Laurie Rubel typically publishes her research on mathematics education in relatively obscure journals. The Brooklyn College professor’s most recent paper explored the challenges white teachers face while trying to connect with students in large urban school districts. It also contained all the right buzzwords to be swept up in the right-wing media’s ever-escalating culture war.
After the self-styled watchdog Campus Reform blogged about Rubel’s paper on Jan. 8, it was subsequently picked up on conservative, alt-right, and neo-Nazi outfits, including The American Spectator, InfoWars, Breitbart, Stormfront, Frontpage, and Fox News, among others. Rubel’s photograph was plastered across TV’s largest cable news channel without a request for her to comment. She and her colleagues were bombarded with sexist and anti-Semitic hate mail and phone calls. The top of her Google results are now largely populated by this faux story.
Splinter spoke with Rubel this week about the research that set it all off—and what it’s like to be at the center of an alt-right media firestorm. Her remarks have been edited for clarity and length.
Usually when we publish papers, almost nobody has access to them. They’re behind a paywall for everyone besides university students or faculty, and no one is going to pay $50 to read something. But this particular journal happened to be an open-access online journal, so everyone could click on it or do simple keyword searches through Google Scholar.
In this article, which I published in late December, I profile three teachers who are really excellent at what I and other people call dominant practices—helping people access mathematics, like in after-school programs and summer camps. But they have a lot more trouble with critical practices, which are harder to do and especially hard for white people to do. Those are connecting mathematics to the everyday lives of your students, particularly when your students come from communities that you know nothing about and might even be afraid of.
I made the argument that the fact these people I profiled are white teachers makes it more challenging, because changing their behavior or the way the system works would be going against the status quo of how white teachers tend to treat black and brown kids: not trying hard enough, not doing their homework, not having enough grit. The status quo sort of blames them for not doing well on math assessments. I’m speaking as someone who’s white, so I’m part of that, too. I’m pointing my finger at all of us.
On the first Thursday of January, Campus Reform contacted me by email, asking if I would be available to comment on an article they were doing about my work. And I thought, Do I want to talk to them? I don’t think that anything I can say is going to make it better.
I had the weekend to wait for it. I had never looked at the site before but started nervously checking it every day. The paper had all types of things that could make certain people enraged. It seems they were definitely looking for “whiteness.” It was right at the beginning of my paper—it doesn’t seem like they read the rest of it.
I was watching Campus Reform’s ticker of how many times the article was shared and it was just exploding. I’m there thinking, Oh my god. Why are people posting this? They also linked to my faculty web page and right there is my phone number and email address. Immediately, emails and phone calls started coming in.
They were things like, “You are a retarded POS idiot—you are a libtard US jew...more despicable than knee-grows. Keep making excuses for moronic thugs you asshole cunt.” I got more than a hundred like that. Some asked me to go out on a date and also said they wanted to kill me in the same message. Some of the emails were CC’d to the college president and CUNY chancellor, saying that I should be fired. And people were even sending emails with their corporate signature still attached.
It kept snowballing. The Daily Mail picked it up. Then Breitbart picked it up. And from there, it went to Fox News. No one ever reached out to me other than the original student at Campus Reform. I kept finding these things only because I kept Googling, wondering when it was going to stop.
Fox News ran two stories. One clip brought on a student who doesn’t know me and has never met me, as if he has some kind of perspective. But they didn’t even ask me to speak for myself. It was unbelievable—there’s just no news here. They want me to be fired.
They had their usual headline and photograph, as if there was some act or evil or violence. They were really trying to make fun of me. What that seemed to be signaling is showing everyone that I was a woman.
A lot of the original comments at Campus Reform were all written with male pronouns. I guess because it’s math they assumed I’m a man, which I found amusing. After Fox started showing my photograph, it turned into, This is a Jew. They went after me for being gay.
Had I been in New York I think I would have called the NYPD or campus security to figure out some sort of plan. But the universe took care of me somehow; this happened when I was not in New York—I’m on leave with a Fulbright—and I feel perfectly safe.
The professional organizations, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators, stepped out really quickly and wrote statements in support of my work. My colleagues wrote letters. My school gave me the indication that they heard me and were paying attention. Our union at the City University of New York wrote a very strong statement. But I didn’t get any response from CUNY. I can only imagine that they’re trying to take care of the institution as best they can and that’s why they didn’t speak out. But the attack is as much on them as it is on me.*
Campus Reform contacted me again last Thursday. I don’t know if that’s their usual MO—to keep sending messages to keep you on heightened alert. They had questions about the nature of the funding of the project. But there’s been no new piece. Maybe there is no piece.
I don’t think it’s irrelevant that I was talking about math. In the worldview of some people, math is so neutral and objective, and in their worldview, me talking about race and equity in the context of math sounds insane.
Back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, there were the Math Wars, which were really contentious political arguments. That was before the internet. Now the right is building out this path. It’s taken them a long time for them to find us—the people who work on social justice in math education—but they’re finding us.
I’ve been waiting for this for 10 years. Whenever I click that button to send that final document, I always ask myself, Is this something I can live with? If this is something that’s going to get me attacked, is it worth it?
I don’t want us to forget about what the real issue is: What’s going on in our schools, particularly New York City schools. I want people to be more enraged about that. That should be the thing that makes us unable to sleep at night. I’m OK.
Update, 1:54 p.m.: CUNY Spokesperson Frank Sobrino declared the public university system’s support for Rubel in a statement to Splinter.
“CUNY stands firmly behind Brooklyn College professor Laurie Rubel, whose work has been recognized by the National Science Foundation and the Fulbright Scholars program, among others,” Sobrino said. “The university is committed to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas and expression of all points of view.”