On Microaggressions, Kind Humor, and People Who Lift Your Spirits

By Rachel Levy, Deputy Executive Director of the Mathematical Association of America

Rachel Levy, MAA Deputy Executive Director and Francis Su, past MAA President

Rachel Levy, MAA Deputy Executive Director and Francis Su, past MAA President

I have been thinking lately about reports of microaggressions at math conferences and in the classroom.  These can take the form of thoughtless comments that might make someone feel unwelcome.  Thoughtless because maybe the person didn’t think what they said would be a problem or perhaps they didn’t recognize possible negative impacts before speaking.  Micro because certainly if the person intended to cause harm, it would be a plain old aggression.

We all make mistakes.  We all sometimes cause pain with our communication.  We need ways to work through these situations without causing undue burden, especially to those feeling the injury.

We also want people to feel free to interact, to ask questions, to learn and grow, to make mistakes.  To repair relationships that have gone awry. We want a variety of opinions to be welcome. We want to promote respectful discourse among people who disagree.  

As a mathematical modeler, I engage in respectful discourse by working to understand people’s assumptions, objective functions and logic.  In her MathFest talk, Eugenia Cheng used category theory to analyze human perspectives.  Megan Squire used data mining in her 2016 paper “Differentiating Communication Styles of Leaders on the Linux Kernel Mailing List.”  Notably, in September 2018, Linus Torvald, identified in the study as one of the most offensive communicators, publicly recognized the issue and stated that he would take time away from online communication to work on his issues.  Mathematics can help us understand each other and ourselves.

Mathematical modeling provides me insight about other people’s points of view because I can recognize what assumptions are being made.  This helps identify why we disagree and how we each developed our beliefs, values, conclusions or opinions. When I warmly and respectfully listen to people who have fairly different political or religious views, they usually reciprocate and ask for more conversation, even when the conversation is uncomfortable.  This includes conversations about mathematics and pedagogy. I value these conversations. I want to know where people are coming from. I generally learn more when our perspectives differ.

This leads me to humor, because humor (like politics, religion and sometimes research) has a way of bringing people together or dividing them.  It provides a mechanism for raising uncomfortable issues. It can build and release tension among a whole crowd in a remarkably short time. It can help us see ourselves in a new light.

And yet, much humor has been based on laughing at someone’s expense.  Think about late-night humor that picks on celebrities and politicians.  Think about slapstick humor that might involve a pie in the face, a slip on a banana peel, a coyote falling off a cliff, or a crack in the head with a rotating piece of lumber.  Think about self-deprecation of a comedian who makes fun of their own culture, relationships or misfortune. We laugh at other people’s pain, while we flinch or cringe as we recognize our own.   As a child watching TV, I remember wondering, is this cruelty and violence the main way to make people laugh?

We don’t want to lose humor at our conferences, but when we make jokes in talks or in writing, we must be aware of whether the humor functions at someone’s expense.  With this in mind, I found it very challenging to create cartoons for the BIG Jobs Guide.

The way (kind not mean) humor was valued attracted me to work at Harvey Mudd College. I learned humor was part of HMC from the start via founder Joe Platt, who was quite the prankster and wrote silly nerdy songs. More than 50 years later, pranking is still part of the tradition of the college, with rules about how to opt out of being pranked and the requirement to self-report if a prankster doesn’t follow the rules.  These include leaving info about who did the prank, and how the pranksters can be contacted to do any necessary clean up.

A shared laugh about who should be predator (chickens) and who should be prey (velociraptors) in my differential equations teaching talk was probably an important factor in getting my job in the Mathematics Department.   The funny included chalk drawings of the VLCs and VSVs (very large chickens and very small velociraptors) to show off their relative size and my marginal art skills, along with comments about the 13 chickens that I had at the time.  For example, I had a rooster that one of my daughters named "sweet pie brownie" (who was not at all sweet). The fact that humor helped land a job is amusing because in general, I am pretty sure I am not funny, although puppeteer Paul Zaloom says I should develop a growth mindset about that.

I encourage you to thank and appreciate anyone who brings kind humor into your work and recreation.  I feel lucky that I still get to cross paths with punster Francis Su in my new gig at the Mathematical Association of America! In the pic above we are giving talks on the same day in Feb 2019 at the Louisiana / Mississippi section meeting.   He is a model for me of someone always ready for a smile and a laugh without causing pain or joking at someone’s expense.  I am looking forward to the release of his book on human flourishing, and its potential to help our mathematics community take a look at our microaggressions and affirmations, our use of humor, and our strong desire to build an inclusive community.

At the section meeting, in a Section NExT Instructional Practices Guide led by Gulden Karakok the participants shared kind humor, engaged in respectful disagreement, and developed strategies to welcome more students to mathematics.  These themes echoed again in a panel (really a town hall meeting) with section members and Mathematics Magazine Editor Michael Jones, MAA Executive Director Michael Pearson and myself.  We heard longtime members talk about the history of desegregating the section meeting on the Louisiana shores even before it was legal to do so.  We heard section leadership concerned that we increase participation in general, and in particular by members from underrepresented groups. I was honored to be present for that conversation, and by the warm welcome in my first experience as Section visitor as Deputy Executive Director.  Thank you in particular to Jana Talley, who oriented me to the meeting and did heroic late night and early morning airport runs and Judith Covington, who kicked off the new NSF-funded Get the Facts Out project!)