How to Start Something In a #MTBoS

Why You Should Listen To Me

You shouldn’t.

OK Now Here’s The Post

Is it helpful or annoying to publicly muse on a community’s ability to get things done? Keep reading to find out!

The other day I was chatting on twitter, and out of the conversation came an idea to start a local math circle.

The other other day I was chatting on twitter, and we had the idea to start an organization that would help conference organizers find not-just-white-men to speak at their meetings.

What happens to these ideas? What do you need to do for them to actually happen?

The MTBoS has created and organized a lot of impressive things. Of these, Twitter Math Camp is objectively (objectively!) the most impressive. There are, of course, many others. I’m biased by my own involvement, but I think the Global Math Department is pretty impressive as well.

Every once in a while, these days, I hear about a new curricular website that somebody has put together. The single-purpose sites are collaborative, but not in the way that Twitter Math Camp is. Estimation180 or Open Middle or Visual Patterns or Math Mistakes all take ideas and materials from the community. There’s one or two people at the core, and then a community at the periphery.

To run an annual conference requires coordination of an entirely different sort. A significant number of people need to get their act together, together.

It seems to me that much of the ambitious coordination happening in the MTBoS right now is at the corporate level. A lot of the relational capital (so what if I made up a term) is being drawn into large organizational structures like Desmos, Illustrative Mathematics, NCTM. This is great — I’m a fan of each of those organizations.

My guess, though, is that this has slowed the pace of community organization at other levels. It takes a lot of people who trust each other and can get stuff done to make something happen. It seems to me that those people are getting busier and busier with their other highly-collaborative projects.

We’ve reached the part of the post where I speculate on what it takes to get a collaborative project off the ground in the MTBoS right now.

Step One: Decide that you actually care about this enough to make sure the ball doesn’t drop and the conversation doesn’t end. When conversation happens through asynchronous chat there’s always the chance that you’ll get ghosted. Every project that I’ve been part of lives or dies depending on whether there’s someone like this, someone who never says “sorry I’ve been crazy busy lately.” If this idea is going to happen, it might as well be you.

Step Two: Find one other person who you think is pretty close to your degree of commitment. Of course, you’ll never know, and people always are more committed at the start than they actually will turn out to be. This is normal, in my experience.

Step Three: Have a video chat or phone conversation ASAP. A phone conversation is best. The reason is because (a) having a phone conversation with a stranger is uncomfortable, and doing something mildly uncomfortable helps build trust and (b) you’re giving them your actual phone number and that (as ridiculous as it is to say) counts as an trust-building act in our near-dystopia too.

Step Four: I’m out of advice. Try to meet IRL if you can. Try to get more people involved, if you can. But the benefits of adding more people to your team, at first, are low. The main thing you need a collaborator for is to get past the part of your head that’s saying this idea is stupid and you’re an ego-maniac for thinking it was worth doing in the first place.

Two people is enough to start.

Step Later: Once things get going and you have a bunch of people involved, frequently test your group’s ability to keep working without you. Plan to step down, or to work on a side project for a year or two while someone else takes the lead. It’s sort of this sad thing where an organization takes a single high-energy person to get it going, but unless that person reduces their energy input the organization will never produce their own energy and become energy self-sufficient. (Yep, took that metaphor too far.)

I don’t know if this is true, of course, but it’s what I’ve seen so far.

It occurs to me that maybe I’m taking twitter too seriously again. True, I see a lot of ideas that never come to fruition. It’s true that the ephemeral nature of the Stream makes organization hard. But maybe that’s precisely what allows so many ideas to pop up. People would share far fewer ideas if they actually were intending to commit to them, and that’s fine.

But I think there’s room for more organization in the MTBoS than I currently see. And while I don’t think we should force anyone to do anything with their online experience — if people are happy with the way things are, that’s fine too — I suspect that people would take pleasure from forming the deeper relationships that come from doing something good together.

We have so much energy for talking about social justice, and yet there are no groups (that I know of) committed to promoting social justice in MTBoS. I think about this a lot. I don’t think it’s hypocrisy. I think we’ve communally lost the knack for organizing ourselves.

We aren’t aided by our tools. The technology we’re working with has been designed to get us to keep us using that technology. We need to fight that tendency if we want to form lasting groups online.

Back to writing a homework for tomorrow. Good night!

One thought on “How to Start Something In a #MTBoS

  1. I’ve been a part of building two organizations, starting with a a handful of educators: Educators for Social Responsibility and The Math Forum. Extreme passion and extreme commitment/focus, plus timing and competence. Lives given over to “it”. In the case of ESR it was actually many small groups working in their local settings, who found each other and shared and joined.

    I see here in the MTBoS an ecosystem of collaborations, with lots of sharing and effervescent collaborations, some small creatures, small communities and some more developed. You point to some collaborations with bigger orgs as if they are somehow sapping resources and energy. Aren’t they successful later phases of what you are seeking? Sure, the ecosystem could become so full of these that resources and personnel aren’t available for smaller efforts, but I don’t see that here. The amount of resource and talent is huge in the landscape of the MTBoS, not to mention math education more broadly. And the big collabs are supporting small groups, spinning off, and a jumping off point for others.

    For me it comes to back to Mission. Dedication. At some point it moves beyond a casual interest. Leaps of faith. Real skin in the game. Have to give up things. – I think you have the early process elements. Another element: it’s never too early to tell your story and look for other sorts of collaborations/supporters/networks beyond those who do the education work. Talk and plan, make and do and learn, share and tell the world, ask for help, ask for money, partner, fail and succeed, over and over.

    Btw, I think the key person(s) stay at least several years and often much longer. But, yes, leadership evolves. The community orgs I know that succeed do so because a part of what they do is focus on helping others succeed and thrive and share the spotlight.

    One thing we’ve been thinking about a little is creating interest group spaces, self-organizing team project spaces, that are permeable with the MTBoS and the open, less organized spaces. In turn, situate those in a facilitating, incubating, knowledge-building, telling-the-community-story environment, all of which might provide some scaffolding for growth of collaborations through several early stages.

    I appreciate this opportunity to muse on these things.


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