Faculty Spotlight: Professor Makes Math Less Maddening, By Using History to Relate

March 23, 2022 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

The scene is all too familiar for Karen Parshall. She’s working on a plane, while seated next to a stranger, when an unfamiliar voice breaks the silence.

“So, what do you do for a living?” asks the stranger.

An innocent smile comes across Parshall’s face before she decides to tell her temporary neighbor, “Oh, I teach mathematics.”

The stranger then has a moment of regret. They weren’t expecting to have this kind of conversation.

“Oh, I got a ‘D’ in math,” they reply.

Of course, Parshall had a choice.  She could have said, “I teach history,” or, even more confusingly, “I teach history and mathematics.” 

Parshall recently painted this picture as a way to describe her challenge as a University of Virginia professor and author.

“People tend to be intimidated by mathematics,” she said, “but the history of mathematics can show that mathematicians are just people, too. They’re fallible, too. I try to provide that broader context.”

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Parshall, a 1977 graduate of the University, has been teaching at UVA for nearly 35 years. She has a joint appointment in the both the math and history departments. This particular “50-50 split,” as she calls it, is unique to Grounds, and would be unusual on any college campus.

“There are other people who have joint appointments,” she said, “but between math and history, I’m the only person I know of with such a split appointment.”

The exclusive role has long allowed Parshall to place faces and stories behind the numbers and theorems. The latest example, her new book, “The New Era in American Mathematics, 1920-1950,” was published in February by Princeton University Press.

It’s a deeply researched dive into the development of math during a trying period in this country.

“The book shows that while these mathematicians were doing mathematical work,” Parshall said, “they were improving their community, they were fighting political battles, they were figuring out how to absorb émigrés from Europe during World War II, they were trying to figure out how they, as mathematicians, could support the United States’ war effort in World War II.

“This is all part of being a mathematician, and that’s something that people don’t think about. They think mathematicians sit in an office with the door closed and write on chalkboards with little contact with the real world. But this book shows that mathematicians are embedded in the real world. Their mathematics is part of what they do, but they can be very focused on the bigger picture.”

“New Era” is one of Parshall’s several career projects. In 2006, she wrote a biography of James Joseph Sylvester, a 19th-century Englishman. After being denied a degree from St. John’s College in Cambridge due to his Jewish faith, Sylvester went on to make significant contributions in math, ultimately founding the American Journal of Mathematics in 1878.

Karen Parshall seated, looking away from the camera and smiling
Karen Parshall’s most recent book, “The New Era in American Mathematics, 1920-1950,” was published in February. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

Parshall said Sylvester’s story is a prime example of humanizing the subject of math.

“He overcame, and dealt with, and fought with all sorts of social and cultural issues in order to be what he wanted to be – a professional mathematician – at a time when that category didn’t exist,” she said. “He actually helped to create that category.”

Parshall might be able to relate to a trailblazer. She was among the first classes of women to graduate from UVA. She then went on to become one of the first female faculty members in the mathematics department to earn tenure.

“I don’t think of myself in those terms,” she said. “It’s all been timing, really. Women were admitted in 1970, and I came in 1973. I’ve just never, for better or worse, seen the world that way. I was just a student at UVA learning what I wanted to learn. I wasn’t looking around thinking, ‘Oh, gee, I’m the only woman in this math class.’ Sensibilities now are very different from the sensibilities I had as a student.”

A February edition of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society journal included tributes to Parshall from several former students. Sloan Despeaux, now a math professor at Western Carolina University, said of Parshall, “As the years go by, I also appreciate more and more how Karen prepared me to succeed in a mathematics department. While I groaned at the time about all of the graduate mathematics courses she required me to take (on top of French and British history and her seminar), I now realize how important it was for me to feel as much a mathematician as a historian. Through her foresight and planning, I sidestepped obstacles I did not even realize were there.”

UVA history department chair Claudrena Harold calls Parshall a “rock star.” Parshall, though, remains modest. She’s just carrying out her passions – math and history – in the best way she can. That’s by cutting though the perceived intimidation of equations by offering relatable context.

“The history of mathematics helps people to understand that mathematics isn’t just something created in the minds of mathematicians,” Parshall said. “It’s ultimately linked to time and place.”

Media Contact

Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications