Socrates Citation in Honor of Robert Gethner

Home / Commencement / Commencement Archive / Commencement 2022 / 2022 Citations And Remarks / Socrates Citation in Honor of Robert Gethner

Professor Robert Gethner has always sought to inspire a passion for mathematics in his students.

He received his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin in 1982 and earned a position at F&M in 1987 with the help of what a colleague recalls as a “perfect” job talk about Isaac Newton, calculus and rainbows. His mathematical scholarship is broad, ranging from highly theoretical work on power series coefficients in complex analysis, to differential equation models in climatology, to mathematical pedagogy. And that’s just his mathematical work. He is also a poet with numerous publications in peer-reviewed literary journals.

His teaching, as well, has extended beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries, including a team-taught Foundations course, Poets and Scientists Look at Nature. His collaborator, Judith Mueller, writes, “He wanted to explore with our students these two foundational modes of knowing—both of which he clearly cherished. Bob modeled for our students sincere wonder and joy in the acts of learning, exploring and critiquing. Along the way, he taught his students and his English professor colleague some trigonometry, convincing us that, like a well-crafted poem, an equation can be a thing of beauty.”

Since his arrival at F&M, much of Gethner's scholarship has been intimately entwined with his teaching. One 2014 article introduced the “need to know principle” as a response to the pedagogical—and moral—question of how to avoid lying to students when introducing sophisticated mathematical ideas that they need to know early in their mathematical careers. Another, “Can you paint a can of paint?” resolves a seeming paradox that puzzles students in second-semester calculus. His current project, a book about the foundations of real analysis and the craft of proof, somehow manages to communicate mathematical rigor and a sense of wonder at the same time. Gethner aims to share an intellectual journey with each of his students, wherever they may start, and wherever they are headed.

Above all, though, his students have always been grateful for his personal warmth and kindness. A mentee and collaborator writes, “From introducing the different sizes of infinity, to the mythology of ‘Lord of the Rings,’ Professor Gethner was a great source of knowledge and wisdom. Often, his office was the only place where I felt safe and understood. His tireless attempts to simplify and make math more enjoyable, his understanding and caring nature, his sweet voice and witty humor will surely be missed at F&M.”

Gethner fondly recalls “the collegiality of the math department and our warm, funny, always helpful math coordinators during my time here, Dorothy Uhland and Cindi Dinger. They played a big part in making the department a cheerful place to work. I also loved the brilliance and warmth of so many of our F&M colleagues, faculty and otherwise, some of whom have become close friends. As I look back over the years, I realize I've had a truly rich experience here.”