Harriet Pollatsek

Citation for 2007 Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching

Harriet Pollatsek is an understated phenomenon in the classroom, that rarest of teachers who excels in virtually every pedagogy invented:  lecturing, small groups, laboratory guidance, mentoring.  Students laud her patience, her clarity, her availability, her thoughtfulness and her craft.  “She presents material of the utmost relevance – the essence of a given technique, concept or problem . . .” one student writes.  Another notes “She has office hours every day of the week!  But they have clear requirements: there is a beginning and an end . . . she will help us, but only so much.”  Evaluations consistently testify to Harriet’s skill, her ability “to balance conflicting demands” and to supply “the extra challenge” desired by certain students while not forsaking the needs of others.”   How does she do it?  “She assigns challenge problems, some of which I went back to time and again throughout the semester . . .” reports one student. “She refuses to get side-tracked by interesting questions in class, deferring the discussion to office hours.” writes another.  There are no tricks, no gimmicks, and no pyrotechnics.  Every assignment, every test, every interaction is calculated to foster students’ understanding and to use their growing understanding of the material to win them over.  To read students’ evaluations of Harriet Pollatsek’s teaching is to realize how much goes on in a classroom, the ruthless purposefulness with which a master teacher navigates that complexity, and to marvel at how students intuitively sense that they are in extraordinary hands.

But her accomplishments in the classroom scarcely begin to encompass the scope of Harriet’s work.  One cannot belong to the mathematical community and not hear reminiscences about Harriet’s brilliance as an undergraduate, then graduate student at Ann Arbor, and the dismay when she married a mere psychologist.  The paper trail echoes the consternation, as a series of department heads grumbled that they tried, without success, to hold onto her, as she and her spouse chose to move to institutions where both could find jobs.  Imagine, choosing a marriage over their blandishments!   At the time she was tenured at Mount Holyoke in 1973, her department apologized for their letter: they write “the number of superlatives may seem disconcerting, but the fact is that she has been splendid and that in all our observations of her we have seen only positive things.”  By that time, Harriet was well known for her ground-breaking work that provided the impetus for the development of the beautiful cohomology theory of groups.  A few years later, after Harriet, the then reigning queen of one-cohomology had morphed into Mount Holyoke’s Dean of Studies, the department’s recommendation letter for promotion to full professor bragged:  “Harriet Pollatsek is our triple-threat member: an established mathematician, a superb teacher, and an able executive!”

In the nearly three decades since, Harriet’s manifold abilities have served her students, her department, the college, the mathematical community, and the nation.  She has been instrumental in conceiving, implementing, and securing funding for almost every major curricular initiative in her department as well as the college: the Mellon-funded Pasts and Presences, the Sloan-funded Case Studies in Quantitative Reasoning, the FIPSE-funded reworking of advanced mathematical material for undergraduates, the Dana-funded efforts to increase under-represented individuals in mathematics courses, the National Science Foundation-funded efforts to rethink calculus education, the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded program to spread mathematics across the curriculum, to name just a few.  She headed the Mathematical Association of America’s committee that set national standards for the undergraduate mathematics curriculum.  She has been deeply involved with the highly regarded non-profit TERC in the creation of K-6 curricular materials as well as developing materials for elementary teachers.

Harriet’s research has moved from linear groups to algebraic groups to difference sets in finite groups to quantum error correcting codes. She has co-authored four texts, and a host of papers.  Harriet has defied every trend, every stereotype in a testosterone tinged field dominated with destructive self-perpetuating myths.  She has moved in and out of the classroom, pure mathematical research, administration, and curriculum development, all the while maintaining a series of rich collegial and personal relationships.  Mathematicians across the country seek her advice as a mentor, as a collaborator, and as a role model.  The college and her department have repeatedly turned to Harriet in good times and in times of crisis, for her wisdom, her humor, and her warmth.

She is brilliant, to be sure, but she belongs to the almost vanishingly small group of individuals in whose presence everyone else works better.  She’s too smart not to know this at some level, but she would never admit to it.  We’re wise to you, Harriet Pollatsek, and it is with a profound sense of gratitude and wonder that we honor you today.