dominated by uncontrollable forces, emergent behavior, mere shouting and some kind of anarchy.

Twitter Math Camp is capable of turning this around. There are people in place who have responsibilities and accountability. These people can be asked to make diversity a priority. We will know if we succeed or if we don't. There are things that can be done.

But if you want to change the way business is done on twitter? Good luck with that. Enjoy shouting in the tornado of tweets and slowly watching your followers drop and follow you accordingly. Of course we should all speak up on twitter -- this isn't an argument against that. Instead it's an argument for the limitations of speaking up on a social media platform where there's precious little structure to the community.

Leslie Knope gets it:



To close: this is also an argument for the importance of the Global Math Department. Building strong institutions gives our community the chance to be more intentional, to know ourselves a little bit better. We can make our biases visible, and thereby have the chance to correct them. I don't just mean racial or gender biases here, by the way. How open are we to outsiders? Do we have tendencies to prefer certain learning experiences over others? Do we prefer certain forms of PD over others? I just finished reading a book about the ways that ideas ripple through the profession. Building strong, healthy institutions is how we gain control over those forces instead of merely being subject to them.

14 comments:

  1. Nice. This is very intuitive. Does that mean that the Global Math Department is like Twitter Math Camp? Responsible to make the changes and support their growth? I see Global Math Department making great strides in this. The speakers and programs lately have been very thought provoking and change supporting.

    Thank you for being true to yourself Michael. You push us to stretch and look at important and difficult issues.

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    1. The way I see it, GMD is a ton like TMC.

      To me, GMD is about helping to structure our year-round PD much in the way that TMC can structure your summer PD. It's about taking some of the issues that our community has -- welcoming newcomers, making meaningful long-term changes in our teaching, coordinating efforts -- and realizing that these aren't problems that we can solve with more blog posts and tweets.

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  2. I'm wondering what we can do to tap into the existing organizations that are out there, and see if they help support creating institutions that attempt to address the bias inherent in our self-organizing systems, and we can help these organizations learn about how we are using the Internet-as-communication-tool to organize ourselves, even imperfectly.

    tl;dr: Maybe it's time to talk to NCTM and NCSM about becoming affiliates or something of that nature?

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    1. I have trouble seeing how those sorts of organizations could help us at this early moment when we're still figuring out what exactly it is that we do.

      Incidentally: Without institutions like TMC and GMD what would your question even mean? Who would approach NCTM? The Twitter?

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    2. "Affiliate" involves a financial relationship, which GMD and TMC are uniquely incapable (by implicit charter) of committing to.

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  3. I'm not a part of any of that stuff, which is probably why I didn't understand a word of this. Something about all white guys in the keynote, but I'm not clear on whether you think this is a good or bad thing.

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    1. Blah, I know that my writing is better when I revise it. I should start forcing myself to rewrite these posts and wait a few days between drafts and publishing.

      Here's the argument of the post. Maybe this makes things better, maybe the post is sunk:

      1. There's never perfect equality when a group of people gets together to do something. There's always a structure, a hierarchy, organization, an institution. We have to ask: is it a good institution or a bad one?
      2. The structure that has formed around twitter and blogs is inequitable, as Danielson and Schwartz point out. It favors white men. It's not a great institution, for all its openness.
      3. Some structures are better than others, though. By building institutions that have leadership, accountability and responsibility one has a shot at creating more equitable conditions.
      4. In fact, Danielson's post is less likely to result in change than Schwartz's comments, since Schwartz was critiquing an increasingly well-organized institution with accountability, reflection and continuity in leadership. Danielson is sending a message to the internet, which is tougher.
      5. There are other ways that teachers can organize themselves other than around conferences and social media popularity. As part of the Global Math Department, I'm working hard to build an institution that could have the sort of positive qualities that I feel healthy institutions have.

      Twitter might be more "open" in some sense than something like the Global Math Department, but not in meaningful ways. True, anyone can join twitter, but how many people want to? True, there are many voices to hear, but it's remarkably easy to follow only the voices you want to hear and end up with a homogeneous sounding board. Twitter may be more diverse on the whole, but in terms of the people that folks actually follow? And how would you fix that on twitter? By urging people to give more respect black people or women? Good luck with that.

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  4. Thanks. I get it now. I have an answer. I might create a post out of it, or will come back here. Might take a day (last day of year signoffs)

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  5. Okay, I decided to keep it here.

    I thought Danielson's post was primarily an attempt to win approval from the likeminded as opposed to a serious effort to change things. He's clearly writing from well within the bubble.

    I suspect that many people upon reading Jose and Mia's post would have a response like "oh, please, get over yourself. Mia, maybe your teachers didn't like you because you were obnoxious brat. Lord knows that's why mine didn't like me." But since that would provoke some sort of meltdown, they wouldn't make that response. Not defensive, not sympathetic. Not in his formulation.

    The other issue is a bit more interesting, in that you have to wonder if the issue is really dominance of white males or just a catering to what the audience wants. For example, if a predominantly female TMC audience wants to see Dan Meyers and the rest, then how is that white guys dominating the conversation? If you put up a bunch of female teachers no one wants to see, then TMC goes away. You can't be sensitive if your audience doesn't want you to be. So there's more information needed. And if it is that situation, what does it say about the whole need for "more voices", if the representative audience doesn't want the voices?

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    1. To put it lightly, I have some very strong disagreements with you about race and your read of the posts you mentioned. I'll hold those comments, though, since it's the second half of your comment that really engages with my post.

      The other issue is a bit more interesting, in that you have to wonder if the issue is really dominance of white males or just a catering to what the audience wants.

      To me this isn't a dichotomy. One of the ways that white males end up dominating something like keynote talks is via our cultural expectations for what expert and authority look like. These expectations provide a great deal of friction for non-white males who wish to become experts. I'm sure that many audiences wants to hear white males without really being aware of their preferences. Dan, Eli or Steve seem like keynote sort of people. Kate, Fawn and Ilana don't, for some reason.

      You can't be sensitive if your audience doesn't want you to be.

      A healthy institution that cares about leveling the playing field for non-white males can help reduce the above-mentioned friction for talented women in ways that don't alienate their audience. Take someone like Kate, Fawn, Ilana and recruit them for the sorts of things that it seems natural to recruit men for.

      And if it is that situation, what does it say about the whole need for "more voices", if the representative audience doesn't want the voices?

      To me, this goes back to John Adams and perfect democracy. Healthy institutions aren't dominated by the whims and needs of their constituencies. That way lies anarchy. Instead, we have a productive tension between institutional wisdom and popular demand.

      In short: something like TMC can push its audience a bit.

      If you put up a bunch of female teachers no one wants to see, then TMC goes away.

      One last point which is that they keynotes don't seem to me essential to TMC in any way. They are very much not the draw. Everyone was signed up for TMC well before they knew who the keynotes were. People are going to TMC to meet in person the people who they met online. People are going to TMC for community first, the sessions second. That's my take, at least.

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  6. FWIW - Michael's last statement about why to attend TMC certainly holds true for me. I did not know - until I read this post - who the keynotes speakers are. I'm going to learn from interesting people whose blogs I've been reading and who I 'met' online in the past two years or so.

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  7. "To put it lightly, I have some very strong disagreements with you about race and your read of the posts you mentioned."

    Odds are decent I hang around more and teach more "people of color" than you do, and just because I'm not enamored of the blame and guilt game doesn't mean I don't speak out on behalf of people of color. For example, my writing on teacher credential tests is almost entirely about the attempt (which I oppose) to eliminate black and Hispanic teachers.

    I just get tired of the nonsense.

    As for the rest, I don't disagree. Nor was I saying that you were definitely driving white females away. It was an if/then thing.

    "One of the ways that white males end up dominating something like keynote talks is via our cultural expectations for what expert and authority look like. "

    If that's true, then you are saying what I posited: catering to the non-"white male" audience is giving you white male key note speakers.

    "Take someone like Kate, Fawn, Ilana and recruit them for the sorts of things that it seems natural to recruit men for. "

    See, here's the thing: It's inexplicable to me if you had not already reached out to those names in particular already, prior to this whole handwringing episode. If you haven't, then whatever organization is arranging this is absolutely insanely sexist and white male dominant. Shame on them.

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    1. No need for the melodrama ("shame on them"). Reasonable people do racist and sexist things all the time. We notice them, we talk about them, we do better. Institutional knowledge and reflection helps.

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  8. You really don't understand tone at all, do you?

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