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“I would be a terrible spy”: Q&A with Prof. Eric Egge, recipient of MAA Distinguished Teaching of Mathematics Award

Early this April, Professor of Mathematics and Chair of Mathematics and Statistics Eric Egge ’94 received the 2020 Mathematical Association of America (MAA) North Central Section Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics. Along with the American Mathematical Society, the MAA is one of the two most prominent mathematical organizations in the country, with several regional divisions. The North Central Section includes Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Each section has its own set of awards, but most sections have a teaching award, according to Egge. The North Central Section’s teaching award is what professor Egge won last month, making him the third Carleton professor to receive the award since its inception in 1992 (after David Appleyard ’61 in 2006, and Mark Krusemeyer in 1994). Taylor Yeracaris ’20, a math major and one of Egge’s advisees, sat down to chat with him about his thoughts on mathematics, teaching, and whether or not he’s funny. 

Taylor Yeracaris: Is this award just for teaching, or for your other work as a professor as well?

Eric Egge: It’s for teaching sort of broadly construed. Part of it has to do with research work I’ve done with students—that’s part of teaching as well, even though it’s not part of any class. I don’t think the award includes other service type work; our section has a separate service award, for example, which Deanna Haunsperger and Stephen Kennedy won!

TY: How much of the work that you do that this award is acknowledging do you think happens inside the classroom, and how much outside?

EE: It’s hard to separate the two. Certainly some of it’s inside the classroom, but a lot of teaching happens outside the classroom and in a whole variety of contexts. My office hours are certainly one of them. But even just today I was talking with a couple of other colleagues, and one of them brought up one of the disadvantages of this remote learning that we’re doing. That is that unless you consciously work it into the structure of your class, it’s really hard to have the informal right-before-class or right-after-class conversations. Or, the conversation where you just happened to be going to the drinking fountain and a student you know happens to be going the other way, and you say “hi,” and they say, “oh yeah, I just wanted to ask you about REUs.” When we’re in physical proximity, they happen without us even noticing, but those interactions are also super important when it comes to teaching and building a community and an environment where people are better able to learn what they want to learn.

TY: How does the nominating process work?

EE: Someone, typically in one’s department, has to decide that they want to nominate you. They write a nominating letter, and they typically get another letter from another faculty member in support of the nomination, and they also gather letters from students. Honestly, and I probably shouldn’t say this as someone who won the award, but I think there are a lot of really good professors in this department and in other departments who would also win this award if they were fortunate enough to have somebody nominate them.

TY: How did you become interested in teaching math?

EE: When I was in college as an undergraduate, I was under the impression—maybe mistaken—that knowing more math would make you a really cool person, generally speaking. I recognize that that’s not really the general feeling. I really haven’t ever lost that idea, though, and I enjoy sharing math with people. More than that, or at least as much as that, I’ve discovered recently about myself that I really like helping people understand things. I would be a terrible spy, for example, where the whole point of the exercise is for people to not understand what you are trying to accomplish. That’s hard for me. I have a hard time with yes-no questions as well, because I’m not able to just say “oh, yes.” It’s more like “yeah, because there’s this and there’s that and the other thing, but also the answer could be ‘no’ because there’s this other thing going on as well.” And so teaching is just, for me, a fun way to share the math and to help people understand things that seem cool.

TY: Do you have any advice for people who want to become math professors or math teachers themselves?

EE: Learn a lot of math. I think that’s a good thing to do if that’s the direction you want to go, and in fact if you want to teach at the college level, learning a lot of math is the way to go. And then, I suppose, seek out opportunities to talk with people about math and share the math that you know.

TY: The first math class I took at Carleton was with you, and I was really blown away by the fun and welcoming atmosphere you created. It was one of the main things that set me on the track to becoming a math major. What do you do to create such a welcoming atmosphere in the classroom? And, in particular, how do you make math approachable to students who have either hated math or felt like they’re not good enough at it?

EE: Mostly what I try to do is to have fun with it myself, and to share that with folks in the class. Another big part of it is that I try to be open to wherever people are in terms of the math they’re doing. That includes the background people have — sometimes people either haven’t seen an idea or don’t remember an idea, so you try to go with where they’re at when it comes to that — but that also includes experiences people have had with math in the past.

There’s a sense when you’re teaching a class sometimes that you’ve got to cover as much as you possibly can. My feeling is slightly different. My goal is that over the long haul people will learn and enjoy as much math as I can possibly get them to do. And because that’s a long game, that means in the short term I might say, “you know what, it’s okay if we don’t learn quite as much math today,” if we then get to tomorrow and feel enthusiastic to do more. If we learn 100% today and don’t want to do anything tomorrow, we’re not as well off as if we learn 80% today and another 80% tomorrow, and are still interested in doing more the day after. I try to let that guide me a little bit. Honestly, I think a large part of it is just that I’m trying to enjoy the math, and I’m hoping that in enjoying it myself, that helps other people enjoy it as well. Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I don’t and keep moving along.

TY: What are some of the main things you think about when you’re in the classroom and when interacting with students in general?

EE: Certainly what we’ve just been talking about, but also trying to listen. Of course, when I’m teaching a class and there are 25 students in the room, I’m going to be the one talking. But even then, I’m trying to gauge what students are thinking about, trying to get answers from students or get conversation going — even sometimes not about math, just to break the ice so that the conversation about math is better. But particularly when I’m talking with people in small groups like in office hours, I’m able to help more if I can hear what people are thinking about. So if somebody says “well, I don’t know about problem 23,” I’m really likely to say, “okay, well, tell me more about problem 23. What have you tried? What hasn’t worked? Talk a little bit about where you might be stuck,” so that while they’re talking, I can listen and try to help them where they are, rather than trying to make some guess about what might be the problem. At some point I have a better sense of what the problem is and I can actually say something helpful, but really I think I’m doing better when I’m listening.

TY: Do you think you’re funny, or is it just everybody else who thinks that?

EE: I don’t think I’m funny. I have received confirmation from other people who are pretty clear that they agree with my assessment. But you know, every once in a while people laugh, and I amuse myself. So, that’s probably as good as I can hope for. And the thing about not being funny — certainly some of the jokes I tell are not funny — is that the fact that they’re not funny can be amusing, by just acknowledging that “Yeah, that one wasn’t funny, but we tried.” Sometimes I’ll try to turn that around, as well. If I’m teaching calculus, for instance, and people are learning about antiderivatives. You’ve got to put in the +C, and there’s an absolutely terrible joke that ends with a +C. Not only terrible, but also offensive in certain ways. Not horribly offensive, but offensive in certain ways. So, I tell the class: “You know, you’ve got to put in the +C — otherwise you’re going to force me to tell the joke.” And the joke is not funny, long, and potentially offensive. Nobody’s going to be happy if I have to tell the joke. So then they’re intrigued: “What’s the joke, what’s the joke?” “I’m not telling the joke, put in your +C’s.” So then the existence of the joke becomes the ongoing joke.

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