Friday, December 17, 2010

Higher Math

I started out as a math major.

People who know me as a historian – someone who tells stories and hasn’t even attempted to balance his checkbook since before the millennium – often find this difficult to believe. I don’t really fit the standard model for a mathematician, which of course I am not, at least not these days.

But there was a time when I thought I might be one.

I blame this on my calculus teacher my senior year of high school, Mr. Stauffer. I was a student at one level or another for nearly thirty years of my life, and Mr. Stauffer was far and away the best teacher I ever had. A thin man, probably not much older then than I am now, with a bushy mustache and a sad sort of smile, he was the only person I ever met who could describe an equation as beautiful and get you to believe it.

When I stand in front of a classroom, it is Mr. Stauffer that I am trying to be.

He had a genuine passion for his subject, one that had apparently come to him later in life than his academic degree – he was a physicist by training, as I recall – and one that was obvious to us. He titled his lectures. He would pursue an idea through most of a class before stopping, declaring that it was utterly wrong, showing us why, and moving us back toward the right answer. He once spent half an hour defending the music of Rachmaninoff – which most of us were not familiar with and therefore did not realize needed defending – not because it was germane but simply because he felt it needed to be said. And he was utterly unable to scale his graphs properly, which more than once – as class was drawing to a close and he realized he would not have the time to redraw the thing – led him to climb up onto his desk chair and continue the graph right up the wall, all the while reassuring us that he would write us notes for our next class if we would only stay and listen.

We were all in the same class after his - all he had to do was call ahead. And really – when your teacher is standing on a chair drawing on the wall, are you going to leave? We were transfixed.

There’s a picture of him doing that in my junior year yearbook. I tried to tell this story to my daughters the other day, and they didn’t believe me until I showed them the picture.

He had a fairly mischievous sense of humor, too. One day in the middle of a lecture he noticed that some students in his previous class had surreptitiously written two equations for the next day’s exam in tiny writing on the side blackboard. Rather than erase them, he simply walked over and altered them. “If they don’t catch on,” he said, “that’s their fault.”

Really, the best way to sum up the response he got from us is to note the fact that he refused to sign our yearbooks until the day of our final exam. There were 15 students in that Calc BC class, no four of whom liked each other, and on the day of our final exam there were 15 yearbooks stacked up on his desk, waiting for him to sign.

What else could I do but follow that example?

It turned out that my following would come as a teacher, not as a mathematician.

I got to college and signed up for second-year calculus, since I – as almost everyone in Mr. Stauffer’s class – had tested out of freshman calculus. It was a giant lecture class, taught by a genial sort of fellow who got us through the year intact but not really inspired.

Well, I thought, perhaps it’s just the straightforward unimaginativeness of the course that is weighing me down. Perhaps I need something more challenging.

And thus it was that on my first day of class, sophomore year, I found myself in a class called “Abstract Linear Algebra,” which was the more theoretical version of the class that most people who survived second-year calculus took. This was the “math major” class, as opposed to the “engineer” class, and thus I figured it was the one for me.

This turned out not to be true.

I walked into class on that first day to find myself in the company of seven hyper-geeks. I was – by far – the hippest, coolest dude in that classroom, and if that doesn’t scare the hell out of you nothing will. It certainly gave me a rather sinking feeling about the whole enterprise. I have never had any illusions about being any of those things, not even when I was young and cared, and to find myself as the resident expert on them was distinctly uncomfortable.

So there we sat, radiating nerdhood at each other. Waiting.

About five minutes after the class was supposed to have started, the professor bustled in, found his way to the lectern in the front of the room, and began to lecture.

He never gave us a syllabus.

He never assigned us a textbook.

He never even told us his name. I made it through a month in that class and didn’t find out the man’s name until I saw his picture on the bulletin board in the Math Department office the day I went to drop the class. For this reason, I suspect, when I can no longer recall the names of most of my undergraduate professors, his name I still know.

Eventually several things occurred to me.

First, that not only did I have no idea what was going on in that classroom, but also I didn’t care. At some point in higher math they drop the numbers and all you get are letters, most of them Greek, arranged in long thin strings bisected by equal signs or short fat grids with brackets around them, and this just struck me as a thoroughly abusive way to spend time.

Second, that most of the other students in that classroom could not be so described. In fact, they seemed to be very excited about it all, jumping in with alternative solutions to homework that I had come to regard as Escher-esque in its distortions of reality.

And third, that I didn’t have to do this if I didn’t want to.

So I stopped.

I eventually found my way to history and I stayed with it when I discovered that I enjoyed reading history even when I was not being tested on the material – that it was something I had a passion for, just for its own sake.

And that, really, was Mr. Stauffer’s lesson.

The reason he was such a great teacher was not because of the subject he was in, but because of what he brought to that subject. He loved what he was doing, and he could get us to see that and share in that.

For that, I almost became a mathematician.

For that, I did become a historian.

For that, I am a teacher.


Katherine McKay said...

If Mr. Stauffer is around and findable, you could do him no greater honor than sending him this blog piece. Now that you're a teacher, think what it would mean to you to read a blog entry like this twenty or thirty years from now.

Unknown said...


Unknown said...

6 years late to the party here. I was just googling around for memories of Mr. Stauffer, related to a workshop I'm taking on teaching techniques, and came across this very nice post. It brings back fond memories of BC Calculus in 1998-99.

Did you ever send this to Mr. Stauffer? If not, and if you want to, I have his email address. Feel free to email me if you want -

Bill Sacks, Lower Merion class of '99

David said...

Hi Bill -

Yes, actually, I did send it to him and he responded with the graciousness that you'd expect of him. He really is a most remarkable person, and I'm glad to have had him as a teacher.

I was in BC Calc more than a decade before you were - it's good to know that he continued to teach at such a high level for that long!