191.5 Years of Teaching Math

In December 2014, five Walla Walla University mathematics professors emeriti gathered to celebrate Christmas and the joy of friendship. All five have retired in the Walla Walla Valley. They represent 191.5 years of teaching math at WWU: Gordon Hare, 37 years (1957–1994); Ward Soper, 43 years (1965–2008); Melvin Lang, 34 years (1967–2001); Thomas Thompson, 42.5 years (1971–2013); and Ken Wiggins, 35 years (1968–1969 and 1980–2014). They shared a few thoughts about teaching math through the years.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in mathematics or in the process of teaching math during your time at WWU?

TT: The application of computing in all its forms: PCs (including smart phones, tablets, etc.), the Internet, gaming, social media, and, of particular interest to mathematics, Internet available problem-solving software. The availability of these applications can so easily divert students from the process of real learning. "Wrestling" with a mathematics problem is no longer necessary—just let a search engine find or problem-solving software compute the answer. Answers to problem sets in printed textbooks can appear on the Internet almost immediately after the publication of the textbook. This can even occur for advanced-level undergraduate texts. It takes a disciplined student not to succumb to this ease of availability.

WS: The biggest change in teaching mathematics that I can think of is the use of electronics, from the genesis of calculators (they were not yet invented) to now doing homework online. We didn’t even have overhead projectors when I started! (They existed, I guess, but were not readily available.)

KW: The biggest changes that I have seen involve the use of technology. Powerful symbolic math programs, like Maple and Mathematica, are used by students, Powerpoint-type displays are used in class, and students use computer-based homework systems with individual homework exercises. One downside is that the ready availability of so much software seems to demotivate students for learning to write computer programs. Mathematicians sometimes use computers to help them construct proofs, and some of these proofs are so long and complicated that they cannot be checked by humans. This raises all sorts of questions about what constitutes a proof.

ML: I believe the biggest change that occurred in the mathematics department during my time was to add an applied mathematics degree.

Was there a particular math teacher at WWU who was instrumental in your education?

TT: For me, as an undergraduate, Gordon Hare was the key. Even though I was headed for medical school from day one as an undergraduate, I loved sitting in his classes watching the mathematics unfold on the blackboard in his beautiful cursive handwriting (it was an art form!) and then going home at night to solve the problems he assigned. This love of mathematics caused me to add mathematics as a second undergraduate major (besides chemistry) and to select Gordon’s classes whenever possible. I ended up taking 44 hours of mathematics from him. (Little did I know at the time how my future would change and that Gordon would hire me to teach mathematics in 1971.)

KW: Gordon Hare inspired me with his great lectures so well supported with his gorgeous work on the blackboard. … He also tapped a piece of chalk on the blackboard in class as he thought. I found his idiosyncrasies endearing.

What advanced degrees do you have and from what institutions?

TT: I graduated from WWU in 1968, earned a master’s degree from the University of Washington and then a doctoral degree from the University of California at Davis.

WS: I have a master’s degree from the University of Michigan and took quite a lot of classwork beyond the master’s.

ML: My Ph.D. is in applied statistics from the University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley, Colorado.

KW: I graduated from WWU in 1968. I have M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Montana State University.

What is your area of expertise in mathematics?

TT: Abstract algebra and also an abiding interest in the history of mathematics.

KW: Analysis, and particularly differential equations and approximation theory.

WS: I mainly concentrated on geometry and abstract algebra.

If you could eat one food, and one food only, for the rest of your life, what would it be?

TT: Savory omelets: they can be stuffed with all kinds of great veggies and other yummy things as well!

KW: My wife is a gourmet cook, and she makes so many delicious foods, that I am tempted to choose one of those. However, I suppose even the best of those could get tiresome eventually. I am not quite sure what you mean by "one food," so I am trying to think of something that could provide some variety. I will choose haystacks. By choosing to eat some or all the ingredients, variety is possible, and they are quite tasty. Alas, I have chosen something that does not make a gourmet cook proud. On the plus side, haystacks do seem to be uniquely Adventist.

WS: If I could only eat one food, I don’t think I would last very long.

ML: I think I would choose Pizza.

The five of you have taught at WWU for a combined total of 191.5 years, and you have all chosen to retire in Walla Walla. That kind of commitment to an institution is outstanding and admirable. What do you love about WWU and what is your favorite thing about living in the Walla Walla Valley?

TT: WWU: Its commitment to academic excellence in an SDA Christian context. WW Valley: Friends, small-townishness, four seasons, local produce, mountains and water nearby, central location from which to visit family (children, grandchildren, etc.)

KW: I love the students and faculty at WWU. I especially loved working with students as they solved difficult mathematical problems, and it made no difference whether the students were senior math majors or freshmen business majors. It was all very exciting for me. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the math faculty during my 21.5 years as chair of the department. Each one had his or her own strengths, and it was my job to help them develop those strengths. Once, an academic dean asked me what I had accomplished the previous summer. I answered by listing the accomplishments of each faculty member in the math department and then listing some of the major accomplishments of our students who had internships. I then stated with a straight face that I took credit for every one of those accomplishments. After a lengthy and nearly awkward silence, the dean said, "And you should." I don’t really take personal credit for the accomplishments of others, but I certainly take pride in the accomplishments of students and faculty in the math department. We retired in the Walla Walla Valley because this is where we feel most at home. Of primary importance, we both have family here, and the majority of our friends are here.

WS: I really like the weather here in the Walla Walla Valley, especially in comparison to Michigan where we came from.

ML: I taught at a state university in North Dakota before I came to WWU. I noticed that at WWU there is an unusually strong commitment to the church, the University, and the students. Sometimes I think WWU is built on commitment. Even though I am retired, the University is still a major part of our lives. There are a lot of good things I could say about Walla Walla. We love the people, the climate, the University Church, the University, and the community. To us it feels like we are a part of a large community family. Coming to Walla Walla was one of the best decisions we ever made.