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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: Exercising Judgement

Competing ideas.

April 28, 2016

There is an idea in Economics that discusses where firms will “place” their products, both physically and in terms of small differences in those products. Often described as “ice cream vendors on the beach” it does not necessarily deal with ice cream or beaches, but can be seen in clusters of similar businesses, such as gas stations or fast food restaurants, or even in types of cereal that tend to group themselves by tastes. I found myself thinking of this recently when I reflected on the television news stations I have watched recently.

The first few, intense days of my sabbatical were spent reading and writing at my desk and hardly moving, other than to go to the kitchen to make lunch. I soon realized that if things didn’t change, I would not fit into any of my summer clothes when that season arrived. Only leaving my home to get books from our library, I wanted to find a way to exercise, preferably at least one hour each day, without having to get in the car and travel anywhere. After a few boring sessions on a treadmill, I came up with a better option. I would put the news on TV and walk (in many ways, actually “march”) forward and backwards in front of it, sometimes holding weights, making the experience less dull. And so I put on the television and watched the news.

The first thing I realized was that the various news stations, like the ice cream vendors on the beach, are all rather similar, but still have spread themselves out along a political continuum. While there was very little difference among them, it was clear that they were appealing to different audiences. Some of the shows on the more extreme stations were entertaining, but, after a few weeks, I settled on a station that could be seen as falling in the center of the political spectrum. Tuned into that station, I watched and walked, forward and backwards, every day.

Of course, these were the months when the news has been focusing on the latest presidential race, and so, for one hour each day, I saw much of the political excitement as it unfolded. I saw candidates say things that appalled me, and do things that amused or inspired me. As I worked to add game theory ideas to the book revision I am working on, I watched many of those ideas play out on the small screen. And through it all, I was continuously reminded that my own town would soon be the focus of much of this excitement in a few months, as one of the political parties comes to town to choose a candidate, and to, well, party. Although I still hope to attend a political convention someday, I have since given up plans made with another mother to go downtown scoping for interesting visitors. 

The political process draws interest from my daughter, and my family and I discuss such ideas with her. These conversations reminded me of a handout written by one of our librarians to teach students to use the “CRAP” method to decide if a source was worth citing. It looks for “currency”, “relevance”, “authority”, and “purpose/point of view” of any potential source.  Sources failing to meet these criteria, it teaches, should not be considered worthy of inclusion in one’s writing. I hope that our discussions about the political process have taught my daughter how to sift through some of the ideas that are being sold in this election season, and that this judgment is something that she can take with her into adulthood.

The news reports this year have kept me attached to a drama that is unfolding across the country, and that will eventually move to my own city. Perhaps, I wistfully think, that convention will come after we have a home team that, for the first time in over fifty years, wins a national championship.

And so, I ask my readers, how do you teach your students and children how to discern among competing ideas?


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