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A Conversation with Brian Katz

“You cannot be neutral in issues of justice,” Brian Katz says. “So [one’s] choice is not between action and inaction; it’s between action that supports justice and action that resists justice.” Katz cites this as the best advice they have ever received. 

A Pine ‘09 MAA Project NExT Fellow and current faculty member at California State University, Long Beach, Katz has nurtured a deep passion for equitable and student-centered education. This year, Katz will join the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) as the newest associate director of MAA Project NExT — a professional development program for new or recent PhDs in the mathematical sciences, which has served over 1,700 Fellows. In celebration of the appointment, Katz spoke with us for our July MAA Spotlight. 

MAA: Can you tell us about your path into mathematics?

Brian Katz: Two very different stories, out of the scores of possibilities:

My sophomore year of high school, I had a skilled and seasoned teacher for PreCalculus. He had a heart attack over Thanksgiving (he was fine), and he decided to retire immediately; he was replaced with a local engineering graduate student. Our new teacher clearly knew the high school mathematics concepts, but as far as we could tell he didn’t have any training in teaching them to high schoolers. In our first-period class, he would try to explain some new concept and then we would talk as peers, reporting back to him near the end of class about the sense we’d made of the new concept. The rumor was that he used our reports to teach for the rest of the day, though it’s possible this was all intentional pedagogy. From this experience, I learned that I did not need a member of the mathematical priesthood to engage in mathematics. Math was about the sense we made together.

My high school had an International Baccalaureate program, and as a result, I got to study a little Group Theory as a senior. I remember proving my first theorem, that a group has a unique identity, by assuming there were two candidate identities and using their defining properties to prove that they (and hence any other identities) must be equal. I don’t think I was ever worried about the theorem being false, but I was very curious whether the definition of a group was enough to require this familiar result to hold. And within that, the proof felt a bit like a homecoming for me, finding a group of people interested in a way of knowing that attends to precision and the structure of language. As a researcher, I’m a qualitative social scientist, but aesthetically I’m an algebraist.

I picked these stories because they set the themes of my later work: student identity and authority, student-centered learning, and their relationships to mathematical epistemology.

MAA: How has MAA impacted you?

BK: The MAA helps me feel like I’m part of something larger than my own work. I am part of a community of people who care about improving tertiary math teaching and learning. I can share my hopes and fears and can both give and get support. Through the MAA, I see my work as picking up from the progress that came before me and as passing off that progress to others with the right skills for the next steps, and in these spaces it feels right to be hopeful that things are improving and will continue to do so.

MAA: What is the best advice you have ever received?

BK: You cannot be neutral in issues of justice. The apathy, disengagement, and avoidance that is sometimes framed as neutral is in fact a key piece of sustaining oppressive systems in the status quo. So the choice is not between action and inaction; it’s between action that supports justice and action that resists justice.

MAA: What advice would you give to someone who also wants to be a math educator?

BK: Listen to students’ thinking. Many faculty my age and older only experienced classrooms as students organized around an expert’s ways of thinking. This only left us room to try to mimic, not to be knowers unless we were very privileged. Classrooms should build from the strengths students bring with them, not some imagined deficits from a comparison to an expert. And learners think and say the most interesting things! Every time you listen to students’ thinking, you’ll learn new ways of making sense of ideas, you’ll notice ways that your teaching moves and structures could be better aligned with students’ learning needs, and you’ll practice engaging students as knowers who are worthy of dignity. And when you’re lucky, students will question a fundamental assumption you’ve never considered explicitly, which can open new realms of possibility for teaching or research.

MAA: Who inspires you and why?

BK: My minoritized students, students from groups that are historically looted, structurally oppressed, or systematically excluded, including Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Queer students, inspire me. With their presence, they are literally imagining themselves a place in institutions that would happily go on without them, and through their presence they are changing those institutions. Going to college shouldn’t require this kind of radical imagination, but for now it does, and I have an ethical obligation to reduce the burden on students of this work. These students inspire me to keep trying to imagine and reorganize mathematics education around principles and practices that would make it a place for belonging and justice.

MAA: What are you most looking forward to as Associate Director of MAA Project NExT?

BK: I love the same thing about teaching as I do about the card game Bridge: it’s a complex and challenging system, and there’s just enough information at any given time that it’s worthwhile to think really carefully about it. I absolutely adore thinking carefully about teaching and learning, and more broadly the work of faculty, with colleagues. I can’t think of a greater honor than getting to think with cohorts of new faculty about the work they want to do as colleagues.