Interview: Colin Adams, Williams College
Colin Adams likes to set up his students with jokes like this:
What do you get when cross a mosquito with a fishmonger?
Nothing. You can’t cross a vector (disease) with a scalar (fish scaler).
He tells several more jokes of the same ilk, then delivers the following:
What do you get when you cross a mathematician with a movie star?
Dream on. It’ll never happen.
Jokes are only one way that Colin tries to capture student interest. He also uses stories, plays, and fictional characters. “The trick is to get people’s attention long enough for them to see the beauty of the mathematics in front of them,” he explained. “I get a huge kick out of trying to come up with unusual ways to do that.”
One of his unusual ways is teaching class under the guise of Mel Slugbate, a sleazy real estate agent who sells property in hyperbolic space. Despite popular belief, Colin says that Mel is not a close personal friend. “He is my brother-in-law, and I am forced to spend time with him at family events. The worst real estate advice he ever gave me was, ‘Buy this house I have for sale.’”
While his humor may pique students’ curiosity, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Colin loves mathematics, too. In fact, it’s the primary reason he chose to become a professor. “The first time I proved something that no one else had ever proved, it was a rush. I really enjoyed that,” he said. “I still do.” He also loves that mathematics is free of personality issues when it comes to a proof. “You are either right or wrong,” he said.
In 1998, Colin was honored with the Haimo Distinguished Teaching Award, the highest teaching award given by the Math Association of America. Impressively, four of the 61 recipients of this award have been from Williams College. If you want to follow in Adams’s footsteps, an online masters degree in education can help you improve your math teaching skills.
I recently interviewed Colin to find out why he loves teaching and, hopefully, to learn a little about how to be mathematically funny.
What’s your favorite thing about teaching?
I love to come up with different ways to teach. The trick is to get people’s attention long enough for them to see the beauty of the mathematics in front of them. So I get a huge kick out of trying to come up with unusual ways to do that. Stories, jokes, plays, characters.
What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever said during a lecture?
I honestly don’t know. The ones that are unplanned are the funniest, and then afterward I forget what it was that I said. I just remember there was a big laugh.
With you, Ed Burger, and Tom Garrity on the faculty, Williams College arguably has the funniest math department in America. Who would your students say is the funniest?
We all have very different styles. They would say Tom is the wackiest. Ed is the one who would be the most likely to succeed in the real comedy world. He is a natural stand-up comic. I am the one who plays a part, and I’m funniest when I’m not myself but am playing someone else. So, depending on the student’s taste, they might give a different answer.
Who is the funniest mathematician or professor you know? What’s the funniest thing that he or she ever said?
I would say Ed Burger. He is always on. I remember when he was giving a talk to parents during Parent’s Weekend at Williams. He was demonstrating how you can tie your feet together, then turn your pants inside out and put them back on while keeping your feet tied together the whole time, a topological demonstration. When he dropped his trousers with his feet tied together, he had on boxers with purple cows (the Williams mascot) all over them. He waited a second, and then said, “All junior faculty at Williams are required to wear these.” I couldn’t stop laughing.
Tell us about yourself. In particular, what things would you like my audience (a bunch of silly folks who like math jokes) to know about you?
Let’s see. Before I wanted to be a mathematician, I wanted to be a writer. But then I fell in love with mathematics. It has been a joy to be able to go back to my previous interest and write math humor.
Your list of math humor titles is impressive: the Streetwise Guides to Calculus, Riot at the Calc Exam, all of your “Mathematically Bent” columns. Which is your favorite, and why?
I love writing the “Mathematically Bent” column. It comes out four times a year, so I know I have about three months per column. Other than the constraint that it should be funny and involve mathematics, there are no constraints. So, I love the freedom that gives me. Every time I read a story, see a movie, hear an interesting anecdote, or follow the news, I think, “Is there a way to do this from a mathematical point of view? Can you write a funny math story based on that idea?”
If folks are only able to read one item that you’re written, which one would you want them to read?
How about Mangum, PI? It was a piece in the Mathematical Intelligencer that also appears in the book Riot at the Calc Exam and Other Mathematically Bent Stories. (Ed. Note: Colin was kind enough to share a copy of this story for readers of the MJ4MF blog. You can download it here.)
In addition to your writing, you also starred in a film, The Great Pi/e Debate with Tom Garrity, and you have several plays to your credit. Where is it hardest to be funny — on screen, in print, or on stage?
For me, screen and stage are the same, in that all of my videos are based on stage productions. But the same production on video is never quite as funny as it was live. I spend a lot of time writing my material before I perform it. I am not an extemporaneous performer. When I do come up with something on the fly and it’s funny, and it goes over well, that is the best feeling.
When not writing math books, which books do you like to read? Any favorite authors?
I like to read lots of different books. Some science writers (John McPhee), some novels (Dave Eggers), some stories (Stephen King), some nonfiction (Christopher Hitchens).