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Impacting the World through Mathematics: Victor Piercey’s MAA Spotlight

The journey into mathematics isn’t always simple, sometimes the path might be similar to identifying all of the sides of an icosahedron. Our June Member Spotlight, Victor Piercey, PhD, JD, is a tenured mathematics professor at Ferris State University, who has developed a two-semester sequence of general education courses entitled Quantitative Reasoning for Professionals and has taught about ethics in mathematics and inquiry-based learning. Victor shares the importance of community, experiences with MAA Project NExT, teaching advice, and more.

To learn about Victor’s journey into mathematics, read his article in Living Proof on page 122.

MAA: How has the MAA impacted you?

Victor Piercey (VP): The MAA is my professional home and it's provided me with a community. That's really the most important thing; I feel like I have allies and people that I can rely on within the MAA when I need support and when I'm doing difficult things. Academic politics within a department can be very challenging, but it's nice to know that I have this extended family out there that, whether I need suggestions for literature to look at, ideas or something went poorly in a class or anything I need related to my any professional need at all and even sometimes non-professional needs. It's like a family.

MAA: Can you talk about your experience with your MAA Project NExT cohort? How did you grow from the program?

VP: Community is the most important thing with the MAA. In some ways, MAA Project NExT is a professional development program and an orientation to the MAA. It’s a great introduction to the association, and it comes with its own community, and that's probably one of [the program’s] most important goals.

I've met some very close friends and collaborators in that program. In fact, one person brought me into things like data science and social justice programs that she's organized. This program also really helped me think about what it means to be student-centered in my teaching and how to think carefully about my students' needs.

It taught me a lot about intentionality, teaching, and really being careful about what I want an outcome to be, how to get there, and how to make sure it's occurred. The whole philosophy of thinking about what I want them to come away with is powerful, as opposed to thinking about the content I want to teach. That's a perspective that’s dramatic for me and has dramatic consequences.

MAA: What is the best advice you have ever received?

VP: I remember when I started [working] at Ferris [State University] after grad school, I started with a new dean. When he was on his way out, we were chatting, and one of the things he told me was, “Don't be afraid to let something go if it's not working, or if things aren't happening.” I've thought about that with a number of initiatives that I've tried to do, whether at Ferris or otherwise.

Sometimes I’ve looked and thought about things that just weren’t happening. If there's not a lot of momentum or excitement maybe it isn't the time. Including some things I've taught. I've had activities that I've designed that didn't work. There might have been a good idea there, but I'll put it on the shelf. I didn't abandon it. In a few years I might have to come back and revise it.


I have two favorite bits of advice, one is specific, and the other is general. But both are from when I was a lawyer at a law firm and are about writing.

One of the partners told me, “Don't make it a mystery novel; in other words, make it say what you need and what they need to know.” Putting the most important thing up front made me think about the audience. When you're writing for a busy audience, it’s different from trying to write something that feels a bit more literary; you want to be very clear upfront about things.

The other bit of advice was from when another partner did a little orientation with me and the three other lawyers that started at the same time as me. The last thing he said to us was to leave no stone unturned.

That's how I try and approach everything I do.

If I'm not sure of something, learning how to entertain our own uncertainties has been invaluable professionally. I try to pass a lot of this advice on to my students, especially to leave no stone unturned.

MAA: What are some of the things that motivate you to not only stay in mathematics but to strengthen mathematics?

VP: Shortly after Donald Trump was elected, I started feeling a lot of regret for not remaining a lawyer. [I felt regret] for leaving a legal career because I felt like I could have done a lot of good, but not with the kind of law that I was practicing at a corporate law firm, doing real estate work.

I went to Columbia for law school, which has a very strong human rights program. Louis Henkin was a professor when I was there. He's kind of a guru on international human rights law. And I was kicking myself. It was at that moment when I was going through that when I got this invitation from a chap named Maurice, he's out at Cambridge, to go out to this Ethics and Mathematics conference at Cambridge.

That was the beginning of getting out of this [ethics and mathematics]. I think Catherine Buell had given him my name because I'd given a talk in a session she organized about some stuff I was doing in my quantitative reasoning classes with ethics, particularly because the students were business students.

So now it's not just ethics. It's some of the social justice stuff. What motivates me is the fact that I can do some good for the world, that I can make somebody live life better. I have a flair for the dramatic, but I've started in the last few months looking into doing some work on data science for genocide prevention.

And that, for me, has been potentially powerful because, in addition to doing some good, this work could actually save lives. In some ways, if I can contribute to this work that can save just one life, it's all worth it.

I lost my entire main family within a four-year period, mostly associated with my law career. I'm sure there are some associations, psychological associations there. But, my dad died at the end of my second year of law school, and my brother died right before I took the bar exam. Then my mother died right after I left law when I was just starting my mathematical work. Naturally, that raises issues of survivor's guilt and questions about, why was I the one that survived? The work on genocide could help me answer that question in some ways.

MAA: What or who inspires you and why?

VP: I'll just mention the three that immediately come to mind.

My wife, Courtney, inspires me every day to do better, to be better, and to take my values that I put out into the world as a whole and try to make sure I'm living my values at home.

Catherine Buell, who was one of our co-facilitators for the Framing Mathematics as a Foundation for Ethical STEM workshop, is an inspiration for me because she has this well of compassion that's incredible.

Carrie Diaz Eaton, she's the collaborator for MAA Project NExT that brought me into social justice work. She really inspires me to do good things.

Dave Kung, the director of MAA Project NExT. I first met him in MAA Project NExT. He gave a mini-course on math and social justice, and I had no idea that was even possible then. That definitely inspires me.

MAA: What advice would you give to newer faculty based on what you’ve learned?

VP: When trying to support the [mathematical] community, don't give up on things even when they don't work. I see that people will try something new that they've heard about. If it doesn't go well, they'll just say, ‘Okay, I'm never doing that again.’

For example, if someone tries to flip their class and it doesn’t go as planned, and they decide to go back to whatever they were previously doing. I'd say reflect deeper than that, because the first time you try something, it's not going to work perfectly. The main thing is to make sure that the students have a reasonable experience. Having a support community to identify what went well and how to improve for the next time, even if the next time is a couple of years down the road.

Also, it’s important to be flexible, especially with how you assess your students so that they don't get harmed by trying something new. That helps the buy-in. Be upfront and vulnerable with them because that helps students realize that you're a lifelong learner. Have fun, because if you're not having fun, your students aren't.

Victor Piercey