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Will Styler

Associate Teaching Professor of Linguistics at UC San Diego

Director of UCSD's Computational Social Science Program

Dear Mr. Morrow

This was originally posted on my blog, Notes from a Linguistic Mystic in 2015. See all posts

As I continue to think about my teaching style and academic life, I keep thinking about some of the great teachers I’ve had in the past, and I want to show gratitude and share the people (and their actions) that changed who I am, academically and as a person.

What follows is an open letter to Rich Morrow, a teacher who I doubt will read it, but who influenced me considerably more than I would have ever admitted at the time.

Dear Mr. Morrow,

You taught my math classes in 4th, 5th and 6th grade at the “Challenge School” in Denver, Colorado, and you were so weird.

Your teaching was weird. Whereas most teachers were happy just writing on the board, you used elaborate overhead transparency overlays. Whereas most teachers just marked off answers on the page, you had us write all our answers on lines in the very edge of the page, then lined the 30 papers up on your desk, so you could grade each question with a single stroke of a pen, stopping the line only for incorrect answers. Whereas most teachers steamrolled ahead, you stopped. You would stop and bother people who looked confused, rather than moving on with the lesson, and seemed to actually care when somebody didn’t get it, because you clearly loved school, even though few of us did.

And you were such a strange person. You taught math, but you constantly talked about geology and nature. You peppered your class with weird anecdotes about the world, and just wouldn’t “stick to the subject”. And then, weirdest of all, you, a math teacher, arranged class trips to Moab, Utah, where you showed us Arches and Canyonlands national park, and parts of the backcountry that I would never have the guts to take 10 middle schoolers, but which are now among my favorite places on Earth.

I still remember the puns. You were a seemingly endless font of really awful groaners. During class, during hikes, and during recess (if you were within earshot), you provided a constant stream of puns so bad that I was in physical pain. I know that despite my eventual dedication to the art of punning, I will never match your ability to loose a terrible joke so bad it could stun a charging musk ox.

But the thing is, no matter how lame we thought you were, you simply didn’t care, because you genuinely loved what you did, and what you taught. You are geek, and we’d better believe we’re going to hear you roar. No shame, just math.

At the time, as a harbinger of math, I really didn’t much care for you. You taught me “useless” things while assuring us they’d be handy, and made me solve “silly” problems, and no matter how often I told you, you never remembered what X was. Not to mention that you just didn’t “fit the mold” as a teacher, with all those silly outside interests, those weird teaching techniques, and most of all, the constant stream of what I only now recognize to be humor. You were “so weird” and “so lame”, and so not what I wanted to do in my life.

Now, I’m doing statistics and mathematical modeling of speech for a living, and kind of needing all that silly math, like you promised. Like you, I am shameless in my geeking, wearing a Ph.D with pride, and taking as a great compliment a student’s assertion that I was “the nerdiest person she’d ever met”. I maintain a website dedicated to terrible puns. I still travel to Utah whenever I can, with a love of nature (and other non-language things), even though it’s “not my field”. And as I stand up in front of college classrooms and design tests to be graded, I find myself unconsciously using the same techniques you used for teaching, building assignments, and grading, only to realize later where I learned it.

Considering you’ve got the Rich Morrow Math Challenge named after you, and you apparently later became the principal of that school, clearly, others recognize your value and skill. But I always just thought of you as a weird Math guy who really liked school (for some reason), and really loved making his students suffer through Math. An odd memory, from an odd time, and somebody I’d never really “get”.

But this morning, 17 years later, I finally put 2 and 2 together1, and realized that despite my long time scorn and “not getting it”, you’re actually one of those handful of teachers in my past who shaped who I am as a teacher, academic, and probably a bit as a human.

So, in honor of my old math teacher, here I am, showing my gratitude by eating a big old slice of Humble Pi.

That one’s for you, Mr. Morrow.