‘A Culture of Collaboration’
On Oct. 5, 2017, The Chronicle of Higher Education featured Hamilton’s math department in its article “Welcoming Students to Your Discipline — A Culture of Collaboration.” Highlighting renovations to Christian Johnson Hall that include a large study area surrounded by faculty offices, the story reminded readers that “the arrangement of physical space has implications for teaching and learning.”
The Hamilton Alumni Review asked Professor Dick Bedient, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Mathematics and department chair, to share his thoughts.
We never set out to have 10 percent of Hamilton graduates be math majors, but here we are. The department atmosphere attracts students with strong math backgrounds and also those who have some mathematical competence, but who may be lacking in mathematical confidence.
When I arrived on the Hill in 1979, the department was housed in the basement of Dunham, and there were 20 senior math majors (one of whom was Jon Hind ’80 [Hamilton’s athletics director]!). All the faculty knew pretty much all the majors, and there was a sense that we were a band of hardy souls stranded together on a desert island. Over time this atmosphere began to attract more students, and we began to add faculty to keep up. Soon we moved into the newly renovated Christian Johnson with some offices on the second floor and some on the first. Contrary to what we might have expected, the sense of community remained strong.
The departmental ethos evolved so that most math classes had homework due two or three times per week. Students were encouraged to work together, and homework was typically due at 4:30 p.m. As a result, at 3 you would find the hallways and faculty offices of CJ filled with students working together on homework.
Our final move occurred when the College built the Wellin Museum, thus freeing up the space previously occupied by the Emerson Gallery. We now have a large study space that is surrounded by faculty offices, and the student population has grown to fill it. We can have 50-plus students there on a Friday afternoon, but now they are sitting in chairs, not on the floor. A stereotypical math student might be a solitary “nerd” working alone in a dorm room, scribbling down equations incomprehensible to others, while in fact an equally accurate picture would be someone collaborating with friends and classmates around a table in CJ, debating ideas sketched on one of the many blackboards. This is how math is really done.
This popularity does come at a cost; classes are full to their caps, students have to plan carefully to get the courses they want, and there are certainly math majors whom I don’t know. On the other hand it is very gratifying that roughly 12 percent of the current junior class has chosen to major in math, when nationwide less than 2 percent of undergraduates do so.
We think about all of this as we replace those of us who are reaching retirement age. When we’re doing off-campus interviews for new faculty, we now take along a laptop with a series of pictures of the space, and when we’re talking to a job candidate we can say, “Here’s what it looks like.” They might see a picture from inside a faculty member’s office with the professor on one side of the desk and several students on the other. In the background, you can see out the door, where there are 10 students at tables. If you watch the candidate’s face, some will be saying, “Are you crazy? Who would want to do that?” The people we hire are those who look at that scene and say, “That’s where I want to be. That’s what I want to be doing.”