Dr. David Taylor, associate dean of academic affairs at Roanoke College, sees students get discouraged about their math abilities all the time. As soon as their faith in themselves starts wavering, Taylor says, it can be a slippery slope toward losing interest in the subject matter.
“Once you start not doing something well, and feeling like you should be doing it well, you start struggling, you become upset with it and you start not liking it,” Taylor said. “And that's the hardest barrier to overcome.”
Taylor, who has taught mathematics at Roanoke College since 2007, co-edited a book that tries to help students of all ages overcome that barrier. “Living Proof: Stories of Resilience Along the Mathematical Journey” was published in 2019 by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) and the American Mathematical Society. The book is a collection of first-person accounts from people in the mathematics field who overcame difficult situations to still be successful. Those challenges include filling in knowledge gaps, persisting through academic and stereotype barriers, and outright sexism and racism.
Earlier this year, the book was honored with the MAA’s Euler Book Prize. The Euler Prize is an annual award for an outstanding book about mathematics that recognizes “books with a positive impact on the public’s view of mathematics,” according to the MAA website.
“We weren't doing this to win an award, and we weren't expecting to win an award,” Taylor said. “We just felt very happy and appreciative.”
Taylor co-edited the book with four professors at other institutions, and he said he specialized in keeping everybody organized and on schedule. Taylor said the idea for the book came from Dr. Matthew A. Pons, who is currently the chairperson of the Department of Mathematics and Actuarial Science at North Central College. Taylor and Pons know each other from their time as graduate students at the University of Virginia.
It was important to Taylor, Pons and the other co-editors that the book was as widely available as possible. The MAA helped greatly with that, Taylor said, and the book can be downloaded for free on the MAA’s website.
Taylor has worked with many students over the years to keep their confidence up as they struggle with math. The book aims to dispel the myth that there are so-called math people and non-math people, and Taylor said his experience has shown that with the right resources and circumstances, everybody has potential to be a math person. “Finding someone that looks like you or reaching out to offer help can be that great first resource to providing better equity in mathematics education,” Taylor said.
“I believe anyone can do math, understand math and do it well, but it may take barriers or challenges to overcome,” Taylor said.