GradAttack Podcast #1 Trevor Warburton

Podcast #1 – 11/04/2015

Racism and Inequality in Mathematics Education

Trevor WarburtonTrevor Warburton

Trevor Warburton’s research is concerned with the ways in which subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) racial assumptions and stereotypes disadvantage minority and recent immigrant students of mathematics in public schools in the western United States. More than a simple denunciation of racism, Trevor’s dissertation looks at mistaken and harmful assumptions about the discipline of mathematics itself, and suggests new – and difficult – ways to empower those who are left behind.

Download the file here: Racism and Inequality in Mathematics Education with Trevor Warburton

Patrick Hadley: Hello and welcome to the inaugural edition of the University of Utah’s GradAttack podcast, and today we are talking with Trevor Warburton, who has recently submitted a very interesting dissertation on Whiteness Theory in education. And so, Trevor, I wanted to ask you very briefly what your dissertation is about – how you would explain it to a layman – and what compelled you to undertake this kind of research in this very specialized field?

 Trevor Warburton: So, just kind of going on the second question: I am a former math teacher, and I worked in a high school in Colorado, I taught for four years there, and I went specifically to that school to work with English Language-learners and the Latino population – there’s a fairly large Latino population there. So I was working with many of these students, many of whom were recent immigrants, many of them undocumented, and seeing the iniquities both in the school between the White students and the Latino students, and seeing that in the community at large, as well, and feeling like I should be able to use math to address these iniquities, and my students should be able to use math to address and challenge these iniquities, and feeling like the school curriculum and math as we understood it in school wouldn’t let us do that. So that’s what really brought me to the University of Utah to pursue a PhD and then to go on to study how math teachers are prepared, and what it is about math that makes it difficult to bring in social justice, and how Whiteness plays into that.

PH: Okay, and can you explain that to us? What is it that makes it so difficult?

TW: Sure. Basically, the way math is conceived of in school, there is a lot of emphasis on following procedures, on giving a right answer, and really a lack of emphasis on answering meaningful questions. And that, taking out the context and the using math to address real concerns and answer meaningful questions is part of what makes school math what it is. So if you try to address social justice concerns, which are very contextualized, which can be very messy, which bring in an element of subjectivity where math is supposed to be this objective thing, it really gets at, or in some ways undermines what we think math is and, as math teachers, who we think we are. So for a math teacher to try to do that, you have to challenge other people’s perception of who you are supposed to be, and other people’s perception of what math is supposed to be. As a teacher, that’s a risky position to take, because if the principle doesn’t think of you as a math teacher, you’re risking your job. If parents don’t think of you as a math teacher, you’re risking your job and your credibility. And that aligns in a lot of ways with Whiteness, as well, and that’s where the Whiteness aspect comes in, because there’s this perception or this belief within Whiteness and among Whites that we are neutral. If you are African American or Latino or Chinese-American, you’re automatically biased because of your race, but as Whites, we are neutral. And that really aligns with the perceived objectivity of mathematics. So you have these mostly White teachers and then you have math, and on both sides you need to maintain this air of objectivity and neutrality. And so those two things kind of align to pressure a math teacher to not address social justice through mathematics.

PH: Okay. And how do you think a math teacher should address social justice? What change would you like to see made?

TW: Right, so, a lot of what’s been done in mathematics education around social justice are what I call social critique lessons – and a lot of this work has been done by Eric Gutstein, Marilyn Frankenstein and others, who’ve done some fantastic things around using mathematics to analyze, say, wealth disparity in the United States, or more particularly to the students that he was working with at the time, Eric Gutstein, to look at housing projects and how gentrification programs were coming in and were going to price his own students out of the neighborhoods that they lived in. And so there’s some great math in there, as well as some great social justice concerns. At the same time, because those kinds of lessons really undermine who math teachers tend to think of themselves as and how others perceive them, both from a White perspective and from a math perspective, those kinds of lessons are very daunting to teachers because of that, and also because they have not been taught themselves to see math in that way, and so creating a lesson like that is very very challenging. But that’s not all social justice is. There are other aspects of social justice, including the way that you interact with your students, the way that you treat them, the kind of power relations that you establish in the classroom – if the teacher is very authoritative, very directive, that creates a certain kind of atmosphere that’s not conducive to students, especially minority students, succeeding in that kind of program.  You can also look at racial patterns of achievement in the classrooms. You keep the curriculum the same, but are all students in your class succeeding in equal ways. So that has to do with how you teach, and with having that kind of racial lens: Are the majority of my Latino students failing or having low grades? And if they are, is there something in the way that I’m teaching that makes me or the mathematics less accessible to them? So that’s a different way to address social justice that doesn’t take on that social critique perspective in the same way that others have done.

PH: Okay. I was personally drawn to your dissertation as I was reading it because a lot of the factors you describe as giving success to certain classes of people in studying mathematics immediately brought to mind the controversies surrounding Larry Summers, who as President of Harvard drew a great deal of fire for suggesting that women may, in fact, be somehow naturally worse at math and science than men, and then he went on to a great position as an advisor in the White House. Now, what would you say, based on your research, what would you say to Dr. Summers if he were here with us today?

TW: Well, I think math, as the general population [understands it], and even as we mathematicians understand it, is fairly narrow. We tend to only call things “mathematics” if they’ve abstracted and generalized, and only if we can use symbols and equations to work with it. Marilyn Frankenstein, who I mentioned earlier, talks about this great example of the mathematical problem of knitting a bend in a sock, as compared to the problem of creating a metal duct pipe at a 90 degree angle. So, with both of them, you’re taking a material and you’re bending it, and there’s mathematics involved in how you make one side longer and the other side shorter without making it all bunch up and not work. Mathematically, they’re very similar problems. One is knitting, and one is engineering. And so you can see the gender difference in what gets labeled as real math illustrated very nicely in that example that she gives. So there’s a definite gender bias in mathematics, where the majority of people who have been in positions of influence and positions of authority to decide what mathematic is, have been men, and most of them have been White men. SO there’s both a gender and a racial bias within mathematics, that shapes both what mathematics is and how mathematics is perceived by society in general. So, in a sense, to be successful in mathematics, you have to adopt White male norms. And women, minorities, may not be interested in adopting White male norms to succeed in a field where they’re going to have to work harder than the average White male in order to be successful.

PH: Now, you take what we might call, for a lack of a better word, you talk about a sort of “evangelical stance” regarding your topic. By that I just mean that you describe yourself as requiring for yourself a certain type of conversion in terms of your attitude and your outlook on life, sort of a “Road to Damascus” moment before you could sympathize with the problems faced by non-White students trying to get ahead in the world of mathematics. Do you think – and this may be a bit outside the bounds of your research, but I think it’s an important question – do you think that a similar change, a certain kind of “Road to Damascus” moment, can be expected of other people? And, if so, how would you hope or expect to bring it out?

TW: That’s an interesting question. I think, as a teacher, one of the things that I learned, and was taught in becoming a teacher, is that, if you’re not there for the students, you’re really there for the wrong reason. And I think it’s very difficult for a teacher who’s not there for the students first to have that kind of experience, because I think it comes as you learn to relate to and understand your students from their own perspective, and to kind of see, for lack of a better term, to see the world through their eyes – to look at what they’re experiencing in school and see that it’s very different from what I experienced in school. But if you’re not there for the students, you’re not going to see that, and I don’t know that you can teach that. I think, ideally, in colleges of education, we would be more selective about who we were allowing to become teachers, but the reality is that right now that’s not feasible, because if we were to do so, a lot of colleges of education would cease to exist, because there aren’t enough people who are trying to become teachers, and that has to do with salary and work environment, and all kinds of things that are outside the control of the university, and to be that selective…

PH: Right, and I guess that with math teachers, especially, that’s more of a problem.

TW: Yeah.

PH: Okay. Now, you said at the beginning of this interview that you were a former math teacher in Colorado, and now that you are very nearly officially Dr. Warburton, where do you go from here?

TW: Currently I’m working as a math specialist in Jordan School District for the Special Ed. Department, which is a bit of a shift for me, as I haven’t focused on special ed. in the past, but I find that it aligns very well. I mean, special education is a social justice issue as well. In schools, special education students are a population that is not treated the same as the general education population, and there are certainly reasons for that, but some of those reasons have to do with our beliefs about mathematics and our beliefs about which students are capable of mathematics, and what it means to be successful at mathematics. So I’m finding it very interesting, it’s very eye-opening. Ultimately I would like to be at a university, working with and preparing teachers to understand these things, to teach in different ways, and really to questions and challenge the established practices, and not just to keep doing something the same way it has been done, and then to apply that questioning stance to, you know, “How are the minority students in my class doing? How are the English Language Learners in my class doing? How are the special education students in my class doing?” And to look at how mathematics is both shaping their own efforts to teach, as well as shaping the students’ experiences both in their class and in the school at large.

PH: Okay. That sounds wonderful. And, I just want to ask you one final question. You’ve come all this way and you’ve made a very interesting and, I think, important contribution to pedagogical theory and to thinking on social justice. So, what advice would you give to others undertaking sociological research at the graduate level, either here or elsewhere?

TW: I guess, just that it’s… I mean, it’s hard work. There’s really no way around that. But to find something that you have a personal connection with, that you are passionate about, that’s what’s going to get you through the hard work, and to keep working to make what you’re doing meaningful, and to get it out there where people are going to see it.

PH: Okay. Thank you very much, Trevor Warburton. It’s been a real pleasure speaking with you, and we all look forward to the eventual very soon publication of your dissertation on ProQuest. And would you please tell our listeners the title of your dissertation?

TW: I…can’t remember it [laughter].

PH: I have it written down somewhere.

TW: I’m just missing one word. Anyway, it’s something about “irrationality” and then “Whiteness” in mathematics teaching education. Oh, yeah: Solving for Irrational Zeroes: Whiteness in Mathematics Teacher Education.

PH: Excellent. Thank you, Trevor Warburton.