Memorial Minute for Ann Robertson
by Perry Susskind, 2014
Our colleague, Ann Robertson, died on November 20, 2013, at the age of 70, just 6 months after retiring from her position as senior lecturer at Connecticut College. Ann taught mathematics and computer science for many years – most of her life, really – at institutions including the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Mitchell College, and the University of New Haven. Ann began as an adjunct instructor at Connecticut College in 1998, became Lecturer of Mathematics in 1999, and was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2003.
No one worked harder than Ann Robertson. Ann taught Connecticut College's toughest customers: these were the students who were very reluctant to fulfill a mathematics course requirement. She taught the curious, but also those who were hesitant or even belligerent or phobic about learning mathematics; and Ann would willingly, respectfully, and cheerfully spend inordinate energies on these students including those with significant learning challenges. Indeed, with patience, zeal, meticulous attention to the design of her courses, devotion to what she was doing, and toughness when it was necessary, Ann taught all of these students about the beauty and utility and ubiquity of mathematics. For many of them, what they learned was a revelation, and that revelation – garnered in the course they least wanted to take – changed them and their outlooks on how the world works, and what there is to appreciate about the world. In his letter about Ann when she was being considered for reappointment and promotion, Dean Phil Ray momentarily wonders whether this "extraordinarily gifted teacher of math...has a special, even mystical affinity" for the students she teaches. He concludes however, that Ann "became the educator she is through intelligence and hard work." I will add that not too long ago, when Ann was undergoing treatments for the endometrial cancer that later caused her death, I took over one of her Introduction to Mathematical Thought courses. It was so clear that they loved Professor Robertson, and they loved her even though she made them work very hard. Ann taught other courses, including: Mathematics from a Cultural Perspective, Concepts of Calculus, and a freshman seminar, Fractals, Chaos and Culture.
Though she was teaching mostly 100-level courses, Ann treated her students as curious and mature learners. Indeed, in addition to CT College faculty, Ann reached out to distinguished mathematicians and distinguished scholars from other disciplines from outside the college and brought them here to talk to her students about mathematical issues they encountered in their professional lives.
Ann had fascinating research interests, mostly in the relationship of mathematics to the arts. She found ways to discuss her research interests with her students. One such interest was studying the mathematical symmetries of Alhambra, a palace and fortress built around the year 1,000, in Granada, Andalusia, Spain. But, perhaps Ann's most passionate interest was in fractal geometry, that is, the geometry of complicated objects whose dimension is not an integer – for example, a line is one dimensional, a disc is two dimensional, but a very complicated object such as a snowflake may have fractional dimension. Ann participated in the prestigious Fractal Geometry Workshop at Yale University, funded by an NSF grant, and run by luminaries in the field, including Benoit Mandelbrot and Michael Frame. In particular, Ann studied the drip paintings of Jackson Pollack, and found, among other properties, that these paintings exhibited a fractal geometric structure. Ann presented her work numerous times at professional meetings of the Mathematical Association of America, and the American Mathematical Society, and also published her work in the journals of the Mathematical Association of America. Ann had planned to work on a book about the mathematics of the drip paintings of Jackson Pollack after her retirement. It's a shame she did not get to complete this work that she so cared about, and it is a shame for us, and the mathematics and art communities, that we won't be able to learn in full what she'd wanted to say.
Ann was particularly interested in supporting women and girls in mathematics. With separate grants from the Mathematical Association of America and Lucent, Ann put into practice her research on math education by creating and teaching after-school math workshops for at-risk middle school girls and their teachers at the Longfellow School in Bridgeport, and for at-risk girls and for mathematically gifted students at the Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School in New London. Ann also was a mentor and source of inspiration for many of our female math majors.
Ann died within two days of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. During the days close to that anniversary, we were repeatedly reminded of the famous lines from JFK's iconic inaugural speech: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." Hearing this repeatedly at the time of her death, I thought each time of Ann for whom, with respect to the college, this admonition was totally unnecessary. Ann always did as much for students and for the college as humanly possible. As department chair I often had to say, "Ann, you are trying to do too much. Perhaps you can assign a bit less work to lighten your grading load." Or, "perhaps you might decline service on this committee; you've taken on too much work on behalf of the college."
Ann's husband of many years, Paul Thompson, would have liked Ann to retire some years ago, so that they might more fully enjoy their lives together. But, until she became too fatigued from her illness to continue, Ann was unable to give up her teaching, and all of the other activities she engaged in at the college. It was very difficult for Ann to accept what was happening to her. Indeed, though I understand that at the very end she accepted her situation, not long ago, when I had lunch with Ann, she expressed disbelief that her illness was progressing. She said, "but I'm so strong and so healthy."
Finally, Ann Robertson was among the most thoughtful and considerate individuals I've ever met. For me she was often a source of excellent advice about to deal with other individuals in both my professional and personal life. Her instincts always revolved around being kind and fair. We all will miss her warmth, her friendship and her perspective very much. She was a lovely person.
Madame President, in accord with our traditions, I ask that these remarks be recorded as part of our faculty minutes.