Thursday (March 11) will be the 10th anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Despite its apparent “natural” cause– the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami– an independent investigative panel called Fukushima “a profoundly manmade disaster– that could and should have been foreseen and prevented. And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response” (Kurokawa, 2012). Its effects are still being lived by displaced people, sick workers, and animals designated for slaughter because they are no longer good to eat. Philosopher Alexis Shotwell writes about farmers who have chosen to stay/return to Fukushima to care for radioactive cattle, calling their work a form of “care-as-protest” against the systems and ideologies that suggest the human and animal lives affected by (manmade) disaster no longer matter.
Thursday will also be the first anniversary of the WHO declaring COVID a pandemic: another profoundly manmade disaster, despite its apparent “natural” (viral) cause, because of how humans have responded and failed to respond. As people continue to die at a pace nearly impossible to make sense of and properly grieve, other people have created memorials as a form of care, for those whose lives were truncated and for those who are mourning, and as a form of protest against the anonymization, minimization, and anesthetization– the not mattering– that happens when lives affected by (manmade) disaster are relegated to statistics.
For many people, the events of the past year have heightened questions about how to be a human in a hot mess of a world, and specifically, how to be a mathematics teacher. I have so appreciated the many brilliant posts in this newsletter exploring and pressing on what mathematics teachers can and should be doing (by @LBmathemagician, @Hkhodai, and @melvinmperalta especially) for their students, for themselves, and for our world. There are no simple answers, because we are all complicit (as participants, especially with institutional authority) in the disastrous systems that tell mathematics students– especially BIPoC students for whom US public schools were not designed, students who identify or are identified as girls, students who are labeled or made disabled– that they and their mathematicalness do not matter. And there are certainly no universal answers, because we all operate from who we are and where we are and how we are uniquely, and what’s right for one of us may not be right for another. But that does not mean there are no responses.
For my dissertation, I had the opportunity to spend a year observing how two veteran mathematics teachers “do what [they] can– recognizing that what [they] can do, on its own, will never be enough” (Shotwell, 2016) to singlehandedly disrupt or dismantle the manmade disasters we are all living through. And what I found in what they do prompted me to think about a concept philosophers call response-ability. More than just a play on words, response-ability is a way of being that emphasizes what responses are made possible by your responses, and what responses are made possible by those responses, and so on.
For example, one of the teachers described getting to know students as a process of constantly trying out new ways of interacting with individual students: “is this something that makes [a student] smile when I say it? Is it something that makes them laugh when I say it? Is it something that makes them cringe when I say it?” In other words, what student responses are made possible by what you say and do, and what kind of further responses do those responses enable from you? Responses matter because they are how we show what matters, and what matters to us is often revealed by responses we aren’t able to deliberate about in advance. When a student turns off their Zoom camera in the middle of class, do we mention it publicly, privately, in the moment, later, or at all? When a student interrupts a classmate, do we ignore it? Correct the behavior? Embrace the contribution? What student responses are made possible by each of these responses– and what further responses are then made possible for you?
This past year I know many people have sought meaningful ways to enact their values that Black Lives Matter, that migrant lives matter, that incarcerated lives matter, that elderly and immunocompromised lives matter. We can post signs or statements, we can design lesson plans, we can speak up in meetings, we can vote, we can certainly do many more things. But also, how can your in-the-moment responses show students that they matter? That their thinking matters, their mathematical ideas matter, but also, even if they don’t have any ideas they feel like sharing in the moment, mathematical or not, that they matter?
Written by Grace Chen @graceachen