Kim Jongerius

Math Maven


A member of the mathematics faculty since 1993, Dr. Kim Jongerius received the Northwestern Teaching Excellence Award in 2005. She says her math hero is zero, and she enjoys using Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of Dangerous Idea in her History of Math course to teach students about how people feared the number for millennia.

How has majoring in both English and mathematics as an undergrad affected your math teaching?
Not only do I have to make sure the math I write on the board is correct, my grammar and punctuation also have to be correct. I grade that way too. Students don’t really appreciate that. But, more seriously, both English and math are languages, and the more you understand about the structure and methods of one language, the better you can understand and communicate in another.

What inspired you to pursue teaching?
After years as a camper, I became a counselor and found that I really enjoyed teaching the things I was good at, like using hatchets, building fires and lashing a table together out of sticks. There was also this really great moment when I’d just come back from a day off, and my campers were complaining about my substitute. They told me things they’d gotten in trouble for, and I said I’d have gotten mad at them too. One camper said, “But we wouldn’t have done those things if you were here, because you expect more of us.” It blew me away. I wanted more opportunities to connect that way.

How do you make math engaging for students?
I love figuring things out, and I try to share that love. I think this approach works well for math majors. For non-majors, I try to make myself more engaging (or more obviously human, anyway) by telling them embarrassing stories about myself or amusing stories about my family. It makes me less intimidating, and they’re more likely to cut me some slack during the moments when they’re not as excited about the material as I am.

Do you have a favorite math joke?
There are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who don’t.

How has your knowledge of mathematics affected your faith?
A mathematical understanding of the complexities of infinity has really helped me, as have insights from the mathematics of transformation and higher dimensions. I’m much less likely to limit God than I was before studying mathematics.

What books are you reading?
Elizabeth Moon is my favorite author. I really love her series, The Deed of Paksenarrion. It has great storytelling, fascinating detail and in-depth character studies of flawed human beings, many of whom are trying to do the right thing. I re-read them periodically and find there’s always some new connection I make with my faith and how it should affect my choices.

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