It’s hard to believe that Edward Burger ’85, who recently won one of the nation’s top teaching prizes, once planned on becoming a lawyer.
It wasn’t until he attended Connecticut College that Burger, inspired by his professors, began to think about a different career path.
“My professors influenced me in profound ways, and this honor is a testament to all of them,” he said.
Burger, Gaudino Scholar and professor of mathematics at Williams College, was recently named the 2010 recipient of the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching, a prize that measures both scholarly merit and classroom performance. As part of the honor, he’ll teach at Baylor University this fall and receive a $215,000 award that includes $35,000 for his home department at Williams.
Burger, who tutored in the math help center as a student at Connecticut College, said that he first “tasted the joys of mathematical ideas” as an undergraduate.
Today, Burger is a pioneer in multimedia Internet lectures, recording a popular series with Thinkwell that makes learning math more engaging than reading from textbooks. Watch “Calculus in 20 Minutes.”
Burger keeps math interesting by keeping his audience in mind. At a recent Williams’ family weekend lecture he had an overflowing crowd roaring in laughter as he proved, mathematically, that Hamlet could be produced with an infinite number of typewriters and monkeys. Not surprisingly, he was previously an independent writer for Jay Leno in the late 1980s.
His professors back at Connecticut College were excited to see their former student win the prize but also not surprised by his success.
“Your spirits are raised when you’re around him, which is a weapon when you’re exposed to mathematics,” said Perry Susskind, professor of mathematics at the College.
Burger was on the interviewing committee when Susskind applied for a teaching position at Connecticut College.
“I remember thinking if there are other bright students like him here, this is where I want to teach,” said Susskind.
Susskind said that as a student, Burger was not only bright and astute but also loved getting up in front of people – a good combination for an aspiring teacher.
Since Burger graduated from the College, both Susskind and Bridget Baird, professor of mathematics and computer science, have had an opportunity to see their former student in action teaching at Williams.
Baird said that as a student, Burger stood out not only because of his “phenomenal” love of mathematics but also because of his attire. Every Wednesday, Burger would don a sport coat and tie to celebrate the middle of the week.
“Not only was he humorous and congenial, but he also spoke out and brought a lot to the classroom,” she said.
Burger credited Susskind and Baird for showing him “the beauty of mathematics” and the late Ernest C. Schlesinger, professor emeritus of mathematics, for serving as a kind mentor who pushed him in his courses.
“The undergraduate experience that a liberal arts student can obtain is life-changing and profound,” said Burger, who also enjoyed his English, philosophy and economics courses. “Connecticut College is a shining example of what an institution can and should be.”