MoP 2 : A One-Way Conversation

We’re not particularly looking to blog about censorship. In general, we think the problem (in, e.g., Australia and the US) is overhyped. The much greater problem is self-censorship, where the media and the society at large can’t think or write about what they fail to see; so, for example, a major country can have a military coup, but no one seems to notice. Sometimes, however, the issue is close enough to home and the censorship is sufficiently blatant, that it seems worth noting.

Greg Ashman, who we had cause to mention recently, has been censored in a needless and heavy-handed manner by Sasha Petrova, the education editor of The Conversation. The details are discussed by Ashman here, but it is easy to give the story in brief.

Kate Noble of the Mitchell Institute wrote an article for The Conversation, titled Children learn through play – it shouldn’t stop at pre-school. As the title suggests, Noble was arguing for more play-based learning in the early years of primary school. Ashman then added a (polite and referenced and carefully worded) comment, noting Noble’s failure to distinguish between knowledge that is more susceptible or less susceptible to play-based learning, and directly querying one of Noble’s examples, the possible learning benefits (or lack thereof) of playing with water. Ashman’s comment, along with the replies to his comment, was then deleted. When Ashman emailed Petrova, querying this, Petrova replied:

“Sure. I deleted [Ashman’s comment] as it is off topic. The article doesn’t call for less explicit instruction, nor is there any mention of it. It calls for more integration of play-based learning in early years of school to ease the transition to formal instruction – not that formal instruction (and even here it doesn’t specify that formal means “explicit”) must be abolished.”

Subsequently, it appears that Petrova has also deleted the puzzled commentary on the original deletion. And, who knows what else she has deleted? Such is the nature of censorship.

In general we have a lot of sympathy for editors, such as Petrova, of public fora. It is very easy to err one way or the other, and then to be hammered by Team A or Team B.  Indeed, and somewhat ironically, Ashman had a post just a week ago that was in part critical of The Conversation’s new policy towards climate denialist loons; in that instance we thought Ashman was being a little tendentious and our sympathies were much more with The Conversation’s editors.

But, here, Petrova has unquestionably screwed up. Ashman was adding important, directly relevant and explicitly linked qualification to Noble’s article, and in a properly thoughtful and collegial manner. Ashman wasn’t grandstanding, he was contributing in good faith. He was conversing.  Moreover, Petrova’s stated reason for censoring Ashman is premised on a ludicrously narrow definition of “topic”, which even on its own terms fails here, and in any case has no place in academic discourse or public discourse.

Petrova, and The Conversation, owes Ashman an apology.

The MAV and a Matter of Opinion

This post is tricky. It is not about us, but there is context, and that context should be kept in mind.

Many readers of this blog will be aware of the long relationship we have had with the Mathematical Association of Victoria. It dates back to 2001, when we first came up with the weird idea that mathematics teachers may be interested in learning some maths beyond the thin gruel they were typically served while at university. That idea morphed into 15+ years of teaming up with the Evil Mathologer, of presenting under the banner of and as a consequence of the MAV, of spreading ideas and rousing the rabble. It was quixotically stupid and exhausting and incredibly rewarding. The prehistory of this blog is an interesting story, which is probably of interest to no one.

Fewer readers of this blog will be aware that our association with the MAV ended a few years ago, when the MAV threatened to (and arguably did) censor the abstract of our (invited) keynote. That story may be of more interest, and we hope to write on it in the near future.

In summary, and notwithstanding our long association with and our gratitude to the MAV, we have no love for the MAV in its current form. That is the context. Now for the post.

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A few months ago we heard that an article was rejected for publication in the MAV’s teachers’ journal Vinculum. The manner of and the reason for that rejection sounded very strange, and so we began to ask questions. As indicated below, the MAV has not been particularly forthcoming, but this is our current understanding of the story:

1) An opinion piece was submitted to Vinculum. In the piece, the author argued that all VCE mathematics exams in Year 12 should be calculator-free.

2) Roger Walter, the editor of Vinculum, accepted the piece for publication and included it to be published in the next issue.

3) Peter Saffin, the CEO of the MAV, overruled the editor, instructing Walter to retroactively reject the piece.

4) Saffin’s stated reason for the rejection was that the author’s position was in conflict with the VCAA’s strong advocacy of calculator use.

That is the bare bones of the story. Here is a little flesh (once again, as we understand it):

a) The author of the article is a long-standing member of the MAV, a respected gentleman who has devoted decades to Australian mathematics education generally and to the MAV specifically.

b) The author’s piece was topical, well-written and not flame-throwing.

c) In early September we contacted Michael O’Connor, the President of the MAV, seeking information and clarification. After a back and forth, the President declined to confirm or deny point 3, declaring that as a member of the public we had “no need to know”, and that “even MAV members would have to show sufficient reason”. O’Connor citied his “duty of care towards MAV staff and volunteers”.  Similarly, O’Connor declined to confirm or deny point 4.

d) To our knowledge, no MAV editor has ever previously been overruled in such a manner, by anyone.

e) The author has not contested the rejection.

f) Notwithstanding (d), O’Connor indicated that “proper processes have been followed”.

g) O’Connor indicated that he is “expecting there to be a policy discussion at the next publications meeting”.

h) At this stage, the rejection of the article has not been rescinded.

i) At this stage, no one at the MAV, nor the MAV as a body, has apologised to the author for the rejection of the article or the manner of that rejection,

j) In late September we replied to O’Connor, critiquing various aspects of this incident and his characterisation of it. O’Connor indicated his intention to respond.

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That then is the post. O’Connor and Saffin were invited to comment on a close version of the above. O’Connor reiterated his intention to reply and suggested out our posting now was “premature”, arguing that the MAV had not had “sufficient time to perform due diligence”. Saffin did not reply as of the time of posting.

We will update the post if and when any new information comes to hand.

UPDATE (05/12/19):  In response to a query in the comments of another post, here is a brief and empty update:

  • Michael O’Connor has not replied further, and, written indication notwithstanding, presumably has no intention of doing so.
  • We do not know of any officer of the MAV having expressed, formally or publicly, the view that unilateral censorship of the type above is inappropriate.
  • We are not aware of any formal or informal steps the MAV may have taken to preclude such censorship in the future.
  • We are not aware of any officer of the MAV, nor the MAV as a body, having apologised to the author of the Vinculum article.