A Mathematician's Manifesto For Rethinking Gender
So, one of the things I most remember from elementary school is all of the math word problems. You know what? I'm talking about the ones that say things like, okay. If Alex has seven cookies and Sam has read cookies, how many cookies do we need to give some to make sure they have the same number of cookies? I would get so excited every time I got the right answer to one of these problems. Anyway. One is actually pretty easy. Well, we could give four more cookies to Sam all we could take four cookies from Alex. We could make Alex give to cookies to Sam in any of these four Eugenia Chang, a mathematician. The better answer is actually to ask a different question. What if some doesn't even like cookies and would rob have pools? See Eugeniusz Studies. This kind of high level math never heard of to be honest called category theory. Category Theory is very abstract pods of math and so abstract that sometimes even all the pure mathematicians think it's too abstract. But for me, it's about the core of what makes math tick and because math for me is about the core of what makes the tick cats theories like the cool coal of what makes the wilted because category theory is about understanding why things work the way they do intrinsic characteristics don't really matter what matters is how things relate to one another it started in around the middle of the twentieth century and in A. Way It's only very small small new idea but like great ideas, a small shift in perspective opens up an absolutely vast array of possibilities because it's like turning on a light, which is why in her most recent book x Plus Y, Eugenia uses category to turn the light on something that I might seem surprising for a mathematician something deeply ingrained in many of us gender it suddenly eliminates everything and you can see all sorts of things you didn't see before and so in the same way that we stop focusing on cookies which not everyone wants. What happens if we also stop focusing on gender constructs which might not be relevant. Category theory invites us to stop asking if men women and non binary people are equal and to look beyond the single dimension, of gender. Today on the show in abstract. Mathematicians approach to rethinking gender. I'm Emily Quang and you're listening to shortwave from NPR. Okay. So back to Alex Sam and their cookie dilemma, the Metaphor serves a larger point that are thinking about gender is one dimensional and doesn't characterize how people really are. Even when we think about gender as a spectrum between masculine and feminine behavior that's already a problem because it makes it sound wrong. So it makes it sound like menace supposed masculine and if a woman is masculine, then she somehow going against her nature and then if men are seen as being feminine, that sounds like that's something wrong with them as well. Whereas in fact, there's no reason to associate. Gender with character and everyone can be all sorts of things if type of character and behavior is something we valley. Then why wouldn't we value it from everybody of all genders? So Eugenia started to think about character as a dimension separate from gender asking how much our society value certain character traits over others, and she came up with her own way of categorizing behavior. One that deals with two new traits. She invented ingress give and Congress have, and the idea is that ingress of traits are more about individualism and single track been king and. Congress is about bringing things together, bringing people together, bringing ideas together and thinking about broader communities and society as a whole rather than individuals, and it's not trying to be a new dichotomy. It's trying to be a wave thinking about behavior and having woods because if you don't have woods to think about things, then it's much harder to think about them reflecting on her own career Eugenia realized early on that, she forced herself to be engrossing. That is individualistic and single-minded and she did land prestigious jobs in academia I'm ashamed of it now. Because I don't like that kind of behavior but I definitely. Latched onto the idea that in academia, it's important to make kind of aggressive arguments and show how clever you are and be able to talk yourself up because ultimately she says, the academic environment was inconclusive and relentless. It was such a kind of ongoing treadmill in my tenure job because it was a very all year thing and I remember one August getting ready for the new academic year and feel like had been about one minute since the previous academic year and I thought Oh just going to be like this until I retire now and then. Honestly, what happened was I started looking around at the people around me who were close to retirement. and. I thought. Oh. No, I'm becoming like them. And I didn't want to. And I thought I have to get out of this before I become sort of fossilized into this kind of behavior that I don't like. So she left the traditional tenure track and became a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as their scientists in residence. That's right. Eugenia began to teach math to art students. She wanted to make math more relevant to them, and then came the two thousand sixteen election a moment that brought issues of gender and race into focus and it was like I flipped a switch in my mind and I thought you know silence is complicity if I don't talk about these things and. Am I complicit with these things it's too important not to talk about it and I thought actually every academic discipline is there to help us understand the world and what is the most important thing in the world that we need to understand right now it is this social and political situation that we're getting ourselves into, and so then I felt like I really had to talk about it all the time. So the question for her became, how do I get my students to unlearn all of the aggressive competitive answered driven math they've taught for so many years especially when there are so many concepts to learn and so little time. And Eugenia. kind of figured it out by making sure that everyone in the class learns together AK congressionally take for example, this hands on activities she does to teach them about platonic solids. Am I don't tell them what the platonic solids all, and so in case you can't remember or never knew the platonic solids are the three dimensional shapes that have maximally symmetric and some of. Them are built out two triangles, and so they sit down and they build things together and they talk to each other while they're doing it and it's therapeutic because it's cutting and sticking visa, and some of them build platonic solids and some of them build things that are almost platonic solids but have a lot of symmetry on quite Tony solids and then someone will build a dinosaur. Is that You build a down right field a dinosaur. then. What you discover is that Pentagon's are really terrible shape for building a dinosaur off whereas triangles are fantastic shape for building a dinosaur you can build practically anything with triangles and that's profound mathematical fat try and relations are really really important tool in high level research and so whatever they do they will learn something and when we pool everything we've built as close. We will get all of these things even if not every. Individual person built every individual platonic solid, and so that is one way that we can do congressional explorations than sitting down and sort of memorizing. These are the platonic solids visa, the properties they have. This one is called this and it has many faces many this many edges and her villainous classes. Yeah. In this way, like you're holding the dinosaur and you're discovering something together about platonic solids through this joint exercise right and. In her class, she uses concepts from math to probe the relationships between people and the thing about aggressive classroom that students are able to probe back ask how all of this applies to say different types of privilege in society, and that moment was something that my i would never have come up with that idea about privilege and factors of numbers and the geometry. If my student had asked me these questions push things further. And further because when you teach in Congress I think it's important to find what motivates the students and tap into that. When you're teaching Ingram you try and bend their will to yours to try and show them. This is the right way of thinking. This is the way instead of meeting them somewhere, which is Congress if way the Keever Eugenia is to make Matha process of mutual discovery one that's truly inclusive and not competitive. Her classroom is a place where in the same breath that students are learning math they can have frank conversations about the role of race and gender in society if you ask them to stop thinking about it when they come into the math classroom, then they won't be interested in anything I say, and the people who think that we should stop talking about in math for them. It's not part of their life all the time because they're part of a group that doesn't have to think about it all. The time and so that's the reaction I get mostly it's amazement from people who really really resonate with these issues but you might be wondering what about people who are more aggressive? Aren't they getting lost in the shuffle some people worry the I'm now making it known inclusive towards ingress if people and I've had this query sometimes it's an interesting one because the thing is I do think I do value Congress behavior more than ingress behavior but if you think of it as for example in aggressive people. obstructive towards others in the classroom. So then what we're saying is that I am not going to be inclusive towards obstructive behaviour in the classroom and I think that's okay. I don't feel any reason to include obstructive behaviour in my classroom and so inclusivity is subtle. I don't think it means that we need to include all things. I don't need to include violence in my classroom I don't need to include. Intellectual violence and I don't need to include behavior that obstructs squashes of either and I don't think that means I'm not being inclusive I think it means that I'm valuing things are helpful to our community and I am not valuing things are obstructive to our community Eugenia. We have talked about everything this conversation I'm just I'm just I showed up. We're GONNA talk about math and we're talking about. We're talking about relationships are talking about how we learn we teach. How communities work I mean it's just it kind of encompasses. So much of actually what's really going on right now in society around recent gender too so I guess the only other thing I want to ask you is. What is like the single? Most Powerful thing that listeners can take to become more aggressive in their lives and create congressional situations at home. In Yeah. I think. To notice when we're fabricating competition that doesn't have to be a competition. Competition comes from scarcity of resources and we do not live in a world of scarcity of resources. At the moment it has been fabricated to have guessed resources, and then we fabricate competitions like music competitions. Music of all things is a thing that doesn't need to be a competition education doesn't need to be a competition because what we're learning is understanding knowledge and wisdom, and there isn't a limit on that resource. We can all have it. We don't have to prevent somebody else from having to have ourselves and conversations end up being competitive where the idea seems to be to win an argument was why we trying to win an argument and if we try and iron out. Contrived Ingram of situations in individual personal interruptions. Then we can build up from that because the world is made of little interactions that build up into big ones and I really think that even if we start small, we can build up to change the whole wall to be a better place for everybody of all genders.