This issue of the Exchange features Dr. Erin Moss, assistant professor of mathematics.
Q: What made you want to become a mathematics professor?
A: I taught my own college math classes as a teaching assistant to pay for my master’s degree, and I quickly realized that I found teaching to be much more challenging and rewarding than my actuarial studies. As a result, I switched gears and pursued a Ph.D. in mathematics education.
Q: What did you want to be when you were younger?
A: A theater director, most recently. But if we were to go back a little farther, I’d answer with trapeze artist, snake charmer, taxicab driver or a competitive surfer. You know, the usual.
Q: Where did you attend college?
A: The University of North Carolina at Asheville. I have so many happy memories of that place and those people!
Q: What is the most challenging part about being a professor?
A: For me, it’s maintaining a balance and keeping perspective. It takes a lot of time and energy to teach well and be responsive to students. It’s also easy to lose yourself in that sometimes. But there are scholarship and service expectations to be met, along with trying to have a personal life too, and it can be a challenge to wear so many hats.
Q: Was math your favorite subject growing up?
A: No way! I was good at it, but it was rarely taught in a way that made sense and celebrated students’ creativity. A few great teachers prevented me from writing off math completely and teaching it myself helped me suddenly love the subject.
Q: What is your favorite course to teach? Why?
A: I was terrified and thrilled to teach my first graduate class, “Equity in Mathematics Education.” I care very deeply about the subject, and it was enlightening to brainstorm with a group of passionate students the ways we might address the pervasive educational inequities that currently exist in schooling practices in the U.S. That said, I also have a soft spot for “Math 104: Mathematics I for Future Elementary and Middle School Teachers.” Many students begin the class doubtful about their mathematical abilities. By the end of the semester, most students have become creative and persistent mathematical thinkers who are not afraid to share their solution methods or argue a key point.
Q: What tactics do you share with your students on how to teach in the real world?
A: Rather than viewing a teacher as somebody who delivers a product TO students, I encourage future teachers to cleverly design situations that force students to develop their OWN mathematics. This requires a teacher to have a great deal of mathematical knowledge and confidence, so that he or she is able to understand multiple solutions to a problem and capitalize on students’ mathematical reasoning, even if it involves proceeding in an unanticipated direction. A teacher must listen very carefully and constantly be on the lookout for “teachable moments” and opportunities to help students notice and articulate connections.
Q: What is your favorite part about being in the mathematics department?
A: The colleagues. It’s nice that even though we are very different, we all get along well and respect one another, and we share a commitment to students. I was nervous when I first started that I would be viewed as the graduate student I still felt like on the inside, but I was immediately treated as if I belonged here and had a lot to offer the department. I appreciate that beyond belief.
Q: Is it possible to be an “artsy person” and a “math/science person”? Why is there such a defined line drawn between the two?
A: I double-majored in mathematics and drama at UNC-A, so of course! The sharp distinction between the two is completely artificial, but probably reinforced by the pedagogy most of us have experienced in those fields. There are creative, practical, imaginative and intellectual aspects to both, and to deny these aspects in either field not only mischaracterizes it, but closes your mind to potentially cool experiences. I gravitate towards people who have diverse interests and openness to learning and trying all sorts of things—whether it’s a new language, a musical instrument, a sport, a skill or even travel. I resist being put in a box, and I try not to put others in boxes. Life is too interesting for us to accept being “stuck.”
Q: Are you involved in any clubs and/ or committees on campus?
A: The General Education Review committee and the Academic Standards Committee. I’m also very proud to be a Safe Zone Mentor.
Q: What was the most exciting project you’ve participated in on campus?
A: This summer, I will be living in Philadelphia for two weeks with Millersville students and Education faculty in the Philly Urban Seminar. The goal is for me to help brainstorm the design of a similar urban experience, especially for prospective math teachers, as part of the math department’s grant.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
A: I love indoctrinating my three-year-old daughter into the world of musical theater and letting her “read” to me. I’m fascinated by her imagination and tickled by all the hilarious things she says. I’m especially excited to see Sunset Boulevard with my husband! If I had more free time (at this point, I’m just dreaming), I can imagine myself reading, practicing my guitar, traveling, throwing around a softball, playing ultimate Frisbee and exploring outdoors once it warms up.
Q: What are your favorite television shows, books and movies?
A: I don’t watch TV since becoming a parent, but I used to love it! I really appreciate a good sitcom like The Golden Girls and Freaks and Geeks. East of Eden by John Steinbeck is the best book of all time, but the Harry Potter series also deserves a mention. Some of my favorite movies are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and National Lampoon’s Vacation (the Wally World one).