Teacher, mother, daughter: a Bryn Mawr mathematical geneaology

Posted May 15th, 2008 at 12:04 pm.

Crannell, Good, and Hughes

When Annalisa Crannell ’87 learned that she had been selected to receive the Mathematics Association of America’s Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics, she knew that one of her Bryn Mawr mentors would have a special interest in the news: Professor of Mathematics Rhonda Hughes had won the same award a decade earlier.

Luckily, Crannell had a handy conduit for communication with the Bryn Mawr Department of Mathematics. Her daughter, Iolanthe Good, was a first-year student at Bryn Mawr who was enrolled in Hughes’ Calculus/Analytic Geometry II course. She started college last fall firmly committed to majoring in classics, but now she’s wavering: although she still loves her Latin and Greek, math is proving much more exciting than she imagined it would be.

Family resemblance is apparently more than skin deep. Crannell, who is now a professor of mathematics at Franklin & Marshall College, arrived at Bryn Mawr determined to study foreign languages. The daughter of two physicists, she displayed linguistic aptitude that was unique in her family circle, whereas a head for numbers was relatively unremarkable in that setting. Although she had excellent instruction in high school, math hadn’t really spoken to her yet.

“The kind of math you learn in high school isn’t the math you do when you really do math,” Crannell says. “It was at Bryn Mawr that I fell in love with math.”

In fact, the story of a budding humanist or social scientist seduced by the ineffable splendor of multivariable calculus, partial differential equations, or topology is not an unusual one at Bryn Mawr. Typically, about eight percent of the bachelor’s degrees the College awards each year are in mathematics—a figure that dwarfs the national average of about one percent.

It’s no surprise, then, that a Bryn Mawr math professor would win a national teaching award or that her student would carry on that tradition.

The Haimo award is given annually to three “college or university teachers who have been widely recognized as extraordinarily successful and whose teaching effectiveness has been shown to have had influence beyond their own institutions.”

Hughes is the co-founder, together with Sylvia Bozeman of Spelman College, of EDGE (Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education). EDGE is a nationwide program designed to encourage women, especially women from underrepresented groups, to complete graduate programs in mathematics, where retention rates for those populations are typically very low.

Since the program’s inception in 1998, 105 students have attended the summer workshops that constitute its core program. Fourteen have completed Ph.D.s, less than 10 percent of them have left graduate school with no degree at all, and many of the rest are well on their way to the Ph.D. finish line. The National Science Foundation has recently awarded Bryn Mawr and Spelman Colleges a $1.1 million grant to fund four more years of EDGE.

Crannell, who has taught at Franklin & Marshall since she earned her Ph.D. from Brown University in 1992, is a nationally recognized advocate of writing in postsecondary mathematics curricula and the author of Writing Projects for Mathematics Courses: Crushed Clowns, Cars & Coffee to Go; her classroom writing materials have been used in more than 100 college and high-school classrooms throughout the country. With funding from the National Science Foundation, she and a colleague have developed a series of workshops on the connections between mathematics and art for practitioners and teachers of both disciplines.

Hughes and Crannell are both active researchers as well, Hughes in functional analysis and Crannell in topological dynamics.

As Crannell sees it, simply making the decision to go to Bryn Mawr helped open her mind to possibilities—like a career as a mathematician—that she might otherwise have overlooked.

“The very fact of deciding that you are going to a women’s college already rejects a popular mindset and sets you apart from your peers. You think, ‘I’m different. I’m going to be at this college with a bunch of brilliant women, and I’m going to do something extraordinary.’ That first decision to separate yourself from the herd really helps you reframe the way you think about yourself.”

Despite her devotion to her alma mater, Crannell says she didn’t do a lot of hard campaigning on Bryn Mawr’s behalf when her daughter was deciding where to go to school.

“She said the same thing to me that I’d said to my dad: ‘The one thing I know is that I don’t want to go to a women’s college.’ I said, ‘Okay, that’s fine, but you might want to take a peek at BMC because it’s really good.’ Then she visited the campus and loved it, and after that every school she considered was compared to Bryn Mawr and found wanting.”

Good’s version of the story corroborates Crannell’s. “I came to Bryn Mawr for prospectives’ weekend. It poured rain and I was sloshing through the mud, getting soaked and still thinking, ‘This place is so beautiful.'”

She visited a Latin class, met a Greek teacher, and marveled at the conversations going on around her: “People were having these intense discussions about the most abstruse topics and I felt like I could join right in. It was really nice not to be singled out as the smart girl.”

She hasn’t been disappointed. “There’s an aura about this place—an atmosphere of acceptance. I feel like I really belong here,” she says.

For Good, the choice between classics and math is still a year away. Perhaps she’ll opt for a double major.

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