Sabbatical Proposal

So, I’m preparing to apply for a sabbatical this year (and for promotion as well, but that’s another story). I’ve prepared a draft proposal for what I plan to do, but it still needs some help. In particular, I think I am being a bit chicken in my presentation and that I need to lead with what I want to do, not bury that after lots of discussion. I also need to make the project sound more exciting and vital — I think I tend to sound more excited in the preamble than I do when describing the actual sabbatical.

If you are interested, click below to see the proposal so far. Comments are welcome, criticism is welcome, encouragement is welcome, ideas are welcome, collaborators are welcome. You are welcome to talk to me more about it, or to suggest someone else I should talk to or something else I should do, and you are more than welcome to suggest funding sources!

DRAFT Sabbatical Proposal 2013-14

Shame, Anxiety, and Mathematics

It is taken as common knowledge that many people hate mathematics, that it is a difficult subject in school, and that not everyone has an aptitude for math (Sam & Ernest, 2000). People’s difficulties with mathematics often get blamed on what educators and researchers call mathematics anxiety, the fear of doing mathematics. The term “mathematics anxiety” first appeared in the literature in the early 1970s (Suinn et. al., 1972; Nash, 1970), and was popularized by Sheila Tobias and others working in the late 1970s to address mathematics anxiety, particularly in women (Tobias, 1993). The frame of mathematics anxiety has problems, however. When an experience or set of emotions is classified as a psychological disorder, the experience and the response are pathologized. The reality may be that what is termed “anxiety” is a normal and reasonable response to mathematics education.  Additionally, anxiety is an individual problem, but we have a society-wide issue with mathematics in the United States (Ginsberg et. al., 2005), so it would be useful to view problems with mathematics in a context that can include community and culture (Lave, 1988; Apple, 1990).

In addition to anxiety, many other emotions play a role in math avoidance and negative mathematical identities, and these emotions are linked to learning difficulties (Ashcraft & Krause, 2007; Lyons & Beilock, 2011). Over the past year, I have become increasingly convinced that shame is a primary emotion that negatively impacts mathematical identity, and that it is shame that gives rise to anxiety about, avoidance of, and disinterest in mathematics (Bibby, 2002; Ingleton & O’Regan, 2002; McGregor, 2005).

Shame is an intensely painful and disruptive emotion in which a person feels a deep-seated failure or flaw in their core self; the feeling is often experienced as feeling exposed, small, worthless, or wanting to withdraw or even die (Lewis, 1993).  Although shame can occur in private or in public it is a an emotion that signals a threat to our social being (Bibby, 2002) and the feeling can be characterized as feeling unworthy of human connection (Hartling et. al., 2000). Because shame is a relational emotion, considering the role of shame in mathematics places mathematical difficulties in a larger context which includes not only the learner, but also parents, teachers, administrators, and the entire society surrounding the learner.

Shaming experiences can happen in all school learning, but students learning mathematics may be particularly vulnerable to such experiences. In a traditional mathematics classroom there is little ambiguity or room for interpretation in problems, and the learning is focused on products, procedures, and algorithms. This “right or wrong” nature of mathematics can prevent students from saving face, or otherwise deflecting shame experiences, and can trap students who are struggling in a repeated cycle of negative experiences that are eventually felt as a flawed self. Doing mathematics requires a student to perform in ways that call into question not just her memory, but also her understanding and intelligence, since mathematical competence is seen as a stand-in for overall intelligence and ability (Sam & Ernest, 2000).

Shame can render a person passive and helpless (Miller, 1993) which impacts his ability to learn and to teach. To be able to effectively do mathematics, a person needs to perceive of himself as powerful, which means that he must be free of shame. People have a tendency to be both unaware of shame (Lewis, 1971) and to “catch” the shame of others, feeling ashamed of their shame (Scheff, 1988). The collective shame that our society holds about mathematics impacts all of us, and pressure for change gets transmitted to politicians, school districts, teachers, and finally to students, as teachers and parents respond to the pressure and shame by hiding difficulties, avoiding problematic encounters with mathematics, or even unconsciously shaming students as they struggle with math.

Creating Mathematical Change

There are many suggestions for how we might solve our “math problem” in the United States, and many of those suggestions have great potential. However, teachers and students cannot make effective use of inspired methods of teaching and learning without attending to affective and relational issues, and this includes shame. People have many responses to shame, from pushing for greater competence to secure social acceptance, to adopting being “bad at math” a part of their identity that may be accepted by others, to withdrawing and avoiding math, to anger at self or others, to manipulations that paint the self in a better light (Bibby, 2002; Brown, 2007). Many of these responses are disempowering and result in isolation (Hartling et. al., 2000) and failure to achieve academic goals (Turner et. al., 2002).

If people face their shame while staying vulnerable and authentic, they can reclaim power and heal (Brown, 2007; Hartling et. al., 2000). Math teachers deal daily with students who cannot handle failure, because failure is a trigger for shame (Brown, 2007; Turner et. al., 2002). It is crucial to publically identify shame as a source of disconnection and difficulty (Hartling et. al., 2000), and once shame and its triggers are identified, alternate methods of responding to those triggers can be developed. To create change on a broad scale, we need to get people collectively address shame and mathematical power, to listen deeply to those who have been disempowered by mathematics, and to transform the shame held by parents, teachers, and school administrators, since those groups have so much influence on young people.

Current Work

My overall mission is to help adults, students, and teachers to develop their mathematical voices and power. In my research, I am currently focusing on developing a theory of the way shame disrupts mathematics learning and impacts mathematical identity, and on methods of developing powerful responses to shame triggers. In the classroom, I am focused on examining the role of relationships and narratives in my teaching and student learning.

I am currently finishing a paper tentatively titled “Narratives of Mathematical Memories” which will be submitted for publication in November 2012 to the journal Literacy and Numeracy Studies. In this paper, I analyze negative mathematical memories of adults, examining common story narratives including evidence of the experiences of shame. I am also working on two relevant SoTL research projects this academic year. First, a research project with collaborators Karen Ivy of New Jersey City University and Albert Liau of Lesley University in which evaluates the impact of subject-based autobiography assignments on classroom environment and student development. The second is assessment of a method of mid-term course evaluation that I have developed over the past several semesters, particularly considering how the evaluation impacts relationships in the classroom, students’ perceptions of power in the classroom, and my perceptions of the class as the instructor.

I am in the process of developing a class for Spring 2013 designed to help adult students who have been unsuccessful at school mathematics to understand and make meaning their mathematical experiences and identities, while at the same time providing them with mathematical experiences in which they can stay connected and powerful. I received a fellowship from Lesley College this fall to complete this work, which I began last semester with an independent study with two adult students. The semester-long course I am developing combines critical pedagogy (Friere, 2000; Frankenstein, 1987) and a method of feminist action research called memory-work (Crawford et. al., 1992; Onyx & Small, 2001). I combine these powerful methods for collective self-examination with story-editing  approaches (Wilson, 2007; Wilson, 2011) which allow people to authentically develop growth mindsets (Dweck, 2007), and with mathematical problem solving so that people can unpack their mathematical identities and place them in a cultural context while developing mathematical skills and having real-time access to emotions surrounding mathematics. A substantial amount of data collection and analysis will be done by the students and myself working as a collective, and I will be completing additional analysis of data collected during the course in the summer of 2013.

As part of my fellowship work this year, I am also developing a workshop that can accomplish some of the same goals as the course, but with a less-intensive commitment on the part of participants. I will be delivering the first of these this fall, and will be analyzing the results and making revisions in order to repeat the workshop in spring 2013. My goal during sabbatical is to further develop these workshops specifically to meet the needs of in-service teachers and elementary, middle, and high school levels.

Sabbatical Work

The largest component of my sabbatical work will be to finish research for and make substantial progress on writing a book tentatively titled Liberation Mathematics: Narrative and Number. This book is aimed at K-16 educators, school counselors, academic success and advising professionals, adults who have struggled with mathematics and are looking for a change, and parents who are concerned with their children’s’ mathematical development and identity formation. The book builds on Sheila Tobias’s classic Overcoming Math Anxiety, originally published in 1978 (Tobias, 1993), and other similar books that were published in its wake, mostly in the 80s and 90s (Burns, 1988; Clawson, 1991; Zaslavsky, 1994).   My intention for Liberation Mathematics is to provide a deeper and more nuanced picture of the emotional processes behind negative mathematical identities and to use the lessons and methods of critical pedagogy and positive psychology to reflect on mathematics education and the role of mathematics in our world.

Liberation Mathematics will be composed of the following chapters:

Part I: Developing a Critical Awareness of Mathematics

1.       Narratives and Mathematical Identity

2.       Shame and Anxiety in Mathematics Education

3.       Is Mathematics for Everyone?

4.       The Primacy of Mathematics and Its Consequences

5.       What happens to those left behind?

Part II: Developing and Changing Mathematical Identity

6.       Assessing and Taking Control of Mathematical Identity

7.       Becoming a Mathematics User: A Study Guide

8.       Math Liberation: Changing Communities

9.       Mathematics Education: A Guide for Teachers, Parents, and Others Who Want to Create Change

Chapters 1, 2, 4, 6, and 8 will be largely based on research and literature reviews that are in process right now. The research behind chapters 1, 2, and 4 will be complete by the end of spring 2013, and during the summer of 2013, I will write chapters 1 and 2. The research for chapters 6 and 8 will be substantially started during the course and workshops I teach in the spring of 2013, and that work will be completed during the sabbatical.

During the 2013-14 school year, I will lead workshops for teachers, which will give me a chance to listen carefully to teachers’ perceptions and process with mathematics. I will combine the workshop leading with classroom observation so that I can see the way that teachers’ mathematical identities and difficulties impact what happens in the classrooms. Throughout the workshops and classroom observations, I will be collecting data in the form of writings on memory and identity, recordings of workshop discussions, and my notes on classroom observations and subsequent discussions with teachers. This research and data will become part of chapters 6, 8, and 9. These chapters will be completed during the spring of 2013.

Finally, chapters 3, 4, and 5 will be written during the sabbatical; the research for chapter 4 will be complete before the sabbatical begins and chapters 3 and 5 are primarily based on existing literature, rather than original research.


Apple, M. (1990). Ideology and Curriculum. Psychology Press.

Ashcraft, M. H., & Krause, J. A. (2007). Working memory, math performance, and math anxiety. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14(2), 243–248.

Bibby, T. (2002). Shame: An Emotional Response to Doing Mathematics as an Adult and a Teacher. British Educational Research Journal, 28(5), 705–721.

Burns, M. (1998). Math: Facing an American Phobia. (T. Gordon, Ed.). Math Solutions.

Clawson, C. C. (1991). Conquering Math Phobia: A Painless Primer. John Wiley and Sons.

Crawford, J., Kippax, S., Onyx, J., Gault, U., & Benton, P. (1992). Emotion and gender: Constructing meaning from memory. Sage Publications, Inc.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House Digital, Inc.

Frankenstein, M. (1987). Critical Mathematics Education: An Application of Paulo Freire’s Epistemology. In I. Shor (Ed.), Freire for the classroom: a sourcebook for liberatory teaching (pp. 180–210). Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (M. B. Ramos, Trans.) (30th Anniversary ed.). Continuum International Publishing Group.

Ginsburg, A., Cooke, G., Leinwand, S., Noell, J., & Pollock, E. (2005). Reassessing US International Mathematics Performance: New Findings from the 2003 TIMSS and PISA. American Institutes for Research, 40.

Hartling, L. M., Rosen, W., Walker, M., & Jordan, J. V. (2000). Shame and humiliation: From isolation to relational transformation. Work in Progress, 88, 1–14.

Ingleton, C., & O’Regan, K. (2002). Recounting Mathematical Experiences: Emotions in Mathematics Learning. Literacy & Numeracy Studies, 11(2), 95–107.

Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in Practice: Mind, Mathematics and Culture in Everyday Life. Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, M. (1993). Self-conscious emotions: Embarrassment, pride, shame, and guilt. In M. Lewis & Haviland, J. (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions (pp. 563–573). New York: Guilford Press.

Lyons, I. M., & Beilock, S. L. (2011). Mathematics Anxiety: Separating the Math from the Anxiety. Cerebral Cortex. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhr289

McGregor, H. A. (2005). The Shame of Failure: Examining the Link Between Fear of Failure and Shame. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(2), 218–231. doi:10.1177/0146167204271420

Miller, S. (1993). The Shame Experience. Taylor and Francis.

Nash, P. C. (1970). Treatment of math anxiety through systematic desensitization and insight-oriented therapy groups (Doctoral dissertation, Arizona State University, 1970). Dissertation Abstracts International, 31, 70–16.

Onyx, J., & Small, J. (2001). Memory-Work: The Method. Qualitative Inquiry, 7(6), 773 –786. doi:10.1177/107780040100700608

Scheff, T. J. (1988). Shame and conformity: The deference-emotion system. American Sociological Review, 395–406.

Suinn, R. M., Edie, C. A., Nicoletti, J., & Spinelli, P. R. (1972). The MARS, A Measure of Mathematics Anxiety: Psychometric Data. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 28(3), 373–375.

Tobias, S. (1993). Overcoming Math Anxiety. W. W. Norton & Company.

Turner, J. E., Husman, J., & Schallert, D. L. (2002). The Importance of Students’ Goals in Their Emotional Experience of Academic Failure: Investigating the Precursors and Consequences of Shame. Educational Psychologist, 37(2), 79–89.

Wilson, S. (2007). My struggle with maths may not have been a lonely one: Bibliotherapy in a teacher education number theory unit. Mathematics: Essential research, essential practice, 815–823.

Wilson, T. D. (2011). Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. Hachette Digital, Inc.

Zaslavsky, C. (1994). Fear of Math: How to Get Over It and Get on With Your Life! Rutgers University Press.



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