Math 498 (Seminar): Mathematics in Social Context

Revised Spring 2022

The Big Picture

This course is designed to examine issues of social, structural, and institutional hierarchies that intersect with mathematics and statistics. This year, the course will examine several big themes:

  • Belonging – what is “mathematical identityâ€� and where does it come from?
  • Civil Rights – can mathematical literacy be viewed as a tool for advancing equity?
  • Political Districting – how does mathematics help us understand gerrymandering?
  • Algorithms – in what ways do algorithms contribute to or fight against social stratification?

Educational Goals

In addition to satisfying the Social, Structural, and Institutional Hierarchies (SSIH) requirement for the concentration in Mathematics and Statistics, this course addresses the following Educational Goals.

  • Intellectual Curiosity and Flexibility – examining fact, phenomena, and issues in-depth, and from a variety of perspectives, and having the courage to revise beliefs and outlooks in light of new evidence
  • Understanding of Cultural Diversity – critically engaging with multiple cultural traditions and perspectives
  • Ethical, Informed, and Engaged Citizenship – developing an awareness of the challenges and responsibilities of local, national, and global citizenship
  • Communication and Expression – expressing oneself with clarity and eloquence, in both traditional and contemporary media, through writing and speaking

Expectations and Assignments

To dig deeply into the main themes of the course, you will need to prepare in advance for each class, actively participate, and complete all of the assignments. This is reflected in the final grade composition:

  • Blog Posts: 40%
  • Participation: 30%
  • Final Poster: 30%

Pre-Class Tasks (Reading, Watching, or Listening)

Complete the relevant task (reading, watching, or listening) assigned for each class, think about it carefully, and outline some thoughts to share in our class discussion. The list of tasks can be found on the last page of this document and may be updated (in a timely manner!) as the semester progresses.


Your attendance and active participation is really important to the stability and success of our learning community! If you need to miss more classes, please fill out the Absence Request Form in advance (link available on Blackboard). Every student may miss one class; if you need to miss more than that, we need to talk. Undiscussed absences (besides the first freebie) will lower your participation grade.

Blog Posts

Our course blog is a (class-only) space for you to engage critically with the course materials. Writing the blog posts will help you and your classmates initiate and inform class discussions. They will also give you the opportunity to practice skills directly related to effective writing, such as conciseness, clarity, and vividness. You will contribute an original blog post five (5) times throughout the semester according to the schedule posted on Blackboard.

Each blog post should:

  • identify a specific concept/idea/argument from the assigned task (with reference);
  • either demonstrate understanding of the concept at issue and express agreement or disagreement, giving reasons, OR connect it to previous ideas/discussions, or to contemporary issues, OR introduce an example/counter-example not explored in the text;
  • be more than be simply a summary or an unsupported opinion (“I liked this readingâ€�);
  • end with a potential question or topic for class discussion, related to your post.

Each blog post should be between 150 and 250 words. You must post your contribution by 7pm the day before our class meeting. I will grade each post according to the rubric posted on Blackboard.

Final Poster

As a capstone assignment, you will create a poster to explore a topic of your choice. This poster will be due after spring break, and we will convene for one more class session to present the class posters to the Math and Stats department. You must submit a brief outline (bullet points are fine) of the content of your poster by the last day of the course. A pdf of your final poster is the third Tuesday after spring break, and you should submit your request to print the poster to LITS on this date as well. The poster should be well organized with clear exposition and proper citations. Please see for more information about the technical aspects of creating a poster.

Required Books

Robert P. Moses ‘56, Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project (Beacon Press, 2001) NOTE: ebook available with Hamilton College login

Honor Code

Your blog posts and final poster must consist primarily of your own individual work and include citations for works that you are responding to or works that informed your thinking (this includes formal works, websites, videos, or other sources). You and I are also bound by the Hamilton Honor Code to report instances of plagiarism or other academic dishonesty that we become aware of.


Students who require academic accommodations should contact the Dean of Students Office to coordinate services. Talk to me to ensure that your needs will be met this semester, too.

Reading and Discussion Schedule

Week 1 - Belonging


  • Introductions, Classroom Conversations, and Mathematics Identity

Weeks 2 and 3 - Civil Rights


  • Read: Andrew Hacker, Is Algebra Really Necessary?

Thursday - Radical Equations

  • Read: Robert P. Moses ‘56, Radical Equations, Chapters 1 and 2

Tuesday - Radical Equations

  • Read: Robert P. Moses ‘56, Radical Equations, Chapters 3 and 4

Thursday - College Rankings

  • Read: TBD

Weeks 4, 5, and 6 - Political Districting

Tuesday - Gerrymandering Overview

  • Read: David Wasserman, “Hating Gerrymandering is Easy: Fixing it is Harderâ€� FiveThirtyEight, The Gerrymandering Project
  • Read: Nick Corasanti et al., “How Maps Reshape American Politicsâ€�

Thursday - Efficiency Gap

  • Read: Mira Bernstein and Moon Duchin, A Formula Goes to Court: Partisan Gerrymandering and the Efficiency Gap

Tuesday - Monte Carlo Markov Chains

  • Read: TBD

Thursday- Supreme Court

  • Read: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan, Opinion and Dissent in Gerrymandering Case, June 27, 2019 This document is 72 pages long; allow 2 - 3 hours reading time.

Tuesday, Trial by Mathematics

  • Read: Laurence Tribe, Trial by Mathematics: Precision and Ritual in the Legal Process

Weeks 6 and 7 - Algorithms

Thursday - Weapons of Math Destruction

  • Read: Cathy O’Neill, Weapons of Math Destruction, Intro & Chapters 1, 2

Tuesday - Ethical Applications?

  • Watch: Youtube Playlist

Thursday - The Ethics Matrix

  • Read: Cathy O’Neil and Hanna Gunn, “The Ethical Matrixâ€� [Introduction, Sections 8.4-8.7]

Week 8 - Belonging Revisited

Tuesday - Belonging Revisited

  • Read: “STEM Identity Development in Latinas: The Role of Self- and Outside Recognitionâ€� [Section - Literature Review (pp. 2-3); Section - Implications for Policy and Practice (pp. 16-17)]
  • Listen: My Favorite Theorem podcast interview with Ranthony Edmonds

Thursday- Course Conclusions

Courtney R. Gibbons
Courtney R. Gibbons
Associate Professor of Mathematics

Math Professor at Hamilton College since 2013