Beyond the Numbers

A conversation with Professor of Mathematics Carol Schumacher, winner of this year’s Faculty Advising Award.

By Carolyn Ten Eyck '18
Carol Schumacher

After decades of teaching students at Kenyon, Professor of Mathematics Carol Schumacher had a pretty good idea of what being a faculty advisor entailed. Then the pandemic hit. We spoke with this year’s Faculty Advising Award winner about how she navigated teaching through the unprecedented circumstances of the last 18 months and her belief in everyone’s ability to access their inner mathematician. 

How did it feel to receive the award?

I was totally shocked! There are such amazing advisors and teachers doing work in the trenches all the time here. It must be a very difficult job to pick one person a year to get such an award. I'm humbled by the company that puts me in.

Kenyon is so particular in its treatment of academic advising. What do you think about when considering your advisory role to students?

How do you [as a student] select a set of courses that’s going to nurture you in a broad sense? Both in terms of giving you a breadth of intellectual experiences but also balancing your work in the classroom with extracurricular activities, which are an important part of what you do. How are you taking care of yourself? Helping students understand that a balance in life is an important thing. There are a lot of things that we sign on for as part of the package of helping students develop in their time at Kenyon. And that was clear to me from the beginning. It was obviously part of the package, right? When we take on the role of faculty members and teachers, we’re also taking on a broader role of helping shape our students’ and our advisees’ academic experience.

Your role to your advisees must have felt so different last year, given the pandemic. 

I met them virtually. We talked about course selection, and what it was like to be at Kenyon and all kinds of things, and we were all making it up as we went along. And that’s frustrating. We had to rethink everything from scratch with no time. That was really true in the spring of 2020, right? We [the faculty] had a week to figure out how to do something that we never thought in our lives we would have to do, which is to teach people on a screen.

We all learned a lot. There’s no way that you turn your pedagogy inside out in a global way without learning something about teaching and learning. And now, faculty are left with the question: what did we learn of value that we can take with us? 

Definitely. When you’re talking with folks in your office hours, I assume you’re not discussing math the entire time. Especially in light of the past year, was there more focus on mental wellbeing? Or was the focus more about creating a space of fellowship without overtly discussing the problems of the world?

There was a lot of continuing to try to check in individually with students about how they were doing and how things were going. That worked its way into a lot of conversations. I did something with my “Real Analysis” class in the spring that I’d never done before. 

People were stressed out. They were concerned about family. They were concerned about the situation in the world. We were looking at each other through masks. They couldn’t gather to work on problems as easily. There were all kinds of things that were just getting in the way. So I went in one day and I said, “This class is unraveling in ways I’m not used to having it unravel. So this is what we’re going to do.” And we just upended things. 

I made my goals for the class somewhat less ambitious, in the sense that I was still expecting them to learn deep things, I just wasn’t expecting them to learn quite so many deep things. We stretched things out. 

It had a double effect. They were able to then cope with the work I was giving them, which before they were having trouble doing. It also was useful from a psychological point of view, in that they understood that their welfare was just as important as the mathematics that I was teaching.

I have a lot of students that are scared to take a math course. And my goal is to at least move people off that just a little bit. The pandemic turned that knob up to 11. You can’t learn unless you have a certain sense of well-being yourself.

And I’m not just talking about carrying a potentially deadly virus, but being able to give ourselves grace when we don’t live up to the expectations that we have for ourselves. It’s okay to be ambitious, but you also have to understand that we all fall short in certain things. 

Right. Going back to the scared-of-math thing, what’s your method for working with students who might be wary of hard sciences or mathematics?

There’s an awful lot of really bad math teaching out there. I mean, it can be so bad that nobody’s getting anything out of [the class], but you know, in a normal situation, you’re going to have about half the class who just gets it because it’s a natural way of thinking for them. Other people in the class — who could actually be reached by thinking pedagogically about how to reach them and how to get them to engage those ideas in a dynamic way — look around and they see people nodding their heads, they see people succeeding and they assume it’s their fault [they’re not getting it].

One of the assumptions I have is that everybody has a mathematician inside them, and everybody can be successful doing mathematics if they’re given the right context in which to do that.

People often think about mathematics as learning to move symbols around on a piece of paper. But no mathematician fell in love with math because of that. Algebra is a language within which we can do certain things, but it’s just the language. 

It’s like thinking that all of literature is diagramming sentences properly. And nobody falls in love with literature by learning to diagram sentences properly. Right? People should teach algebra, the language. There are verbs, and phrases, and complete sentences, and incomplete sentences. And it just happens to be a language in which we can do certain things really well.