Dr. Courtney Taylor came to AU in 2011 and is now the mathematics department chairman. He is also an advisor for the mathematics honor society Kappa Mu Epsilon and the men’s service and social club Dativus. He earned his PhD at Purdue University. Taylor has written a book about abstract algebra and uses his time in the classroom to not only teach math, but encourage students with the love of God.
What inspired you to teach math, and what makes your teaching style unique?
I’ve pretty much always liked math and science. When I came to Anderson as a student, it was to study mathematics and physics, and then I also got interested in chemistry. Somewhere along the way I realized that what I really enjoyed most about physics and chemistry was the mathematical aspect of it—and I wasn’t that good in the lab.
My campus job back then was to tutor others in math in Decker 330. Some students came in for help and would say, “You know you’re good at this. You should teach college.” From talking to my math professors, I found out about what I would need to do—the years of graduate study—in order to teach at a university.
My time as a graduate student was split between mathematical research and being a teaching assistant for calculus recitation. When students remarked that my class was the only one where an instructor knew their name, I was struck by how dehumanizing a large university can be. I knew that I wanted to teach at a smaller college or university.
What makes being in a classroom worthwhile for you?
Mathematics is a wonderful subject to teach to others because of its universal nature. It is truly a language that transcends time, place and culture. There are surprising things in math. For example, the number pi likes to show up unexpectedly in places where there are no circles to be seen. Parts of mathematics display a certain type of beauty. It’s a joy to be able to tell others about these things. But beyond all of this, and more importantly, I get to meet some really amazing students.
What is something you hope to teach your students other than math?
Mathematics is a way for anyone to learn how to think carefully and communicate clearly. These are skills that are important no matter what career you end up pursuing. You may never again have to do the specific types of math problems that you learn how to do in your math class, but you will at some point need to solve a problem. The process of solving a mathematics problem can be translated into the solution of a real-world problem, even the ones where there doesn’t seem to be any math.
What is your advice to students who have difficulty understanding math?
There’s a bunch of good advice on a bulletin board on the first floor of Hartung right now about a variety of topics. The idea is to shift your perspective. The specific part of the board that pertains to math says that rather than saying, “I can’t do math,” say “I’m going to train myself to understand math.” Training means that there’s some type of regular practice that doesn’t all happen the night before a test. Math isn’t a spectator sport.
There comes a point when you can’t learn it just by watching; you need to try it out on your own. Do the assigned problems, but also reread your notes and rework the problems that were discussed in class. Talk to your professors if you have questions. That’s what we’re here for. Of course, much of this advice about training your mind applies to more than just math.
You present devotionals in class. Where do you get your inspiration from?
All sorts of places. Sometimes there is an idea from class that’s related to something I just read in Scripture. For example, read what Psalm 139 says about the depths of God’s knowledge, His omniscience, and put that up against our limited knowledge about, well, everything. In statistics, we see all sorts of ways that we can infer something about the unknown in a population we are studying, but our results are by nature limited and have an inherent uncertainty about them.
Other times there’s some encouragement from the Bible that is too good not to share. Read 1 Corinthians 15 and notice how logically precise Paul is with his argument and how he uses all of the “if-then” statements. Then, reread the chapter and grasp the hope of the resurrection we truly have in Jesus.
Or it’s from noticing things like the Indiana sunrise on the way to an 8 a.m. class and how reminiscent they are of all sorts of passages in the Psalms. God has put so much goodness in the world if we take time to recognize it. Many times, the class devotional is a recognition of some aspect of God’s goodness.
You teach the college-age class at East Side Church of God. How did you get involved in that?
The pastoral staff and leadership team at East Side is very intentional about connecting those in the congregation to ministry and service opportunities. A few months after making East Side our church home, one of the pastors asked my wife and I if we would consider co-teaching this class with another couple. The class is a great way to meet students outside of the classroom. We have a light breakfast—typically homemade—there’s coffee and tea down the hall, and we spend time discussing all sorts of things. Lately we’ve been reading through the book of Isaiah.
How has your field of study influenced how you see God and the world He created?
At first glance it may seem that mathematics would say little about faith. One’s religion has no bearing on the correct calculation of a square root, and there is not a distinctly Christian way of proving a theorem; however, the intense study of any corner of creation —and I would include mathematics as one of those unseen things that are part of creation—points to the Creator. Questions arise that cannot be answered without the eyes of faith. Why should seemingly esoteric fields of mathematics explain anything whatsoever in the physical world? Where do mathematics come from?
We start to realize that there is an underlying order and complexity to the world that didn’t just show up. There is an extravagance of all types of animals, plants, stars and galaxies that probably don’t need to be there. God could have made a much smaller and tidier universe, but there is an abundance of mathematics waiting to be discovered.
If you really think about it, then you realize how very strange a thing like mathematics is. Two people separated by culture and language and all sorts of other things can reason through the same mathematics proof and will arrive at the same conclusion. There’s truth, and it’s not dependent on either of them. They find truth that is independent of their backgrounds, their experiences and their feelings. Because of the truth of mathematics, what other things must be universally true?