My department subscribes to Math Horizons, a journal “intended primarily for undergraduates interested in mathematics.” I really like it. I recently found an old issue around school, and was reminded how much fun it can be. Here are opening lines, pulled from articles in the issue:
- “The year 2014 is an especially good time to tell this tale of disguise, distance, disagreements, and diagonals.”
- “What made you decide to be a math major?”
- “Being in charge of a math club can be exhausting.”
- “Time to end it all, Ellen thought.”
- “More than 65 years ago, William Fitch Cheney Jr. conceived one of the greatest mathematical card tricks.”
- “What’s your favorite number?”
- “I grew up around decks of cards.”
Following these openers, one can read interviews with mathematicians, longer pieces about the history of math, book reviews, mathematical exposition, and even fiction.
After rereading Math Horizons, I went searching around my apartment for an issue of an NCTM journal. I’ve subscribed to each of the three journals since first becoming a member, always hoping that the other journal would interest me more. I finally found the latest issue of Teaching Children Mathematics smooshed in with a pile of other magazines.
Here are first sentences pulled from the September issue of TCM:
- “When you think of ‘modeling’ in the mathematics classroom, what comes to mind? With the inclusion of Model with mathematics as one of the Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP), the Common Core (CCSSI 2010) puts forth a vision of modeling in the mathematics classroom that moves beyond using concrete materials or other visual representations to give meaning to mathematics.”
- “We recently conducted a randomized controlled trial that showed a significant impact of teachers’ lesson study, supported by mathematical resources, on both teachers’ and students’ understanding of fractions (Gersten et al. 2014; Lewis and Perry 2017).”
These are long. At risk of losing my own readers, I’ll include one last, even longer opening line:
- “I am always in pursuit of resources that will add to my knowledge as described in Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All (NCTM 2014), which posits how crucial it is for math educators to continue to “recognize that their own learning is never finished and continually seek to improve and enhance their mathematical knowledge for teaching, their knowledge of mathematical pedagogy, and their knowledge of students and learners of mathematics. (p. 99)”
In response to my frequent kvetching about the journals, an NCTM board member emailed me. He asked, “What would you like to see in the journal?”
Fair enough! I would like NCTM to publish interesting articles.
Nobody sets out to publish boring articles, of course. But I have reason to think that “is this interesting?” is not being asked nearly enough at the NCTM journals right now.
For instance: I recently completed a twenty-two question survey about the NCTM journals. Four of the questions asked me about what I found useful. What sort of articles do I find the most useful? The least? Which departments are useful or not to me?
To be fair, one question asked, “Would you be interested in reading articles about…? (check all that apply).” That makes a four-parts usefulness to one-part interestingness ratio, which sounds about right for what NCTM is currently putting out. Invert the ratio, and I don’t think the above quotes make the cut any longer.
The other thing about interest vs. usefulness is something Henri Picciotto calls “the seemingly obligatory genuflection at NCTM’s sacred texts, most recently Principles to Action.” He means the way so many of the pieces published include the line “…as demanded by the Standards for Mathematical Practice,” or “…as detailed in Principles to Actions.” And, in fact, all three editorial teams officially require articles to show consistency with Principles to Actions:
It’s simply hard to tell a good, interesting story about teaching while also projecting your adherence to a set of teaching standards. As a writer, you start losing options. One of the sturdiest formats I’ve found for writing about teaching is narrating learning. You develop some question, and then you take the reader along in your attempt to answer it. It is immeasurably harder to do this if in the very first sentence you announce that we already know how best to teach.
Each of those juicy opening lines from Math Horizons helps generate space to tell a story — about a trick, about a career, about a number. In turn, each of the NCTM openers eliminates space that might otherwise be occupied by a story.
An NCTM journal that aimed to be mostly interesting — four-parts to one, let’s say — could therefore change in these three ways:
- Publish crisp, engaging writing that tries to capture attention.
- Discourage writers from trying to adhere to standards; publish writing that disagrees with NCTM policy and teaching documents.
- Seek articles from the range of reader interests: math, math history, classroom dilemmas, policy debates, interviews, and so on, and so on. Even research, but for heaven’s sake keep it interesting!
This won’t be an easy change to make. I know it will be difficult to find writers willing to veer from what NCTM has published in the past. A word of advice on the editorial process, then: don’t seek submissions, seek writers. Find people that you’d like to write, and then ask them to pitch ideas. When one strikes an editor’s eye as especially interesting, help the writer develop it. Ask for snippets, early thoughts, rough drafts, and help craft the pieces into something that you expect to capture reader interest.
And all of this is worth it, because courting interest is a matter of respect. A piece that doesn’t attempt to capture attention (like a textbook) projects the opposite message: you really ought to read this. And, after all, isn’t that the main message of NCTM to teachers? That you really ought to teach like this, because we have the standards, the experts, the research and the know-how to train and educate you. Sure, this may be a slog to read, but aren’t you a professional? And you’ll read what you need to for your professional development.
Of course, like the speaker who comes in with gimmicks and cheap jokes, writing can miss the mark the other way. Bad writing can suggest a lack of seriousness.
But when done well, engaging writing can project trust and respect to the reader. We know you’re busy and discerning, it says, and that you have the intelligence to decide how to think and what to think about. You and us both. But, how about this?
So, stop trying to be so useful, NCTM! Relax, and try to be interesting instead.