Written by Don Ratzlaff Wednesday, 14 May 2008 06:48
Frank Brenneman speaks about his passion for mathematics as if it were poetry.
“It’s a very artistic thing,” said the longtime professor of mathematical sciences at Tabor College. “It’s not only wanting to get it proved, you want to polish that proof. You want it to be elegant.”
Brenneman will be retiring from his post with the completion of the spring semester and 33 years on the faculty.
But while elegance is the goal, mathematics clicks for Brenneman because, unlike poetry, this arena of communication has nothing to do with opinion and persuasion.
“It is the beauty of the reasoning—I don’t know how else to put it,” he said. “You’re not floating around where opinion matters; finally, it’s simply right or wrong.
“That doesn’t come easily, and you may think you’ve got it proved but you find out that you don’t have it. There’s a hole in the reasoning process. So you go back and try to find out where it is and what can change that.”
An unusual equation
Projecting Brenneman’s long career in collegiate math education might have seemed unlikely equation when he was born to Mennonite medical missionary parents in India.
The family came back to the United States when Frank was 3 years old, intending to return to India for additional service. But World War II broke out, and the family relocated instead to the Hesston-Moundridge area. There he attendED public school for his first eight years, then enrolled at the academy sponsored by Hesston College for high school training.
Graduating from there in 1956, he went on to Eastern Mennonite College (now University) in Virginia for a year, intending to earn a pre-med degree.
He stepped away from college for one year to teach at a small Mennonite high school in Pennsylvania—and discovered a new vocational calling.
“At that point I decided I would be a teacher, but I didn’t know at what level,” he said.
Brenneman went on to Goshen (Ind.) College as a chemistry major, but found he enjoyed his math classes more. In his senior year, he taught a college algebra class and then a trigonometry class—and knew what he wanted to do.
“I thoroughly enjoyed that experience,” he said. “I was pretty sure collegiate teaching was what I wanted to do, and I wanted to do it in mathematics.”
Brenneman went for graduate training training at Penn State, then earned a doctorate at Oklahoma State University. After six years on the graduate faculty at Lehigh University, Brenneman was ready to focus his teaching career even further.
“I wanted to get into Mennonite higher education,” he said.
At the time his home denomination, the Mennonite Church, had no openings available in their own institutions. But with his permission, Brenneman’s name was seconded to Tabor College of the Mennonite Brethren denomination.
He accepted the job, and stepped into a nearly nonexistent math program at Tabor in 1974 with a desire to build it to respectability. Through the years he has done precisely that; seven of his students have gone on to earn doctorates and 40 have earned master’s, though not all in the math field.
“I just can’t get over working with the students here,” he said. “To see some of them go on to be teachers in high schools, go on to graduate school or go into business and become successful at their work—that really gives me a high.”
Teaching with intensity
Through the years, Brenneman has developed a reputation as an intense professor who demands hard work.
He doesn’t try to soften that characterization.
“I am intense,” Brenneman admitted. “Sometimes I try to to do too much in the (class) period. Almost every (student) evaluation I’ve had, the negative one that jumps out is that I go too fast and that I speak too fast.
“I now write everything on the board (during class lectures), and I think it slows it down, but evidently it doesn’t.”
Brenneman makes no apologies for expecting his students to work hard, either—whether they are committed math majors or simply taking the class to fulfill a graduation requirement.
“I don’t care if they like math or if they don’t like it, but I do care if they want to work or don’t want to work,” he said. “Anybody can master the material at a certain level if they just work at it.”
Brenneman is the first to add that only a few students have that special gift needed to excel in mathematics.
“It’s like basketball—very few players are Michael Jordan,” he said. “You can master the rudiments of the game and be quite good at it, but there’s still going to be a difference. Hard work and intelligence go into it, but there’s something else—an intuitive creativity—that separates the really classical people from the merely competent ones.
“And that’s true in any field.”
Brenneman said he has had a number of gifted students come through his classroom through the years.
“That’s just outstanding,” he said of the experience.
A passing concern
If Brenneman has a concern as he leaves the teaching scene this spring, it’s whether high schools are doing an adequate job of preparing students for the academic world they’ll encounter at the college level.
“I don’t think high schools are preparing students like they used to,” he said.
“We don’t have study halls, a half of our (class) period is not taken in working on the homework, and students find out they don’t have class for maybe more than three hours a day—and some days not at all.
“You’ve got to have good time management skills if you’re going to make it,” he said. “There going to be lot of interesting things that are going to attract your attention in college, and maybe even demand your attention.”
The next phase
Brenneman said he isn’t sure how he’ll react to retirement once the familiar summer break ends and the next fall semester approaches without his involvement.
“Ever since I started college, I’ve been in the academic yearly cycle, and now suddenly I’m not going be in that cycle,” he said. “I don’t have to be here for faculty retreat and I don’t have to prepare syllabi for classes again.
“I don’t know if it’s going to hit me as a freeing experience or if I’m going to miss it.”
Brenneman does have plans in mind to fill the void. He hopes to continue the seminary courses he’s been taking in recent years—mostly for personal enrichment and “to be a better Sunday school teacher.”
And, with fond memories of his 15-month “transforming” teaching stint in Malaysia in 1993, he’d like to teach abroad again if the right situation presents itself.
Meanwhile, he and wife Anne anticipate spending more time with family, including the ones attached to their three grown sons—all of whom, for the record, began their post-college careers as math teachers.
The elegance of that outcome is not difficult to for anyone to comprehend.