Margaret Robinson

Citation for 2010 Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching

A Baltimorean, Professor of Mathematics Margaret Robinson joined the Mount Holyoke faculty in 1987 after a brief stint at Hampshire. A student of the legendary mathematician Jun-ichi Igusa, of Johns Hopkins, Margaret arrived equipped with some of the then-latest-and-most-arcane, and now-useful-and-cutting-edge tools in mathematics. She, and her students, have contributed much to the transformation from former to latter, from arcane to central, and hence to the marvelous advances of the last two decades in understanding p-adic and local number fields. It would be easy to applaud this work as the first-rate scholarship that it is, but it is more than that. It is an instance of the astonishing reach of Margaret’s teaching.

The breadth of Margaret’s teaching is commensurate with its reach. In the last eight years including sabbaticals, Margaret has taught 22 classes at all levels of the curriculum to over 600 students, including an astounding 14 different course preparations. Her first year courses average over 30 students, her 300 level courses over twenty students. In those same eight years, she has supervised 16 semesters of independent research, written over 200 letters of recommendation, supervised undergraduate research groups three times in the NSF-supported Summer Mathematics Institute, chaired the department for three years, served on the pre-health committee and the advisory committee for tenure and promotions. Margaret’s teaching has not only shaped lives and her department, but it has spilled out of the college and shaped the profession. Zeta functions and related L-functions are central to much of current mathematical research, but the fact that undergraduates and college teachers know of them is largely due to Margaret and to her colleagues.

Her teaching evaluations are luminous – no other words will do – and what emerges is a consistent story: sheer force of will. With the relentlessness of Thompson’s Hound of Heaven, Margaret pursues her students. They may flee her, or attempt to hide behind self-professed confusions and anxieties. But few escape, and what they undergo is a conversion experience in which they understand that they can do mathematics: that they in fact love mathematics.

How does she do it? Sweat equity, passion, generosity, and a boundless willingness to vary approaches. One explanation doesn’t work? Here is another. And another. Not sure you want to learn this? Here is a story. And another. The words “demanding, inspiring, joyful” recur in Margaret’s evaluations. So does the word “love.” Not love of Margaret, though there is some of that, but love of mathematics, freshly awakened. Not named, but ever-present, is craft. “She pushed each and every one of us to discover....” “She would wait until we each had proper time to push the limits of our abilities before giving a slight hint. Each hint would give just enough encouragement to keep us trying....” “She always treats us as equally capable, just perhaps less experienced.” Please join me in celebrating Margaret and the intoxicating mix of passion and craft that she brings to our students.