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Alexis Thompson

C&I 365



Remedial Mathematics and Identity for Black Students at the University Level: A Puppet


*Based on the research by Gregory Larnell, Michigan State University*

Black Student: Aw man, Im so stoked. I just got into Northwestern, and I am the first in

my family to go to college. There are endless possibilities; I could be an engineer,

chemist, or a physicist.

White sock puppet (the system): Yeah, congratulations. But first, you need to take this

entrance exam.

Student takes exam

System: Looks like you did not pass the algebra portion and will have to take a remedial

math class before you can take any other STEM classes. It is meant to catch you up to

the level of your peers. You will receive no college credit for this class, and you must

pass. If you do not, it will take you longer to graduate, or filter you out of careers you

may otherwise pursue (Stage & Kloosterman, 1995).

Black Student: The University says I am part of a new phase of concern and positive

action (Johnson, 1984; Kilpatrick, 1990; Stiff & Harvey, 1988; Strutchens, 1990, p. 16)

because I came in unprepared for university level math (Larnell, 2011, 22).

System: Youre taking this class because you need to develop your math identity. Your

identity is how you identify as a mathematician (Larnell, Dec 2, 2015), as a student, and

as a learner, especially a black learner at this university. Everybody needs to develop a

math identity, but Im going to make it harder for you because I will restrict you.

Student: Math identity? But Ive got none. Im stuck here without the chance to perform,

Im constrained, and Im not motivated to learn. If this is what college is like, Im not

having it. I feel trapped.

Put puppet in box, symbolizes trapping

System: Thats right. Because as much as you need to discover your own identity, this

constraint is what keeps you in racialized mathematics and determines how you are

looked at and treated at the university (Larnell, Dec 2, 2015). To satisfy this low level

math requirement, you are sacrificing your identity. Dont worry, youre like so many

other who failed this course. Like the so many other who failed, we came up with a name

for it- cooling out. Its a soft denial about how I, the system, have failed you. But its

not my fault that you couldnt develop your math identity (Larnell, Dec 2, 2015) or grow

as a math learner. Guess you cant be on that physics track afterall.

Professor Larnell Puppet:

Hi, Im Professor Larnell, and although what you see here today is a fictional

representation, the issue of racialized mathematics at the university level is both real and

inequitable. Universities offer a remedial math class for no credit (at full cost) that many

students must pass in order to take any other science or math courses in their degree plan.

These math classes were created to promote equity and fill the gap that was created by

the K-12 system (Larnell, Dec 2, 2015). Particularly in this system, 58% of African

American test takers were included in the lowest quartile of scores and were

disproportionately represented as low performers (Larnell, 2011, 23). As a result, in

the remedial courses, racial disparities are frequently seen, and enrolment patterns are

both longstanding and predictable among the Black and Latino populations, as has been

the enrollment for decades (Larnell, Dec 2, 2015).

In my eyes, equity is about justice and fairness, it is my view as a black mathematician

that our failure to develop theories of equity has contributes to the slow progress of

black students forming these identities (Larnell, Dec 2, 2015). To develop these

identities, we need to believe that all learners are capable and brilliant, even learners in

non-credit remedial math classes.

So, what can we do? We need to find ways to help all math students form identities

early on, provide opportunity for all students to succeed in math, and take a serious look

at racialized mathematics through an equitable and educational lens. Remember those

lenses Alisa talked about a few weeks ago? Yeah, those are actually important when

looking at issues such as these. I will leave you with one final, resounding thought for
you to ponder though your future educator lens: No matter where the students begin, we

must not let their aspirations die in the shallow end of the pool (Malcolm, 2008, p. 7).
Works Cited

Larnell, G. V. (2011). More than just skill mathematics identities, socialization, and

remediation among African American undergraduates. MI: Michigan State

University Press. Retrieved February 12, 2016, from

Larnell, G. (2015, December 2). More than Just Skill: Inequities, Identities, and

Mathematics Remediation among Black Undergraduates. Lecture presented at

UW Ideas In Education Series in WI, Madison.

Malcom, S. (2008). Forward. In J. Margolis, Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race,

and Computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Stage, F.K. & Kloosterman, P. (1995). Gender, beliefs, and achievement in remedial

college- level mathematics. The Journal of Higher Education. 66(3): 294-311.