San Juan College math professor pens love letter to widely disliked subject in new book

Gerald Williams' 'Algebra the Beautiful' is his second book

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The book was published earlier this year by Basic Books of New York.
  • Gerald Williams said his plan is to write a series of books devoted to mathematics.
  • Williams has a master's degree from Yale in mathematics.

FARMINGTON — Throughout his career as a San Juan College math instructor, professor Gerald Williams has understood that his students are far more likely to succeed if he can figure out a way to have them identify with the subject matter, as opposed his merely demonstrating to them the mechanics of mathematics.

"We need to show them that math actually means something," he said.

Williams understands that many students have an outright aversion to math in general and especially to algebra or calculus, failing to understand how the ability to complete complex equations has any kind of real-life application. But Williams argued that, whether they realize it or not, many folks routinely rely on math to make their way in the world.

His role, he said, is to help them understand that math doesn't have to be intimidating or inaccessible. Toward that end, Williams doesn't just preach the idea in the classroom that math is for everyone. He also has written two books devoted to that idea, the latest of which, "Algebra the Beautiful — An Ode to Math's Least-Loved Subject," was published earlier this year by Basic Books of New York.

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Williams said his plan is to write a series of books devoted to mathematics.

"'Algebra the Beautiful' is the next station in that train," he said.

Williams said math is another example of how humans have learned to use symbols not just to communicate, but to represent and compress reality.

"Math is a very important symbolic system," he said, explaining that it can serve many of the same functions as speech. "Math is trying to do the same thing, but it does it in different ways."

"Algebra the Beautiful," the new book by San Juan College math professor Gerald Williams, is dedicated to the idea that algebra is integral to the daily experiences of the world around us.

One common example he is fond of citing is the ability of people to locate their accommodations in a large hotel, he said. Using mathematics and its symbols, he said, someone visiting a city for the first time can make their way to a building with which they have no familiarity and find their room in a manner of minutes.

"It's a way of negotiating your way around a building with 1,000 rooms in it when you've never been in that building in your life," he said. "And you do it by following a code — a mathematical code."

Williams said he understands why so many people dislike math, explaining that many instructors – including himself, from time to time — have presented the subject matter in a dry, impersonal fashion that leads students' eyes to glaze over and their attention to wander. The trick, he said, is to inspire students — something Williams experienced at the hands of one of his math instructors as a physics major at California State University-Long Beach during his undergraduate career.

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That professor was exceptionally gifted at presenting mathematical notions in a way that demonstrated how they were connected to everything else in life, he said.

"He just taught math to me in a different way," said Williams said, explaining that he became so enamored with what he was hearing that he changed his major to math and went on to earn a master's degree in it from Yale University.

"Algebra the Beautiful" already has drawn strong reviews from The Wall Street Journal and Publisher's Weekly. But the positive feedback Williams said he enjoys most has come from some of his former and current students, many of whom have reached out to him since the book's publication to let him know how his ideas affected them personally.

Traditionally, Williams has begun many of his classes each semester by explaining how the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians developed the foundations of modern math in order to have his students understand the roots of the subject. After a few years, he said he began to wonder if that habit was worthwhile.

"There were a few times when I thought I was kidding myself," Williams said. "I said, 'Are my students really getting something from this?' But a few years later, I ran into one of my old students who said to me, 'I never saw math in that way before.' I thought, 'OK, this is working.'"

Gerald Williams

Over the years, Williams has received even more gratifying feedback. He once was teaching a calculus class that a philosophy major was taking as an elective. The student became so taken with the concepts Williams was teaching that he ended up changing his major to math.

"I don't really try to convince my students to do that," he said, laughing. "But he did, and that was pretty rewarding."

Another student was even more effusive his praise for Williams' teaching style, going so far as to claim Williams had saved his life by helping him understand the importance of math.

"That floored me," Williams said. "But I think this was a person who had been a little bit beaten up by his earlier experiences with math. It's nice when they get it in ways they never thought of before. I don't think he literally meant I saved his life, it's just that if he hadn't gotten better at math, he wouldn't have been able to finish his degree. So it was more like I changed his life instead of saving it."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e.