On Challenging Math Stigma in Popular Culture

The subject and study of mathematics has suffered a chronically negative public image in recent years. From the rise of math anxiety to gendered stereotypes of mathematicians detached from reality to essentialist ideas about aptitude towards mathematics, there is a complex web of interrelated factors which lead to an unearned stigma around not only a beautiful and creative subject, but one imperative in societal and personal progress (Benoit, 2018; Ziegler, 2011; Palmer, 2009). However, challenging widespread ideas and influencing popular culture is no small feat, and it is imperative that we employ all the technological tools at our disposal.

 In her paper titled ‘I’m not a “maths-person”!’ Reconstituting mathematical subjectivities in aesthetic teaching practices, Anna Palmer discusses math anxiety among student teachers- in particular what its causes and effects are and strategies which have been found to be effective for mediating it, focusing on the effects of a 10-week long alternative math course (Palmer, 2009). She deals directly with the task of dislodging the essentialist notion that mathematical ability is innate and possessed by a select few.  One of the methods used in the classroom was the sharing and analysis of personal narratives, much as was described by bell hooks in Teaching to Transgress. Based on the results of this study, personal narrative was found to be an effective tool for challenging negative ideas about mathematics and math self-efficacy.

Another significant part of the study was a series of workshops which approached math from an interdisciplinary perspective using a variety of auditory and visual arts as media for communicating and exploring mathematics in an accessible way. A potential criticism for these classes is lack of mathematical rigor in the curricula, relying on vague connections and not abstracting far enough so as to concretely connect the mathematical ‘feel’ of the activities with actual mathematical processes. While this is important to note, simply connecting the idea of Mathematics with a creative and exploratory activity can get people thinking about math in a different way and questioning preconceived notions about the subject. Many peer-reviewed studies discuss the critical importance of effective communication in mathematics education (Gyasi, 2013; Wichelt, 2009), as well as the unfortunate public image of mathematics (Zeigler, 2011; Schrage, 1997).

Mathematician and performer Nancy Scherich touched on these topics in a recent talk titled “Dancing with Braids”. In this lecture, she speaks about braid theory through the lens of dance and explains how the process of researching pure mathematics, which involves a high degree of abstraction, can feel detached and isolating.

“For a lot of mathematicians, this is the story that gets told. It feels like you’re trapped so far down into math that you can’t talk about it with anybody outside of math. [However,]  you absolutely can effectively communicate the mathematics you’re doing […] You need to find some way to bring your math back to the real world. […] You’ve got to come back to reality to talk about it with people. (Scherich, 2021)”

Dr. Scherich’s method of connecting her research back to the real world is through dance. In 2017, she won a competition called ‘Dance Your PhD’ (Announcing the Winner of This Year’s ‘Dance Your Phd .’ Contest, n.d.), and has since developed math-dance outreach activities and published a paper about communicating math through dance. She encourages mathematicians to find their own unique creative medium to communicate their math to the public.

            With the rise of social media and internet culture it has become easier than ever for mathematicians to creatively communicate their math and reach large audiences. In particular, the video podcast format, used effectively, can be a greatly beneficial educational tool (Kay, 2012). There are a few notable types of educational video, specifically in math, but generalizable to many subjects. There are a number of channels, run mostly by private companies or independent creators, which produce videos tailored to specific curricula or courses of study. These are particularly well suited as direct support towards lower and introductory undergraduate education, and for the most part don’t stand alone. These channels (e.g. Khan Academy, Organic Chemistry Tutor) can be great supplemental resources for students looking to review material at their own pace, offering the opportunity to adjust speed, pause, rewind, and re-watch lessons as needed. There are also videos (uploaded by universities and other institutions) of high-quality lectures, generally at the undergraduate-level. Examples include those uploaded by Oxford Mathematics and Royal Institution. Finally, there is the type which arguably has the potential to contribute to the effort to slowly revolutionize the public image of mathematics, in large part because it is a significant portion of their intended purpose. These are mostly produced by independent creators (3Blue1Brown, ViHart, Veritasium, etc.). Though videos of this format are widely varied, they contain a few notable factors which make them recognizably similar. These channels focus on presenting mathematical ideas (broadly) in creative forms- rooted in deep enjoyment, excitement and passion for the subject. Their videos can cover any type of math, from recreational to heavily applied, deceptively simple to notoriously complex. Many of these channels and creators embody Scherich’s cross-disciplinary ideology of using an artistic, well loved, creative medium as a vessel through which to communicate complex mathematical ideas. Take for instance Vi Hart, an American mathematician or rather, self-proclaimed “recreational mathemusician” who began her debut YouTube series Doodling in Math Class in 2010 (Chang, 2011). This series of videos introduced many math concepts through a series of doodle games and aesthetic drawings. The clear subtext of the series was a remark on how much more interesting, impactful, and engaging math could be explored through simple doodles in a notebook to avoid math class, as opposed to the standard mathematics curriculum and educational format (Bell, 2010). She has since made numerous videos exploring math through music, drawing, and even baking. In 2018, she, along with Matt Parker of another notable Youtube channel Stand-Up Maths, won the 2018 Communications Award of the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics for “entertaining, thought-provoking mathematics and music videos on YouTube that explain mathematical concepts through doodles. (AMS, 2017)” Vi Hart, Matt Parker, Grant Sanderson, and many other creators help bring a message of mathematical joy and beauty to popular media, countering the oft encountered message of tedium, frustration, and pointlessness (Benoit, 2018). An adjacent format, possibly a subtype to this one, is the problem-solving channel. This includes channels like Blackpenredpen, Michael Penn, and Flammable Maths. Here creators walk viewers through their own process of problem-solving through a specific, usually recreational, famously difficult, or otherwise interesting problem.

But long form YouTube videos are not the only way creators present math on the internet. TikToker, drag queen, and math enthusiast Kyne Santos creates short engaging videos on TikTok explaining math concepts and promoting engagement in math through dressing in drag. In an appearance on the YouTube channel Answer In Progress, she explains

“My two main priorities are to make it interesting and to make it relatable to people. The reputation that math has is that it’s so boring and it’s so uninteresting, but really there are interesting things about math, you just need to present it in a way that makes people want to listen. (Cruz, 2021)”

Kyne talks about how varied and diverse her audience (of over 1 million subscribers) is, and her goal of helping to make the joy and benefits of math accessible to everyone.

This cultural phenomenon has many potential benefits. The relevant argument is not that these videos effectively teach math or could be a functional stand-in for formal education, but that they have a strong positive influence on the popular culture around math.  This shift in public image for mathematics as an area of engagement has numerous potential benefits educationally and socially. It is well established in educational psychology that familiarity and past encounters with a subject area greatly improve speed and quality of learning (David P. Ausubel, 1968; Farr, 1987). A recent study in undergraduate education showed that watching a mainstream video about a topic led to increased motivation to learn about said topic across multiple groups of undergraduate students, including students at large public universities and small private universities (Ditta et al., 2020).

Overall, a shift in societal attitude towards mathematics is imperative. From increasing discussion around personal experiences in the math classroom to an effort by researchers and other mathematicians to find unique ways to share and talk about their work to the creation, spread, and encouragement of creative and entertaining math material on social media platforms, there are many promising methods to work towards this move. Exposing students to high-level mathematical ideas and mathematical thinking, offering equal access to and encouragement for all sorts of people to engage in and take ownership of mathematics and their mathematical self-efficacy, motivating undergraduate students to take math courses, and easing the deep toll of math anxiety are all potential benefits of the cultural and educational shift towards mathematics appreciation. In this day and age, the democratic and wide-reaching space of the internet can be an invaluable resource toward this goal. The technology we create is only as good or evil as the purposes we direct it towards and the internet and social media is hardly exempt. Let’s rewrite the messaging that suggests that internet culture is directly opposed to education and intellectual wellbeing.




Works Cited

Announcing the winner of this year’s ‘Dance Your Ph.D.’ contest. (n.d.). Retrieved December 23, 2021, from https://www.science.org/content/article/announcing-winner-year-s-dance-your-phd-contest

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Vi Hart and Matt Parker to Receive 2018 JPBM Communications Awards . (2017, December 8). American Mathematical Society. http://www.ams.org/news?news_id=3878

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