Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Mathematics professor to deliver University Lecture May 4

sign on professor's door

DU Professor Rick Ball displays his favorite student evaluation from more than two decades of teaching. Photo: Chase Squires

Where others see numerals and equations, University of Denver professor Rick Ball sees beauty and elegance. Where some might see his office as a private sanctuary for research, he sees it as an open environment for teaching and sharing.

In recognition for his research into topology and other areas of mathematics, Ball was named University Lecturer at DU’s Convocation in October 2009.

Ball says he’s always strived to put students first, to help them discover mathematics on their own terms and to learn that nothing comes easy, but the prize is worth the effort. The walls of his office are obscured by chalkboards filled with sketched graphs and complex equations — the product of private sessions with students. On his door, an early student’s hand-written course evaluation is posted dead center at eye level.

“This isn’t my office, this is my students’ office,” he says. “They come here and we work through problems together. And you can’t really talk about mathematics without a pencil in your hand or a piece of chalk.”

Ball says it’s important for him to dispel a myth that mathematics comes easy to those who choose it. He freely admits he struggled in his school days to crack the code and learn to understand the language of computation. For students willing to embrace the work it takes, Ball says he’s there to struggle alongside them. In the classroom, he chooses problems that interest him, and throughout a course he’ll try to help students unravel the mysteries.

“We do it together. They see me struggling with a problem,” he says. “We don’t get them all, maybe we get 90 percent, but it’s wonderful for me to see them in the halls talking about the problem together, trying to figure it out. It takes talk. There’s a social component to mathematics. All of us reach a point where we can’t see the full picture. That’s when you put down the pencil, sleep on it, and then get together and talk about it.”

Ball came to DU as a visiting professor in 1988 after teaching at Boise State, the University of Kansas, Wesleyan University in Connecticut and at the University of Georgia. He landed a tenured position at DU in 1991. His wife, Joan Winn, is a professor of management at the Daniels College of Business.

Provost Gregg Kvistad, in bestowing the University Lecturer award on Ball (who was studying in the Czech Republic at the time of Convocation) joked about Ball’s modesty, noting how he has never been one to tout his numerous accomplishments. Kvistad remarked how when pressed to write something about himself for his introduction, Ball responded, “I consider myself an entirely unremarkable man.”

“He may, but we don’t,” Kvistad said. “Rick Ball is one the most respected and serious faculty members at the University of Denver.”

Rick Ball

Ball will deliver the University Lecture on May 4. Photo: Chase Squires

Serious, perhaps, but with a great sense of humor and a great appreciation for his craft and his students. He says his affinity for DU lies in the attention paid those students, no huge classes packed into lecture halls, but rather attention to the individual and one-on-one discussion.

The University Lecturer award “recognizes superlative creative and scholarly work,” but to hear him speak, Ball freely shares so much of his time that could be instead dedicated strictly to research projects and writing. Sharing the subject is as much what makes him tick as research.

“I love the subject I teach. I love to teach it, and what I love about DU is that we have the resources to do that well,” Ball says. “You can really get to know your students here. By the time you choose a major, it’s like joining a family.”

The favorite evaluation Ball posted on his office door, received after the second semester he ever taught back in 1975, reads: “‘What are the instructor’s good points?’ The handwritten response: ‘His zest for attacking interesting problems and occasional humor thrown into them.’” ‘What are the instructor’s bad points?’ The reply: ‘His inability to do those interesting problems.’”

Ball laughs when he thinks about the note, recognizing it now as more insightful then he thought at first. Mathematics and the quest for elegant, beautiful solutions to problems that continually challenge the mind never guarantees success, but only opportunities to try.

Ball will deliver the University Lecture, which is part of the honor, on May 4.

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