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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Karen Shuman

Part of an ongoing series about the people who teach and learn ( at Grinnell, as well as the man people who help support that teaching and learning.

You know how there are some people who you work with for a long period of time, and don’t really think about it, and then it suddenly clicks how special they are? That’s how I feel about my experience with Karen Shuman, Professor of Mathematics and Chair of the Science Division. We’ve been colleagues for about fifteen years. In that time, I’ve watched Karen build a successful research program (one that includes NSF funding along the way), co-direct the Grinnell Science Project, develop some useful summer research-with-students models, revise the curriculum of Differential Equations to include some lab exercises, find ways to include serious writing assignments in Calculus, and more [1]. But those kinds of things are the norm for Grinnell faculty [4]. Karen and I have also had a normal, collegial, relationship. We’ve talked about students, about curriculum, and such.

In the past year or so, I’ve come to see Karen in a much different light. In Fall 2015, the Science Division needed an emergency replacement for Division Chair. Karen graciously stepped into that role [5]. As a member of the Science Division, a former Science Division chair, and an activist faculty member, I’ve been thrilled with the ways in which Karen has stepped into this role. She’s been an amazing division chair, one who represents the division (and the faculty) well in Council and administrative discussions.

As Division chair, Karen is proactive in her work, reaching out to both faculty and administrators about issues that are likely to be of concern to members of the division. And she’s been great at building a culture of transparency; I particularly appreciate the regular reports about the issues that Council is discussing and the corresponding feedback for our opinions on those issues.

As I watch Karen as Division chair, I see that the job has changed significantly since I served in that role. She has many more responsibilities, including, it now seems, serving as a funnel for faculty concerns in what seems to be an increasing expectation for hierarchical (rather than interpersonal) set of relationships and forms of communication at Grinnell. As I noted, I appreciate how Karen has been serving our division; I don’t think I could do nearly as good a job.

I feel sorry for Karen at graduation. One of the scariest tasks for a faculty member (well, Division Chair) is having to read the names of all the graduates as they walk across the stage at graduation. Why? Because you want to get it right in front of their friends and family, and many of our students have names whose pronunciation is, let us say, less than obvious [6]. With the growth in science majors at Grinnell, as well as the growth of international students who are science majors, Karen’s job is particularly hard.

As I noted in an earlier essay, while I am confident that most faculty at campus share a common vision for Grinnell, I wish more were actively advocating for that vision, challenging the explicit and implicit changes we are seeing at the College. I am happy and lucky to be able to consider Karen as an active ally in this effort. But I am saddened by the impact it seems to be having; there are times that she seems even more frustrated than I am about these issues, and I know that it’s difficult to bear those frustrations [7].

I touched on this issue in the introduction, but I’ve been very impressed by the way in which Karen has tried new things in the classroom. As I noted, she has found new ways to include computing in the classroom and, even more importantly, has added writing to Calculus. I’m not sure how she manages the grading effort for writing in Calculus, which is traditionally one of the largest courses at the College. I’ll need to ask her. Karen is also a caring instructor and advisor; I’m always impressed when I walk by her office and see her working carefully with a student [8].

Karen: I appreciate everything you do for the College. And thanks for bringing a great shade of green to the array of faculty robes. But please, explain to me how you have the time to fit grading of essays into the workload of Calculus [9].

[1] She was probably involved in the legendary Delta-Epsilon Proof wars, but I’m not sure what side she was or is on [2].

[2] Karen tells me that there’s only one reasonable side for an analyst to be on, and she was on it [3].

[3] I’m on the same side, even thought I’m not an analyst.

[4] Well, adding serious writing assignments to Calculus is probably not the norm. I’m still waiting for folks in the core Humanistic disciplines to add algebraic computations to their introductory courses.

[5] I believe Karen also retained her role as chair of Mathematics and Statistics. The two roles together likely made her incredibly busy.

[6] It doesn’t help that too few of our students take the time to provide us with clear pronunciation when we ask them to do so.

[7] It’s also really hard to know things that disturb you and would disturb others and, because of your position, be unable to talk about them.

[8] Of course, as I noted in the introductory paragraph, that’s pretty much the norm for Grinnell faculty. Still it’s great to see.

[9] Karen writes: The calculus essays have turned into writing quizzes as I have taken on more administrative roles, so I might only grade 5 or 6 writing assignments in a term which are somewhat shorter than the 9–10 essays I used to grade.

Version 1.1.1 of 2016-11-17.