TMC in 2018: a personal reflection of where we are

Super rough draft thinking…

Last summer at the end of TMC17, there was a flex session on diversity. That brought up a host of questions that made us realize: as an organization/conference, we don’t even know who we are. That was both terrifying (do we not?!) and exciting (we get to tease out our core values!).

Here’s the thing. The conference runs pretty darn smoothly and appears organized to people attending, but that all comes as a result of a handful of people on the committee working on certain individual tasks (usually alone, sometimes with one other person). And Lisa, our amaaaaahzing Lisa, keeps her eyes on everything and does the bulk of the infrastructure/logistical work that makes the conference actually happen.

But — and this may come as a surprise to y’all — I’ve been on the organizing committee for a few years, and never once in that time did we all get together in person or on a google hangout to have a discussion. Mostly the committee members worked on their individual tasks and we would occasionally send an email out or ask a question… most people knew what they were working on, but didn’t know what everyone else was doing. And honestly, there probably wasn’t a need. The conference was successful in that it, for many attendees, provided something that they didn’t get in other places professionally, and people were on the whole happy.

So when that flex session on diversity came up, it opened my eyes to something. We were doing the logistics of recreating the conference from year to year. But it was now year six, and although still organized by math educators for math educators, we (as organizers) were still considering ourselves to be a ragtag conference that we cobble together. Maybe I shouldn’t speak for everyone. I should probably say…

… at least that’s how I looked at TMC until then. It was perhaps a vestige of the thinking when it all first happened in 2012, and we were cobbling everything together from scratch (here’s the original website that I put together but don’t even remember putting together!: TMC12). And perhaps it’s because it was just a merry band of us making spreadsheets and organizing ourselves in dorms and trying to read contracts and figure out what they meant and fumbling around trying to make things work over the years… it just felt like we weren’t professional conference organizers. We were just trying to make things happen as best as we could. And so that was enough. I thought we’re volunteering our time for this… so who could ask for more? 

But the flex session made me realize we are not that anymore. We can’t be that anymore. Because the conference is real and sustained and impacts people. That’s it: we were responsible because we were putting things together and what we did impacted people. And it was clear that for all our work to be welcoming, we weren’t always being successful. Jenise Sexton wrote in 2017:

So when I walked in the Dining Hall of Holy Innocent Episcopal School along with around 200 other participants, I wasn’t surprised to see like 4 or 5 other brown skinned people. But that evening I received a DM from another participant which read, “Where are all the black people?”

In that moment, reading that message, I realized it wasn’t my role to be the sole representative. It isn’t supposed to be normal for me to be the only black face in the room.

And in the flex session, people had lots of questions about how things happened to make the conference what it was. How did we think about registration and who can attend? What outreach do we do? Who chooses the keynote speakers and how do they get chosen — and does diversity (in any form) come into play? How do sessions get selected/accepted and organized? Why do we really want diversity, and what kinds of diversity are we even talking about? What is diversity anyway?

People cared about this. And conversations (good conversations!) happened at TMC around this. Marian Dingle wrote wonderfully about it here (“Yet, I don’t feel that I was able to fully let my hair down at TMC. For one, I was a first-timer, and the few people I “knew”, I only knew through Twitter. For another, I was one of a few black women, which although not an unfamiliar situation, still was not comfortable.”) and I’m glad that she was selected to be on the TMC Board this year. [1]

And this is precisely where I started to realize we were responsible for answering these questions. We had to think more than simply about logistics and getting the conference to run smoothly. We had to think about what the conference really was, and what a vision for it was. We can’t hide behind “don’t expect too much from us… we’re just putting this thing together on our spare time!”

And from this, Tina (with me as a trusty sidekick) took the reins on coming up with a mission statement for TMC — asking for input from all constituents (anyone who attended TMC, the committee, the board) and then asking for more feedback from the community during a Global Math Department session before it took its final form.

mission.png

That was a huge step forward for us, I think. Because it helped us define our core values as best as we could, and then refine them. It is perfect? No. But does it give us a place to start working from? Yes.

Now let’s fast forward to TMC18. Another flex session on diversity. And the first question that comes up:

Why do we value diversity as TMC? The mission says “we value diversity” but it doesn’t go deeper. We need to go deeper. 

And in this hour and a quarter, many things got raised. Some of my key notes:

  • We are at a place where TMC is a grassroots organization whose grass has grown too high. We are just starting to grapple with how to deal with that mindfully, inclusively, awesomely.
  • Do people see diversity as important for TMC because: (a) diversity helps TMC (it makes TMC stronger), or (b) we want to create a TMC that’s valuable for all math educators?
  • We all blog and tweet to connect with people, and sometimes it is comforting to connect with someone like you in a way other than just math — such as in terms of race or sexual orientation. “If white people/cis people can find it, I should be able to find it too.” [One thought that was thrown out for those who want to connect in safe spaces at TMC was to form “homerooms” or “affinity spaces.”]
  • “It’s not just about inviting people, it’s about what they’re being invited into.”
  • As math educators, we know that numbers can be powerful. But the number of people of color attending TMC each year might not be the metric to use to measure us with “diversity.” We want to be careful not to try to “get” people of color (or diverse participants) just for numbers, to make us feel like we’re filling a quota and doing the right thing. We don’t want diversity to be trendy — to make ourselves feel better, or so we’re trying to make the “picture” look better. Maybe other metrics (more qualitative) are better. [What we do at TMC? Action steps we’ve taken? Things like pronouns on tags. Sessions. Keynotes. Big and small. We tried some these things — what can we measure? What does success look like?] Numbers don’t speak; they lie in a vacuum when given without context.
  • We need to be more strategic than being generally welcoming (which we do really well). We need to be specifically welcoming.
  • If TMC is going to double down on addressing diversity and encouraging participants to engage, it needs to build that into the schedule (perhaps by having a diversity/equity strand in the program, and perhaps other ways to encourage conversations around these issues).
  • TMC and the #MTBoS are intertwined because the #MTBoS is the primary pipeline for people coming to TMC. So one possible thing that could happen is that people could start having more sustained and organized discussions about diversity and equity in the #MTBoS. One idea was about having a regular chat (e.g. #MTBoSequity) and having it center around shorter things like articles/blogposts instead of books. Questions were raised about twitter being super public and challenging to have those sorts of conversations — and the idea of having semi-private discussion boards or not-saved-video-conferences similar to Global Math Department were raised. (Tina just blogged about the idea here.)
  • Having people write their pronouns on their nametags was a way TMC forced people to confront diversity in a small way. Someone asked if there were other small things like that that we could do.
  • We have a lot of people at TMC who are supportive of the ideas of diversity. 

In the flex session, people asked a lot of questions about how we plan the logistics, just like last year. How are the sessions chosen? How are the keynotes chosen? How does registration work? At heart, the reason these questions were asked is because people were interested in seeing if there was intentionality in how they were being done. [2]

And that to me is where we need to go next as we think about organizing TMC. Intentionality. I wrote earlier that:

I’ve been on the organizing committee for a few years, and never once in that time did we all get together in person or on a google hangout to have a discussion.

TMC is at a place, at least to me, where we have successfully figured out many of the logistical aspects of putting the conference together. We were able to do that as a committee without being a cohesive whole — we could work in our little silos. However we’re at a critical juncture as an organization. We need to figure out how we can ask big questions, have sustained and challenging discussions that push us, have a process for moving from discussions to making decisions so we can move forward, and come up with a clear and shared vision that we’re moving towards. 

After writing that, I only have one word that comes to mind: overwhelmed.

After TMC18, the committee and the board did all sit down together. We had four hours. And though we could have used four more, I was proud that we identified that we needed a way to communicate and have discussions, and we are in the beginning stages of learning how to do this all virtually and asynchronously. In the few weeks since TMC18, we’re actually starting to do this. It’s a lot we have to do, and we don’t have a roadmap on how to do it. It would be way easier to just go back to how things were done. But that’s not in line with what we want to be. Earlier, I wrote:

The conference was successful in that it, for many attendees, provided something that they didn’t get in other places professionally, and people were on the whole happy.

But I wrote that to reflect my thoughts then. Now I see that this is problematic. Is that a good metric of success for us? Who gets counted in the “many” and what does “on the whole” really mean? We have to be intentional to make sure that everyone feels at home and that we are working towards our mission of reaching “all learners.” Which means we need to think about teachers who are feeling left out. When we’re thinking about the conference as a whole, who are we designing it for? Is it for people like ourselves (those on the organizing committee/board)? [3] Or do we need to start de-centering ourselves before asking this question?

As I said: overwhelming.

I don’t know how this all will happen. I know it won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick. I’m imagining years. [4] And honestly, a big part of me wants to shy away from all this change. Those who know me know that change is really hard for me. I’m a little  (big) hobbit who likes to live in my little hobbit hole. But I also know that if I were one of my students who came to me for advice on all this, I would say to them “doing what’s easy is not always doing what’s right.” And I’ve never been scared of hard work.

I should conclude by saying these are just things I’ve been thinking a lot about. But they are my thoughts. They aren’t fully formed (rarely are my thoughts fully formed), and certainly not cohesive. But more importantly, they aren’t official thoughts of the committee or the board. I don’t really even know if other TMC organizers will agree with my thinking about this! But I promised @BeckyNftP I would blog about the flex session around diversity, but the only way to keep that promise was to embed that in the much larger thing that I’ve been mulling over in my head.

 
[1] Please don’t ask me what the Board does and what the Committee does. Remember when I said ragtag? These are things we’re still figuring out.

[2] And things were being done.  Those selecting the keynotes or organizing the conference program did think about bigger picture things. But they took that up on their own, not because they were working towards a shared vision we all had.

[3] As TMC started, it had to be. That’s why it was started! For a small group of #MTBoS people to meet in real life. But now we have to ask the question if our answer is still the same?

[4] We’ll probably need at least a year just to figure out how to communicate with each other semi-effectively.

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One comment

  1. Thanks for writing this. It’s really great to see how the TMC committee members are responding to the lack of diversity that they see by looking inside and thinking of ways to change. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help.

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