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Teaching Beyond Mathematics: Russell Goodman’s MAA Spotlight

MAA Officer-At-Large, Dr. Russell Goodman, shares his mathematical journey along with his new position on the Board of Directors for our Member Spotlight. His passion for sports intertwines with his empathy for students and love for mathematics in a way that inspires his young scholars to ask questions, push themselves and learn more.

MAA: What are you mostly excited about and what plans do you have on the horizon for the Board? 

Russell Goodman (RG): Right now we’ve been involved with the strategic planning process. I’ve been involved with that at my institution at times and I know that’s a really comprehensive project and I’m really excited about that for the MAA.

I’m excited to be a voice, not the voice. 

We have faculty members here; [similar to] every institution [who] always want to be “the voice.” I’m happy to be a voice in that process of determining how we use our resources and what initiatives to do or to not do.

One of the things I’m excited about, and that I suggested as a part of our process, is that subtraction is not a dirty word. The idea of what we should focus on, how we use our resources and what we do not need to be doing. I’m excited not to get rid of things, but to think about the possibility of doing fewer things better. I at least wanted to make sure that the idea got out there and if the consensus on the group is hey Russ is full of it, then so be it.

MAA: How does it feel to be a new member on the MAA Board?

RG: Surprised and honored. Honored because when colleagues think enough of you to believe that you can and should be in a leadership role like this, it’s a good feeling. It means you’re hopefully doing good things in your career and the profession. I’m honored to represent the MAA in this way.

I’m also surprised because in the end this all happened quickly. I joked with everyone that I put myself up for the Iowa representative to the MAA Congress and then from there, immediately they were like ‘oh we need to elect someone to be our At-Large member to the Executive Board’ - that’s what I get for being outgoing I guess.

They were like ‘oh Russ would be a good person and I’m like, I’ve been here for fifteen minutes and you’re already putting me up for this.’ It was a little surprising, but I’d like to think that I’m worthy of having the honor of doing this.

I have realized that I’m not as powerful as I hoped I would be from doing this, because all it is, is a bunch of work.

MAA: Can you share your journey into mathematics? 

RG: I wanted to be an astronaut. When you’re a kid [it’s common to aspire] to be a firefighter, an astronaut, or a police officer and I always wanted to be an astronaut because I loved math, physics and science. I’m a pretty physically fit person and I know that being an astronaut is physically taxing and thought that [it] would be fun; I’d love to go up into space or do something like that.

College Changing Course

Then I started taking physics classes as an undergrad and at least at my institution, it was not a welcoming community. Right now in 2023 that’s very big, but at the time in my first physics classes it was survival of the fittest. The mindset was ‘we’re gonna beat you up until only those who are worthy survive’ and that’s not where I wanted to be. But I had math classes that I was taking along the way.

Through physics you’re taking math and I always did well in math in high school and found that I really enjoyed them, had friends and I liked most of the professors. That community really ended up being important.

It wasn’t always pretty, but I found a home learning math and being okay at it. I wasn’t great as an undergrad, but it was the beginning of learning how to learn and learning how to be a mathematician and there were people around me that fostered that belief and mindset.

From there I finished an undergraduate degree in math and my mom said, if I don’t know what I want to do, that I should go to grad school. I went to grad school and worked on my masters and the first day that I was expected to teach a college algebra class I knew that I wanted to be a teacher.

It just clicked, I enjoyed it, I enjoyed seeing students learn and that was the beginning of the end. I knew I needed to get a PhD. I knew I needed to teach at a college or university somewhere and I deepened my love for mathematics along the way.  

MAA: What led you into teaching sports analytics?

RG: My graduate work was in computational algebraic geometry and I started teaching at Central College in Palla, IA and tried to get the students excited. Maybe students will want to do some research in this, and they could not have been less interested in something very abstract and computational, which I thought might appeal to some, but they didn’t want to do it. I accepted that and so I spent the first six or seven years trying to get students interested in algebraic geometry. I knew it wasn’t going to work and I just thought, look, students love sports and my school is very athletically orientated.

Students love sports and data is becoming a bigger thing. This was 10 to 15 years ago and I thought let me let sports be the hook and students who want to learn more about sports and spend their time doing that. Then sports will be the hook and the data and math computational skills will be the bait and switch. That’s what they’ll actually learn but they’ll have a good time thinking about sports along the way. It very much enriches the education of our students.

MAA: Can you share a few examples of how teaching/working with sports analytics differs from teaching algebraic geometry?

RG: One big part of it is that when students are interested in sports they are willing to take chances. They’re willing to ask questions and explore what they’re really interested in, even if at times that’s going to be a dead end question. They’re willing to go where the research leads as opposed to a very formulaic question to get the answer sort of thing. And algebraic geometry is a lot of being that way, where you do some computations, you get your results and you just move onto the next problem.

Sports analytics is so attractive to me because one question leads to another question, which leads to another question and it just never ends. The students really are willing to explore.

Dr. Russell Goodman, MAA Officer-At-Large.

With algebraic geometry there’s a lot of overhead. There’s so much you have to know to have the vocabulary and background to do some of the higher level things, but with sports analytics I’ll have a student who maybe had an intro to stats class and we can find something that is very enriching to them. I feel like I can work with a student to find very interesting research possibilities regardless of what their background is.

MAA: What would you say are the most important skills to have when teaching mathematics and why?

RG: A skill that I’ve generally worked very hard on is patience. Good math isn’t done fast and it’s perfectly okay to be a ‘slower thinker’. I know tons of mathematicians who move slowly, but the math that they do is fantastic. Let the students get there when they get there, yes, you have to push them, but it’s a good quality [having patience].

Compassion is another important skill because you want to be in the students’ shoes and understand where they’re coming from. If they had poor experiences as an elementary or high school student and now they’re in your calculus class, they really might not like math because of their previous experiences. So I want to have compassion and understand where they’re coming from. Maybe that’s empathy.

Finally, you have to know some math. You can only fake it till you make it so much…you have to know some stuff. And for me knowing math isn’t the first thing, it’s a baseline. I’ve had plenty of professors who knew plenty of math and statistics, but they were not good teachers.

Dr. Russell Goodman, MAA Officer-At-Large.

I really enjoyed teaching as a grad student because you connect with your students differently because you’re younger and not a professor so you’re cooler, I guess.

When I started my teaching career I wanted to stay attuned to what I was like as a student. I didn’t want to forget what it’s like to learn something new for the first time because if you’re teaching something for 10, 15 or 20 years you honestly do forget what it’s like to learn that for the first time. I always knew I had to pay attention to that especially as I’ve gotten older as a professional to remind myself of what it’s like for these young adults to learn these things for the first time, especially during a pandemic in a world where DEI is important. There’s so many factors that can influence how a student learns math beyond their mathematical abilities.

MAA: What’s the most rewarding part about being in mathematics?

RG: It’s not about me, it’s about being there and being influential for these young people in such a critical part of their lives that goes beyond math. I want to be there for them as a professional friend and a mentor. Seeing their mathematical growth over four years – there’s nothing better. I love seeing the mathematical growth in my students coming from what I and other faculty bring to them.

I can live in that reflective glory for a long time. I don’t need to publish a lot of stuff to feel good about what my career is because I see what my students are doing. I also stay connected with my students after they graduate. I love catching up with them and giving and receiving advice.

MAA: How has the MAA helped you grow as a mathematician?

RG: A lot of the programming, especially during and since the pandemic, at this point in my career. Webinars, professional talks, sessions, various online communities that the MAA has been a part in setting up have been really beneficial.

MAA MathFest is something that I’ll praise until the day I die. I was always an MAA MathFest and not a JMM kind of guy. MAA MathFest is more intimate, but there’s still a lot going on and I go every year. I get something out of it both personally and professionally and there’s something for everyone there.

Project NExT is another program I’ll praise until the day I die as well, because that’s still a family to me, even after 20 years. Professionally it’s astoundingly beneficial to young faculty members, the speakers and brainstorming sessions that happen are such a lifesaver early in your career because you don’t know what you’re doing. Having that cohort to lean on professionally is just something I wish everyone had access to. It’s hard to describe, but I love the people and it’s the family you choose.

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

RG: This is from one of my colleagues that retired a few years ago, he said work to live, don’t live to work. I get a lot of meaning from my career with what students do and accomplish and I find a lot of fulfillment with that, but I have fulfillment in a lot of other areas in my life in ways that if I’m having a tough semester teaching or professionally, yes I’ll get down and yes I want to be as good as I can, but I don’t lose sleep over it.

My profession does mean a lot to me, but taking care of my family and other aspects of my life are just as important as if I were to get a presentation at MAA MathFest this summer.

MAA: What advice would you give to someone who also wants to be a math educator or further their math career?

RG: If you want to get into teaching you really need to think about how much of yourself you’re going to give to your students. You don’t have to be an open book, but be willing to open yourself up to your students because you’re going to get the best out of them if you do. Those relationships are going to help you get the best out of them because you’ll know what drives them.

Teaching math is about knowing some stuff, but that’s not the number one thing, you’ve got to really understand people, where they’re coming from, how to push them and how to get them into the right direction.

Dr. Russell Goodman, MAA Officer-At-Large.

MAA: Who inspires you and why?

RG: I love music and there’s a singer named Paul Hewson and he’s been a singer for almost 45 years. Most people know him as Bono, the lead singer of U2. I read his recent memoir called Surrender and he has always inspired me.

He’s a rockstar, but for me he’s a poet and he inspires me to live your passion but that life of passion can serve a greater purpose. He spent a career out of performing, but his passion for music and the band put him in a position to serve the global community. He has spent so much time fighting for debt relief in Africa, COVID vaccine support to underdeveloped countries and more. He’s worked for the global community in so many ways through his passion and career. That really inspires me to think about teaching my class in a way that impacts the community.