Professor Crannell talks connection of Liberal Arts, math, life at Common Hour

By Lin Phyu Sin || Contributing Writer

This week’s Common Hour, entitled “A Math Geek Looks at Art and the Liberal Arts,” was given by Dr. Annalisa Crannell, a Franklin & Marshall Professor of Mathematics as well as the recipient of F&M’s 2016 Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching. She additionally received other awards for distinguished teaching from local and national mathematical societies. Professor Crannell’s presentation included two parts: a reflection on her time at F&M, what she claimed as an “extended thank you” note, and the “Mathematics of Art,” that is, applying projected geometry to perspective art.

Since Professor Crannell joined F&M in 1992, the way she perceives the world around her has been changed by the Liberal Arts. At the Evolution Table she joined, Professor Crannell initially resisted the claim by Dr. Lisa M. Gasbarrone, professor and chair of the French department, that “evolution by selection is narrative.” Nevertheless, later on, the narrative has shaped the way she teaches her classes and was even the basis of her Common Hour presentation on narratives.

One of Professor Crannell’s narratives was focused around her receiving tenure. The day she got tenure, she bought a banjo, which she did not know how to play, and went to the Facilities & Operations (F&O) to learn. Recalling her banjo learning experience, Professor Crannell noted that “by practicing the impossible, it becomes possible.” Congratulating her on the achievement of receiving tenure, a colleague mentioned that “you don’t feel different, but people will treat you differently.” This comment changed Professor Crannell’s perceptions on circumstances as well as made her wonder about how these circumstances could shape an individual. Later on, she experimented with a teaching style of looking at her students as her senior tenure colleagues.

During her talk, she drew parallels between student’s journey through college and the faculty member’s journeys through college. She highlighted how they were alike by pointing out processes such as admission interviews, campus tours, and orientation. During her interview for the job at F&M’s Math Department, she discovered that the department chair as well as the college was “hungry for a richer intellectual diet” and had high standards. Nonetheless, to her, F&M was not just a “crunchy intellectual center.” The college had an “atmosphere of warmth and welcoming.” She still remembered a welcome letter she had received from Professor Jay Anderson, professor of computer science. The letter was simple yet meaningful.

Her orientation time at F&M massively shaped her upcoming years. Ranging from the Faculty Writing Workshop to the tour of the college museum, these experiences, even before she set foot in the classroom, influenced her perceptions as well as her papers. Throughout her career at F&M, her colleagues have shown “incredible kindness.” Professor Robert Gethner, professor of mathematics, for instance, had sat down and read a book on transitivity with her, the experience of which made her pay attention to simple questions and produced her paper on “The Role of Transitivity in Devaney’s Definition of Chaos.” Dean Marion Coleman, Associate Dean for Multicultural Affairs, was with her during the Interim Review which was a “deciding point” as well as a period of “identity crisis.” Through her colleagues’ support and her achievements, Professor Crannell had come to realize that what she has accomplished is not really far from what she dreamed of.

Professor Crannell also shared three F&M stories that had impacted her personal and academic life. The first story was a personal story—about how, during her time at F&M, she had found her partner, and therefore her family and the orientation of her personal life. The second one was about how discussions had led her to be more contemplative of current social, economic and moral issues. The third story, which she claimed to be perhaps the most compelling, was about her joining a book club, being inspired by a leader and following that person’s footsteps. Professor Crannell made a more conscious effort to be more involved in the community. She volunteered with patients, from which she got to know her first adopted son Nigel. Later, she adopted more kids and expanded her family.

Recounting her stories, particularly the third one, she posed a question: Is this story she had just told—the book discussion which led to her volunteer work which shaped her family life—her story? Or, she wondered if it was a great story about the Liberal Arts which, to borrow Henry Crimmel’s words, stimulates “the capacity and inclination for rational inquiry.”

Afterwards, Professor Crannell switched gears and spoke of the “Mathematics of Art.” She is a professor who makes math enjoyable by bringing art into it. Mentioning her students’ significant improvement in their three-dimensional drawings after taking her math class, she introduced to the audience the “Mathematical Notion of Perspective” and the concept behind vanishing points. By asking the audience to look at a painting as well as a simplified three-dimensional figure, she demonstrated how the rectangular cuboid transforms into a cube as one looked closer. She then ended the Common Hour with the following note: “Sometimes, we need to get closer to something to see it the way it is supposed to be seen.”

Sophomore Lin Phyu Sin is a contributing writer. Her email is lsin@fandm.edu.

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