Contrary to popular opinion, the field of mathematics is creative, even beautiful
- particularly to mathematicians. In a similar way, beauty can be found in the general education courses new undergraduate students might be tempted to rush through, as if merely items to check off on a list.
So says Dr. Catherine Abbott, professor of mathematics at Keuka College and the 2013-14 Professor of the Year. Delivering the keynote address Tuesday at academic convocation, Abbott, a 13-year veteran among the faculty, welcomed new freshmen and transfer students to campus and challenged them to seek new learning experiences within the diverse array of possibilities available to them.
Often Abbott says she is asked why she enjoys mathematics, but the question is frequently delivered in much the same tone as when Abbott asked her young daughter why she would want to dye her hair with Kool-Aid. As laughter peppered the rows of those seated in Norton Chapel, Abbott then explained what it is about math that she finds so satisfying.
“Many times students tell me they like mathematics because, ‘there is only one answer,’” she said, adding such a response often tempts her to reply that while there may only be one answer, there are frequently “multiple ways to get there.”
Citing the Pythagorean Theorem as one such example, Abbott pointed to some of her favorite distinctive mathematical proofs including one attributed to Euclid, one by former U.S. President James Garfield, and a 1939 proof, devised by American Maurice Laisnez, then a high school student. What all three shared in common, Abbott said, was the desire to create.
So too, Abbott discovered her own creativity – and an appreciation for the creativity of other mathematicians – as she worked to solve complex equations. It sometimes took days, and then weeks to solve questions as an undergraduate and later, grad student, she described. While completing her doctorate, it could take months. While it felt “tremendous” when finally solving a challenging theorem, she said, there were also many other questions she was never able to answer. Still, mathematicians the world over use words like “elegant” to describe the beauty, even poetry within their equations and proofs.
“What makes a proof or theorem ‘elegant?’ I don’t think I could hope to quantify it any more than I could hope to explain my tastes in art, music, or literature—or our current math majors’ obsession with Dr. Who, for that matter,” she said.
According to Abbott, she chose the discipline of mathematics “for much the same reasons my colleagues on the faculty have made their choices. My field is creative, beautiful, challenging, and exciting.”
“What about you?” she asked, turning the question to students. “What is going to excite you? Will it be the English course where you learn to appreciate a piece of poetry for the first time? Will it be the history course where you really understand the relationship between World War I and World War II?”
Citing her own experience entering college with an undecided major, Abbott advised students not to hurry through general education courses, lest they miss the hidden beauty of diverse subjects.
“You wouldn’t drive from New York to California without taking time to appreciate the scenery,” she said.
“How do I know this? From my office directly across from Jephson 101, I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy some fantastic classes during the last thirteen years,” Abbott said, referring to a central lecture hall in the Jephson Science Center. “So take your time to enjoy these courses. You may not find your passion, but then again, you may. I wish you success in your journey here at Keuka College.”
Also welcoming news students with brief remarks at academic convocation were College President Dr. Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera and Robert Schick, chair of the Board of Trustees. The ceremony marks the official opening of the 2014-15 academic year and includes a colorful processional with upperclassman bearing flags from around the world and faculty in regalia lining the sidewalk to Norton Chapel and applauding new students as they enter. The symbolic rite of passage is an annual tradition for the College.
If service is “the rent we pay to be on this earth,” then Lt. Governor Robert Duffy believes the spirit of service epitomized in the Keuka College Class of 2014 is what ought to be held up to children and others as an example.
In his address at the 106th Commencement today, Duffy cited the devastation caused by the storms and floods in Yates County a little over one week ago, and praised the students who volunteered time during the final week of classes to help people in their worst time of need. Nearly 200 College students and staff traveled into Penn Yan and Branchport after the flooding, cleaning out homes and businesses of those impacted and together contributing more than 1,000 service hours.
While the media grants attention to celebrities for little more than what they’re wearing or what event they attend “I would suggest that as opposed to the reality show, “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” maybe ‘Keeping up with Keuka College’ might be a better show,” Duffy said, to rousing applause.
As such, Duffy admitted there was little a typical graduation speech could offer this class in the way of advice: “Folks, there’s nothing I can tell you about what to do – you’ve shown what this world is all about and really, what this day is all about. You’ve proven that, not with words, but with actions. That, to me, speaks volumes of who you are, what you stand for and what this institution stands for.”
The sole suggestion Duffy offered was to create a life worth living, one to be proud of 20 to 50 years down the road, and to use a unique practice – writing your own eulogy—to structure it.
“Sit down and think – what would you want your family, children, spouse, friends, neighbors or coworkers to say about you at that time?” he asked. “Write those words out, then do your best to live that life … now. Live every single day like it’s your last month, and you will do extraordinary things.
“I think this world is ready for you,” Duffy continued. “It’s a tough world out there, but one that needs you, needs good, smart, driven people to come out and help change it. By how you carry yourself and really, with what you did in your spirit of service here in Penn Yan, I think this world, this state and this community is going to be in great shape.”
During the ceremony, Duffy received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree, presented by Ms. G. Jean Howard-Cherubim, his former Chief of Staff during his tenure as Rochester mayor. Howard-Cherubim was the first female African-American to serve in the Rochester City Chief of Staff role and is currently serving her second term as a member of the Board of Trustees.
An honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree was also presented to sculptor Dexter Benedict, professor emeritus of art, who served the College over a span of 32 years before retiring in 2010. Renowned regionally and nationally for his works, Benedict continues to create fine art through his Fire Works Foundry and Sculpture Studio in Penn Yan.
Also honored during the ceremony was Dr. Catherine Abbott, professor of mathematics, who was named Professor of the Year, and praised as “a dedicated educator who exhibits great enthusiasm for learning and a keen desire” for student success. According to students, Abbott makes courses “exciting and engaging” and always takes time to provide extra help. Indeed, one student cited wrote that were Abbot to be graded, she’d receive an A-plus. Meanwhile, Abbott is credited by her division chair for bringing about transformation of the mathematics department, which has grown during her time there to include three full-time faculty, two majors, and two minors. In addition to strong advising, Abbott regularly supports recruiting activities, and has provided invaluable leadership on faculty governance committees.
In additional activity at Commencement:
• An Award of Higher Education was presented to Oksana Kahl, Amanda Ward and Erica Webb, three students from the DRIVE (Diversity, Respect, Inclusion, Vision and Experiential Learning) program, a collaboration of Penn Yan Central School District, Yates ARC and Keuka College. In the program, Keuka College students serve as peer mentors to young adults with intellectual disabilities as they assimilate into the college environment and explore their personal goals.
• Vickie Tobias, database manager in Informational Technology Services, was named Staff Member of the Year in the award’s inaugural season.
• A new visual identity for the College was unveiled by Dr. Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera, College president, who also praised the class of 2014 for bringing early credibility to the school’s new brand signature, “Believe in What We Can Do Together,” through flood relief efforts.
By day, Penn Yan resident Carol Sackett manages the circulation desk at Lightner Library, a post she has held for 32 years. But through March 7, visitors to Keuka College can glimpse a different side of her, as seen in three oil paintings gracing the walls of Lightner Gallery.
Sackett’s paintings are on display alongside numerous other works from members of Keuka’s faculty and staff, whose job titles may not necessarily disclose the individuals as creative “artists-in-residence.”
Beyond 9 to 5: The Hidden Talents of Keuka’s Faculty and Staff runs through March 7 in Lightner Gallery,located in Lightner Library. It features a range of artistic mediums, including painting, photography, ceramics, glass work, digital art, and film. More than 20 faculty and staff members submitted work for the show, including President Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera.
During a special artists’ reception – open to the public – Thursday, Feb. 21 from 4:30 – 6 p.m., the exhibit will also feature select culinary art from four members of the faculty and staff. The exhibit remains open daily during library hours, available online at: http://lightner.keuka.edu