Math, Meritocracy and Race – Brooklyn College Professor Defends Her Work

Photo: Brooklyn College

FLATBUSH – Dr. Laurie Rubel published an article in the Journal of Urban Mathematics Education about how we teach math in schools, and the right-wing media is out to get her.

The article explores equity-directed instructional practices in teaching math in urban schools that are highly segregated, the role of whiteness and whether meritocracy perpetuates inequality in some settings.

“The principle of meritocracy also dictates that lack of success is a result of a lack
of effort or ability,” she writes. That principle can also be described as a “tool of whiteness” because “it ignores ‘systemic barriers and institutional structures that prevent opportunity and success,'” she writes in the article.

“This piece was my way of trying to share with the field my perspective on what I think it means to be a great math teacher. And I tried to break that down to people so they could work with teachers in other parts of the world on these same practices,” Dr. Rubel said in Math Ed Podcast.

In the 35-minute podcast, Dr. Rubel defended her article and spoke about hyper-segregation in NYC schools. “The black and brown kids who are in their own schools have less qualified teachers, less access to advanced courses, poor facilities,” she said. “Beyond that, we’ve got a myth that all you have to do is work hard, and people are talking about grit… and this enrages me because looking at these schools, what do they expect kids to do?”

“They didn’t even have qualified math teachers and now here they are in tenth grade and they’ve just never been given any kind of access to anything, and we’re going to tell them you need to work harder?” she said.

The right-wing media, however, misconstrued what Dr. Rubel wrote. Campus Reform is a notoriously conservative outlet that aims to expose “the liberal bias and abuse against conservatives on America’s colleges and universities,” its website states. It is also not the first time it has attacked someone at Brooklyn College.

Campus Reform writes: “Rubel recommends that math teachers incorporate more social justice issues into math lessons, but warns that even ‘teaching for social justice’ can be a ‘tool of whiteness’ if teachers are not sufficiently attuned to the experiences of minority students.”

Fox NewsBreitbart, and The Daily Mail then wrote similar articles on Dr. Rubel citing Campus Reform as its main source.

“I don’t think people are reading these journal articles. I think they have some kind of a Google Scholar alert thing where you’re looking for phrases like ‘whiteness’… so they just pull out this part that is clear to be a lightning rod and put it on Campus Reform,” Dr. Rubel said in the podcast.

In an open letter from CUNY’s faculty/staff union, Professor James Davis, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) union’s Brooklyn College Chapter Chair, urges for a proper statement by CUNY officials supporting Dr. Rubel. He claims that the professor has been receiving hostile emails, including threats of sexual and physical assault– something Dr. Rubel also speaks about in the podcast. In fact, she received emails from people bashing on her about being a woman, a Jew, and gay.

“I was flooded with all kinds of unpleasant messages and demands that I be fired,” she said. “Unpleasant is a kind adjective.”

“These outlets are not engaged in challenging the methods or findings of academic research but in manufacturing bits of pseudo-news, coordinated to maximize social media exposure, intimidate professors, and discredit departments and institutions,” the PSC letter states. “Any of us could find our work willfully decontextualized and caricatured to fuel the outrage machine.”

The Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs William Tramontano and the Dean of School of Education April Bedford released statements on behalf of Dr. Rubel, but Davis thinks its not enough. “We urge the University leadership to issue such a public statement of support for Dr. Rubel and to establish joint faculty-administration task forces on academic freedom on the campuses,” the letter says.

“We strongly defend Professor Rubel’s right to publish her work without threat of personal harm. She has the right to pursue scholarship within her field and publish her research in professional venues,” Tramontano’s statement read. “We strongly support her academic freedom, as well as her right to explore issues of educational fairness and racial equality in education systems.”

“The personal attacks she has received as a result of her most recent publication are unacceptable and abhorrent. I stand in support of Laurie and her work, and I know you join me in supporting her and standing against hate,” Bedford’s statement said.

The American Association of Univesity Professors has also shared its support and is urging people to add their names as well. The National Council of Mathematics issued a statement on behalf of Dr. Rubel, saying “NCTM stands beside mathematics education researchers and their research that serves to challenge often unexamined norms and practices of school mathematics.”

You can listen to the complete podcast where Dr. Rubel discusses her article here.

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