Every now and then I have one of these days when I know that my students truly understand and apply what they’ve been taught. At those moments, teaching is incredibly rewarding.
I am not one to shy away from controversial topics in the classroom. It is important for students to learn how to approach tough topics using OR and numbers, rather than by flinging personal attacks. In my intro to statistics course this semester, I used Larry Summers to make a point about the importance of variance. Originally, it was reported that Summers claimed that there might be some evidence that men were innately “better” than math than women. Naturally, I was offended when I read the original stories. But I don’t like to judge someone without knowing all of the facts. When the transcript of his controversial speech was posted online, I read it. Aside from one paragraph that would have made me cringe unless it was delivered in the perfect tone (and supposedly it wasn’t), I couldn’t find anything about Summers suggesting that men were innately better than women in math. The controversial comments were about variability in math scores, not average math scores. Apparently, it has been well documented that there is more variability in boys’ math scores, but no one knows to what extent it is nature or nurture.
After illustrating this point in class by drawing a couple of bell curves with the same means but different variances, I couldn’t tell if my students were lost or offended.
Weeks passed. Surprisingly, I found out that my students were neither lost nor offended. Two of my students not only understood what I was teaching, but they were able to teach the concepts to others (one of the highest forms of learning!). These two students are taking a class on women’s health. The topic of Larry Summers came up, and my students walked the class of mostly non-technical majors through the basic concepts, by drawing bell curves and correcting the misconceptions. The professor was so impressed that she emailed me about it. And now here I am, brimming with pride over my “kids.” It’s days like this that remind me how much fun teaching can be.
- The Anita Borg Institute chronicles the controversy
- Marginal Revolution explains what nearly all of the articles about the controversy got wrong much better than I could. More than three years after the controversy, we finally started seeing articles start to get some of the details right.