The Universal Language… Not So Universal?

Mathematics is often touted as The Universal Language. Supposedly, despite the many different symbols, definitions, notations, and conventions, the core principles of mathematics transcend cultural, societal, and even terrestrial differences. However, a language requires someone to speak it. And here, we find our universal language is not quite the same for everyone.

Coming into this week’s reading, I’ve been aware of the disparities for women in STEM. It exists, and there are multiple aspects to the problem. Personally, it’s just intiutive for me to think that equality is good. “Equal pay for equal work.” That just seems so obvious me. However, for me, I’ve always thought of striving for equality for equality’s sake. What I mean by that, equality is a right, and discrimination is bad. We should be more diverse in STEM, because everyone should have the opportunity to enter this field. It’s a question about morality and fairness.

Now, discrimination and racism can be a detriment to a student’s learning experience (and I will discuss that later). However first, one of the readings this week challenged my viewpoint that diversity is just a moral prerogative. The article, How Diversity Makes Us Smarter, speaks to the benefit of diversity in problem solving. When inter-disciplinary teams and experiences lead to innovative solutions, why do we not place the same importance in social diversity? I truly have never thought about this. Homogeneity excourages complacency. Novel ideas and solutions come about through constant questioning, and I never considered that diversity can have an impact on that.

In one of our additional readings, Whistling Vivaldi, Steele discussed the challenges women face in mathematics, as well as his attempts to understand what exactly is the cause. I’ve also been curious to find a reason for the disparities (and there are many). It’s important to acknowledge issues like harrassment. Part of me had some gut feeling that there was some gender biases that add extra obstacles for women in STEM. I feel like this chapter of his book really hit the tip of the ice berg. Without the presence of directly prejudiced people, Steele found that women can still feel negative consquences of gender biases. In addition, the effort to fight that stigma, itself, can hinder their ability to achieve. In my opinion, this really hits the nail on the head.

In terms of the classroom, how do we fight against this societal pressure? I feel like we can try to remove the stigma of “not understanding” material. Personally, I have times where I hadnot grasped subjects at first glance. When I don’t understand, I feel a stigma of asking questions in front of my peers during class. “I don’t want to seem dumb in front of others.” However, that doesn’t help me learn; it does the opposite. That pressure of trying to prove to others (or to society) of your abilities, while it  affects many more women in mathematics, it is not a unique feeling. We should strive to lower that pressure among our students in mathematics. Perhaps change the notion that only people who don’t know the material go to office hours.

Now, gender disparities in mathematics are not the only challenge that we face in our field. After some thought, I was starting to think about how language plays a part as well. Despite how we always think of math as transcending language, when it comes to expressing ideas to others, we have to use words in some way. For a direct example, think about foreign students who take proof courses. Is it more difficult for students to learn proof structure when they have to simultaneously learn English sentence structure, and grammer? For those new to proofs, those lexical aspects are absolutely required to learn how to express mathematical aspects . Native speakers have the luxury to focus entirely on the proofs, while non-native speaks have an additional handicap. This was a small thought of mine, but it would be interesting to explore the challenges to mathematics due to language barriers. Have there been major advances that took years to confirm because of difficulties in translation of mathematical papers?

Overall, I feel like Inclusive Pedagogy is much more relevant to mathematics than I initially had thought.

Biracial or Biethnic?

I have been trying to understand race and identity my entire life and it has been a complicated road. My mother is white and my father is a hispanic immigrant from El Salvador. Being multi ethnic (I guess I’m not biracial since hispanic is an ethnicity, not a race..?) is absolutely confusing, and in my 26 years and many hours of reading about race and identity, I’m not sure I’ve figured things out. While I culturally may not be very openly hispanic it doesn’t matter, because my brown skin is what people see first. When they meet me they make a judgement based on my skin tone and my name. There are opinions and stereotypes that people have about me and how ‘my people’ act. For this reason I have to think carefully about how I conduct myself in an academic setting and how I approach challenging discussions of race and where/when I choose to speak up. Frankly, I don’t have much of a filter on this topic and regularly call out what I appear to be biases, but it is incredibly draining sometimes.

For this blog post, I decided to respond to several comments that stuck out to me in the ‘Dismantling Racism in Education’ podcast:

 (1) “Because I’m brown that doesn’t make me a diversity expert or an expert on race”

Oh man, if I had a dollar for every time this has come up. So true. I understand the desire to have representation on panels discussing race, but I wouldn’t say that I am the expert on race. Like Sara said in the podcast, I have lived experiences that are unique to my white colleagues. For that reason I am more comfortable navigating the conversation of race, but that doesn’t mean the whole thing should be put on me to teach others what is wrong and right.

(2) “White Privilege”

Again, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve tried to navigate explaining this one. I appreciated the breakdown and separation of white privilege from social/economic privilege. These are two different things that should not be confused. White privilege is so closely tied to representation, being able to see your face represented and being able to see your experiences represented as the norm. That is white privilege. White privilege is ignoring that police brutality is a thing because as a white person you don’t have negative experiences with police officers, so how could anyone else? (Insert face palm emoji)

(3) “It costs white people nothing to speak up”

Yasssss. Please. Do speak up. For me. When I speak up, I’m considered an angry brown woman. Any time I bring up race or point out biases that my white peers have, I can guarantee you that going through someones head is ‘the race card again,’ and that is exhausting. Knowing that I can keep bringing up what I believe to be wrong, but then I get pegged as the continually angry person pointing out race problems. But why do I always have to be the one to say something. If we see ourselves as progressives, then it should be just as evident for me that something is racist as it is to the person next to me.

(4) “Many of us are reluctant to speak up because we don’t have the expertise”

I have heard this a lot, and I agree, as a white person you may not have the expertise, and I appreciate you admitting that upfront. So here’s what you can do. Educate yourselves. Please. Take the time to listen and respect others opinions. Listen, appreciate, and understand that those experiences are real. Do not question that experience just because you have never experienced it. That is what I would say, listen, and respect perspectives that are not your own. Practice becoming comfortable with conversations and situations that make you uncomfortable, that’s how we make change.

Can discomfort be taken seriously?

Some may think those who work in academia within STEM fields are lucky – the classes and work they do rarely involve bringing up conversations about biases, political correctness, and privilege among other things. Many of our research areas don’t involve the human experience at all, so “uncomfortable” subjects don’t usually come up in the classroom.

Just because we don’t intentionally stimulate “uncomfortable” dialogue very often doesn’t make us lucky at all. Situations that reveal biases and problems within the workplace will inevitably come about, rendering us unprepared and even more uncomfortable.

STEM fields are just as subject to inequality and biases as any other area. At my previous university, at least three women close to me reported Title IX incidents without any subsequent repercussion to the offenders. One of those reports involved a tenured, full professor in her department. She was being paid quite a bit less than her male counterparts; even less than some assistant, untenured male professors. Moreover, she was only one of two full, female professors in the department. Even further, there were no non-white faculty at any level in this department.

We never, ever talk about why white males dominate our field. Animal Science at the undergrad level is 80% female and mostly white. However, those with leadership positions in Animal Science, and agricultural fields as a whole – almost 100% male. I’m not entirely bothered by this, because I feel these dynamics are slowly changing at the academic level. What does bother me is that our higher-ups know these issues exist, and still choose to blatantly gloss over them.

Consequently these conversations are rarely had. When they come up in the workplace, they are not serious. Males dominate the dialogue, and as a woman I usually find myself feeling sheepish and not wanting to be contrary. I’ve been witness to such conversations where a woman will be brave enough to interject, only to later hear the men talking amongst themselves about the content of her character. As a result, my automatic reaction when the subject of bias arises is to be passive. Unfortunately, that’s how women are conditioned to be in our society – agreeable, cooperative, apologetic even.

The power dynamic rules in these situations.  Georgetown’s guides for using heated topics as a learning tool make the task seem more approachable. However, those mainly apply to a classroom setting when you hold the power cord of the conversation. The question is, how can we overcome the fear of having the unpopular opinion if we aren’t in the power role or in the majority? How can we learn to be okay with creating discomfort?


On Diversity and Inclusion

Participants in learning environments have been members of society; affected by a variety of factors in society and have been exposed to different sorts of assumptions and judgments. They bring their rich experiences into the environment, unless their background and experiences are acknowledged; the environment may not welcoming and their learning experience may not be productive.

Diversity and inclusion matters. Katherine Phillips in her article highlights a particular benefit of diversity, informational diversity; the fact that participants have a chance to get exposed to different perspectives and beliefs. Phillips argues that people in an environment, in which they see/consider alternatives, work harder.  Georgetown’s Center for New Design in Learning and Scholarship reports that the efforts in creating inclusive environment students have positive academic and health effects for students who have been traditionally marginalized in the educational setting.

How can instructor create such an environment? Before making any agenda or action plan, instructor as a member of learning community needs to be aware of unconscious bias. Shakar Vedantam argues that our hidden brain unconsciously and without our awareness contribute in making unsupported judgement about individuals. To overcome this, a facilitator of a learning environment needs to be aware of her hidden brain when it works in “autopilot mode”, as Vedantam calls it. In addition, she needs to be aware that children get exposed to different biases from early ages influenced by family, educational system, media and so on. Her role, then, is beyond creating different sorts of learning opportunities and having different methods of assessment, indeed.

Thinking about different aspects of diversity, the issue of race and racism is perhaps the most difficult aspect that needs to be addressed. On the Heinmann podcast, “Dismantling Racism in Education”, panel members have paid close attention to systemic root of the issue and discuss exclusion of Black and Brown as an intentional problem in the schooling system. We cannot ignore it. Cornelius Minor, one of the panel members invites us to put humanity at center and see individuals’ backgrounds as shared struggle that solidify friendship. ,

This is not going to be an easy conversation, needs to have foundation and ground rules…



An evolutionary psychology approach to deconstructing bias

The reading I did for this week’s discussions covered many topics, of which, I liked Shankar Vendantam’s hidden brain post best. ( S.V is currently producing a podcast for NPR covering social sciences). The main point S.V raises is that bias is traceable to a cognitive process where our mind is trained to see patterns in repeated inputs it receives. So, our first reactions to meeting people who are considerably different from us is fear, suspicion and in general involuntary but  negative judgement.

I think there is more to this argument, as I will try to explain, and back up my thoughts with a few sources. What evolution has done to our minds is that it has wired it so that the tools for detecting confirmation are far more powerful than tools for logical thinking, especially if it requires going against our already re-inforced convictions ( This is the main argument here, and the examples are fascinating!). To make things worse, human beings’ cognitive apparatus is evolved to to scream danger when we find ourselves in new environments. This has been vital for our survival for many years, but is not helping us now, living in a cosmopolitan era. The solution (until our bodies find time to catch up) is to identify and resist and diffuse these misconceptions.

If the stormtroopers weren’t all white

Well, I thought the title was funny. In a bit of Star Wars lore, the original army was of clones from a single person. After an uprising within the clones, they included more genetic diversity within the ranks to prevent future insurrections. Even the Empire came to appreciate a more diverse group of stormtroopers.

Following the Phillips’ article, I read one called “Three myths plus a few best practices for achieving diversity”. The article focuses on STEM fields, but it has a few points that I really like. When attempting to achieve a more diverse group, we succumb to the belief that there is prescription or a method for achieving this. I get where that notion may come from. In these types of fields, we seem to approach things very logically. If I do A, then B should happen. Or, there are procedures galore on how to do things. If that is how we approach trying to foster a more diverse workplace, are we truly seeking to do that or just doing it for the sake of numbers? I appreciate the approaches suggested.

The article suggests that rather than looking for a prescription for diversity, we should adopt certain practices that promote diversity. The three practices are to forget colorblindness, enhance belonging, and continue action. The one that resonates with me the best is forgetting color blindness. They suggest that we acknowledge the differences between people rather than pretending like they don’t exist. I appreciate that; but, this idea needs to be fleshed out more. I think there is a tension that needs to be held there. We need to appreciate the differences among each other, yet find a way to see everyone as equal. That sense of if we focus too much on our uniqueness, we forget the common things that bind us together. Yet, we don’t want to rob people of their identities. It is easy to say, but doing is harder. It will require lots of work, and there is no simple 5-step guide to achieving that balance. Much like it was suggested that to overcome our biases, we have to stop and think about things more.

Speaking of bias, I feel tricked by the bias test. However, it shows that even how unbiased we believe ourselves to be there exists some level of bias. I don’t feel we should beat ourselves up over that. These are things we have learned from a young age. I like the suggestion that we should think more about our biases, and why we have that association. It may sound a bit lame, but stopping and thinking seems to improve a lot of things. Maybe we just need to stop and think, what would others say about this? Even the “threat” of a more diverse group makes us better thinkers.

Brave Spaces Are Preferred

Arao & Clemens “seek to cultivate brave spaces rather than safe spaces for group learning about a broad range of diversity and social justice issues” (Arao & Clemens, 2013, p.141).  I agree with this approach because the term brave spaces “clarifies that these environments are challenging and that students are expected to participate within them” (Ali, 2017, p.8). Thus, I think discussions in brave spaces are more likely to be productive than those in safe spaces.

On a related note, I found out that the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) recommends brave spaces for class discussions. “Administrators, faculty, and staff can replace use of the term safe space, as it pertains to class-based dialogues, with that of brave space. By using the term brave space, faculty are able to distinguish an inclusive classroom discussion from programming on campus that commonly provides respite space for traditionally marginalized communities” (Ali, 2017, p.8).

Ali, D. (2017). Safe Spaces and Brave Spaces: Historical Context and Recommendations for Student Affairs Professionals. NASPA Policy and Practice Series, 2, 1-13. Retrieved from

Arao, B. & Clemens, K. (2013). From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice. In L. M. Landreman (Ed), The art of effective facilitation: Reflections from social justice educators (First ed.), (pp.135-150). Sterling, Virginia; Washington, DC;: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Dismantling Racism in Education

For this week’s bog, I listened (and read the transcript) the Dismantling Racism in Education podcast. This podcast resonates with me on so many levels. The interview takes place with Dr. Cornelius West & three Heinemann Fellows (Sonja Ahmed, Sonja Cherry-Paul and Cornelius Minor).

While this entire transcript is mesmerizing and memorable, the part that sticks out to me the most is the section that states,” Racism looks like teaching children that race doesn’t matter when in fact race does matter, to borrow from Dr. Cornell West. When we teach kids these sort of canned narratives that race doesn’t matter, we’re all the same, we’re all equal, there really needs to be a paradigm shift where we’re teaching our children race does matter in this society. It shouldn’t, but it does. And for some of your peers and for some citizens, they’re having a very different experience because of the color of their skin. In our household, we see that as unjust and unfair and we are pushing back against that, but it’s important for you to know that as you are going to school and celebrating the uniqueness’s of your peers. That racism is real and it does matter in this society because there are people who make it matter. I wish that was the narrative that parents were taking in their homes and then teachers can pick up in schools, in developmentally appropriate ways to help kids understand this.” (source: Dismantling Racism in Education)

This resonates me on SO MANY LEVELS! As a child, I was taught that in order to work twice as hard to be considered half as good as they (read: white) people are. I didn’t understand this thought until my senior year of high school where I was told that I should consider trade school or community college but don’t expect to advance any further than that. (side note: and now here I stand about to graduate with a MASTER’S DEGREE! Look at me now!). I didn’t understand what it meant to be a Black woman in today’s society, particularly in higher education, until I began my collegiate career. The ivory towers are not built for me, in fact, they’re built to keep people who look like me out. So much of the word that I live in, the 21st century, is not built to support me and my salient identities. Race does matter unfortunately. If it didn’t matter, many of the hardships and trails that we as African/African American/People of Color face would’t be real challenges for us.

I always find it interesting to listening to my white peers and colleagues discuss their experiences both in the academy and in the world. Often they face their own set of trails, but I’ve never heard of them not being served at a restaurant in 2018 simply because of the color of their skin, or being pulled over and handcuffed while their possessions are searched, or being declined a job interview once the interviewers realized that they were a person of color. As much as we may want to turn a blind eye to racism and say that it doesn’t exist, it does. And the people in power (read: politicians, college presidents, CEOs/CFOs, etc.) who have the opportunity to change this, don’t. Why? I don’t think there’s one clear cut answer, but from my experience, a lot of the thinking is that this is the way that it’s always been done and as such, why rock the boat?

As higher education professionals (bth student affairs professionals and faculty), I believe that we can begin to dismantle the system from within the ivory towers. We have a responsibility to our students to engage them, teach them, broaden their horizons and perspectives. We cannot allow students to remain the same as they did when they walked through our doors. Although we cannot control the outcome, it is our responsibility to at least have a call to action for our students. It’s our responsibility to bring in the omitted narratives, to bring forth the truth in our classroom, to stretch our students minds. Often, college is one of the few if not the only place this is allowed to happen. I challenge my peers to think about what they can do to disrupt the system and begin to dismantle racism in the academy and in education holistically.

What animals can teach us about inclusive pedagogy

Wildlife & inclusive pedagogy. How do these words correlate? For some, the relationship may be unclear. But for someone like me who studies animals, the animal kingdom can teach us (humans) a thing or two about inclusive pedagogy. But first, what is inclusive pedagogy? According to Georgetown University “Inclusive pedagogy is a method of teaching in which instructors and classmates work together to create a supportive environment that gives each student equal access to learning. In these courses, the content takes into account the range of perspectives in the class, and is delivered in a way that strives to overcome barriers to access that students might have. Inclusive classrooms work to ensure that both teacher and student participation promote thoughtfulness and mutual respect” ( In other words, inclusive pedagogy is simply making sure that students with different backgrounds, learning styles, perspectives, and experiences all receive an education that works for them (i.e., there is no “one size fits all” in education).

Image result for pig and tiger

While animals most likely do not consciously think about inclusive pedagogy or teaching in general, some animals raise and teach not only their own young but the young of others as well. These animals are inclusive. It does not matter to them that some of their pupils/babies/friends/choose whatever word you want, look different, sound different, smell different, act differently, etc. All that matters is that these animals are put in the care-for and teaching role – and they embrace it. Stories about an animal of one species befriending, taking care of, and “teaching” an animal of a different species are relatively commonplace. Of course there are stories that are twisted and misconstrued to pull at heart-strings (e.g., the lioness and the antelope), so it is important to take this all with a grain of salt, but countless examples of true mutual relationships between species exist. For example, there is the dog who is best friends with a duckling and helps teach the duckling to swim and the cat that adopts a baby squirrel that fell out of a tree and teaches the baby squirrel to purr ( I know – my point here may be a bit of a stretch, but I kept thinking about this all weekend and so had to get some of these thoughts out!

Image result for dog and duckling

Now, I realize many will argue that these examples of animals taking care of other animals is not teaching and is driven solely by some maternal or paternal instinct. And part of me agrees with that. But, another part of me has observed animals enough to know that they have empathy and compassion towards others and that they communicate in ways that are often too subtle for us to notice. I have watched my dogs teach my puppy how to do certain things (same species example, I know). However, it really doesn’t matter why animals will raise and teach other animals. It only matters that they do (and that it is really cute!)

Musing on my Teaching Self

When contemplating this week’s blog post I was suddenly reminded of a True Colors Personality Test that I took as part of my time as a resident assistant during my undergrad. I tied for both green and blue. (If you haven’t taken a True Colors year check out this quick one here: As a … Continue reading Musing on my Teaching Self
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