Emory Report
October 24, 2005
Volume 58, Number 8


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October 24 , 2005
Numbers game

BY Eric rangus

Although he’d always loved mathematics while growing up, Michael Rogers never considered becoming a mathematician until his sophomore year in college. That was when he took multivariable calculus (a course he now teaches at Oxford) and was, for the first time, challenged.

Rogers had wanted to be a physicist; he took math courses only because his physics teachers often pointed out how useful it was in their own discipline. Soon he realized that mathematics stood out on its own right—as opposed to supporting some other career.

“High school doesn’t really let you know much about what math is,” said Rogers, associate professor of mathematics at Oxford. He earned his bachelor’s in mathematics from Reed College and three other degrees, including his doctorate, at Columbia University. “I asked one of my high school teachers what you do as a mathematician, and the basic idea I got was that you just work on more complicated equations. That didn’t seem like a lot of fun to me.”

It doesn’t seem fun to some of his Oxford students, either. Rogers likes to tell of a student in his Introduction to Pure Mathematics (MATH 120) class who, at the beginning of the course, described math as “bogus.”

“I wasn’t sure what she meant,” Rogers said, though he guessed the description wasn’t completely positive. “But she stayed in class, so I got to find out.”

The student had similar views he did growing up: Math, she thought, simply involves doing things the way the teacher says. That’s the way you pass the test. But there was no rhyme or reason—no why, no how.

It’s the how and the why, Rogers said, that really make math interesting, and that is what he tries to reveal to his students. “Students [in high school] aren’t taught mathematics. They are taught mathematical skills so they can apply them in business and science. I think that’s a shame.”

One innovative way Rogers teaches the whys and hows is through computer animation. Using Mathematica software, he creates three-dimensional movies to illustrate the concepts he teaches. It literally brings mathematical concepts to life.

Rogers began incorporating technology into his coursework about two years ago after attending Oxford’s Teaching and Learning Technology Institute. Since multivariable calculus deals with three (and sometimes more) dimensions, simply drawing flat planes on a blackboard is an inadequate way to explain concepts.

“Students get to see something and have an understanding that they can’t get by my talking to them,” Rogers said. “The three-dimensional material is difficult. It takes imagination, and it’s not imagination the students usually have. It has to be developed. When I was growing up, I didn’t have it either.”

Rogers’ theories about teaching manifest themselves in several ways. Recently, he participated in a seminar at Oxford on liberal arts education. One of the goals was to articulate the values of liberal education.

“It seems to me that the way liberal education is described undermines some of its greater benefits,” Rogers said. Those descriptions, he went on, tend to be bland, politically correct and do not take into account the importance of different contents. “They focus on intellectual skills, and it sometimes makes you think it doesn’t matter what things you study. As long as you can think critically, express yourself coherently and cogently, it’s good. And there is usually something about ethical behavior, ethical engagement with the world and society. But the way it’s described, it sounds like you can do that while getting a business or engineering degree.”

Rogers doesn’t intend to demean other fields; he just feels the liberal arts are different and should be treated as such. “If you look at business or engineering schools, they try and make people think critically, express themselves well and be engaged in society. While it’s all well and good that all these liberal arts things can be found in a professional education, the emphasis is on practical application of training people to do certain things well. The one thing that’s lost when they try to make a sort of statement about liberal education independent of content is the importance of content in education.”

As an undergraduate, Rogers said, he took a course in American literature. He admitted he has forgotten a lot of what he learned, but what he hasn’t forgotten are the lessons he learned about American culture, as well as the historical context interwoven throughout it. He developed concepts of how American society is structured. Had he taken a course in, for example, British literature, he would not have that specific knowledge about the United States. Rogers said that subtlety often is missed by generic statements about the liberal arts.

“We need to be very thoughtful about what courses we require students to take because it can make a difference to them and what they learn,” he said. “We need to express what is distinctive and distinguished about Emory College and Oxford College.”

Although he is a mathematician, language clearly is a major focus of Rogers’ career. This academic year, he has the opportunity to stretch himself in other ways regarding communication and diplomacy as president of the University Senate and chair of Faculty Council.

“The Senate is a great thing to be a part of because you get a convergence of issues that really concern us all,” said Rogers, whose term runs through the academic year. “Things that affect students are of interest to faculty members because we are here in part for the sake of the students.”

Rogers said one of Faculty Council’s major projects for the year is to define who exactly “the faculty” at Emory are.

“Sometimes documents might refer to ‘tenured faculty,’ but they only say ‘the faculty,’” Rogers said. “Some positions are ‘research assistants,’ but depending on the school or the position itself, that person may be considered a faculty member; sometimes they are considered ‘staff,’ like someone who staffs a lab. This has implications in who can get a [University] grant. Who is permitted to apply?”

Provost Earl Lewis first brought the issue to the council’s attention last year—several other universities have definitions of “faculty” in their faculty handbooks, but Emory does not—and the body began to investigate it this fall. Now in its initial stage, the project first will examine all of Emory’s schools and gather descriptions of their various academic titles; a list of their rights, responsibilities and privileges; and whether the positions are considered “faculty.”

In the end, Rogers said, the council will have definitions of Emory’s various ranks as well as their categories, and from that point the council can make some recommendations to the provost’s office about how to proceed. Eventually, Rogers said, deans and school faculty may need to update some language to clarify their various “faculty” positions.

While all this work has begun on Rogers’ Faculty Council watch, he’s not sure it will end under it. “The council meets seven times,” he said, “and there isn’t a lot of time to get things done. We have to collect the data, bring it to the council for consideration, as well as present it to the community. When you start talking about community feedback, you have to give a lot of notice.” Rogers said a lot of the discovery will be completed this year, but clarifying faculty definitions may extend to the next academic year.