Student Essay Contest

The Art of Math: An Image Problem

2017 AWM Essay Contest: Undergraduate Level Honorable Mention

By: by Anna Schilke, Houghton College (Houghton, New York)

“I think math has an image problem” Rebekah Yates told me. We were seated on her cheerful green sofa wrapped up in blankets and drinking tea. More accurately, I was drinking tea. Before I had a chance to unlace my boots she was already welcoming me into her home, offering me chocolate, tea and a choice between her favorite mugs without pausing to do the same for herself. That’s the sort of person Rebekah is. I was sitting on her sofa drinking tea to interview her, a conversation she fit into her schedule despite a hectic and stressful weekend.
This habitual generosity and kindness endears her to everyone she meets. Rebekah is one of the few professors on campus I haven’t heard a bad word about. She makes it evident to her students that she values and enjoys teaching them – her career is not a way to pay the bills until she can move onto the next best thing, but her passion. “I always wanted to be a teacher” she said. “I come from a long line of teachers; my family seems to have a teaching gene, and in my heart I knew this is what I wanted to do with my life.”
Rebekah’s love of teaching was intertwined with another love: math. She has always excelled at it. In third grade, she was handed a sixth grade math book, which she taught to herself. Her first semester in college she simultaneously took linear algebra and TA’d Calculus. As a graduate student she was asked to fill in for a professor on sabbatical, teaching classes that no other grad student before her had been trusted to teach. “It was good” she recalls with a shrug “because then when I was interviewing for jobs and had to teach a test class on linear algebra I actually knew what I was talking about.” Rebekah’s humble attitude is especially impressive given her Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Montana. She specializes in functional analysis and Banach and uniform algebras, and she has done numerous talks and publications since receiving her degree.
When asked to describe math, Rebekah began with the word art. “Math is primarily about creativity,” she said. “There’s an infinite amount of problems in the world, and what mathematicians get to do is pick one that looks fun and play with it.” Out of her descriptions, other words emerge. Truth. Beauty. Simplicity. Grace. Happiness. She recounts a science experiment that compares which parts of the brain function when artists and mathematicians talk about their work. In many cases, they match. Mathematicians, she tells me, are the only ones who get to start from nothing. Unlike scientists who begin with a test subject, math lovers can invent from scratch, often just to see what might happen if they do.
Though it is hard to believe, since her face beams at the concept, Rebekah wasn’t always at peace with the endless possibilities of mathematics. While earning her undergrad at Wheaton, she struggled with her own lack of interest in practical applications. “I knew I was going to teach, so I started preparing myself to answer the question “What’s the point of this?” I realized that I didn’t care myself. I wasn’t interested in how to make a bridge work more efficiently. That was never the fun part for me” she said. Although Rebekah is quick to make clear she respects her colleagues who focus on practical applications, her own passion is for conceptual math. She finds satisfaction in creating solutions and value in the way math trains her brain to think about the world. “I play with the problems” she said “and maybe someday, someone else will find a way my math can be useful.”
Rebekah’s vision of the art of math crossed with her understanding of the ways math can enrich an individual life are what make her such a good teacher. She also has a lot of experience. She held numerous TA positions in college, worked as a middle school math teacher for a year, and taught extensively during grad school. She joined the Houghton math faculty in 2009 and currently chairs the department. Rebekah teaches her students about the ways math will change their lives – how it will become a way of looking at the world. “In math we have to look at a problem from all directions. If one approach isn’t working, then we try another. If the problem is too hard, we find a simpler problem and then come back to more difficult one after we’ve solved the first. Every mathematician hits a wall at some point. You have to learn how to get around it, how to keep working on challenging things. Those are all skills that transfer to real life.”
Nowhere is this more evident than in Rebekah’s own life. She is married to computer scientist – they met in a Complex Analysis class – and has two small children. In her limited spare time, she knits and cooks, using both as outlets for her creativity and always asking the question “if I do this, then what happens?” She also runs, occasionally doing sums in her head to pass the time. Her cat is named Möbius. I don’t know who Möbius is, so before I leave her house she shows me, bending a piece of paper into a taped strip. She’s so exuberant about sharing this with me that I can’t help but be excited too.
As she makes me cut the Möbius strip in half, I realize Rebekah’s right. Math does have an image problem. It’s known for cold logic when it should be known for passion and life. For a moment I feel great sadness about that misconception. But it’s fleeting. With teachers like Rebekah Yates in the world, the solution to that particular problem has already been found.
About the Student:
I’m an undergrad at Houghton College, majoring in writing. Rebekah is both my teacher and my neighbor. I don’t have the credit space to take all of the math classes I want to, but I enjoy the math I can do and find it’s obvious creative ties to my own field useful. I also enjoy hiking, because writing or doing math, sometimes it’s nice to leave the creating behind in order to appreciate the already created. Also tea. Because tea.