Talking Math Life with Ken Monks

This is the second in a series of interviews with early-career mathematicians, with the goal of providing snapshots of a range of jobs and early-career experiences.

Ken Monks, killing it on guitar when he’s not busy killing it as a math professor at Front Range Community College.  Of his job he says, “I see myself at Front Range Community College forever!  Hopefully in my old age working here, they can give me some Front Range Community Collagen.”

I met Ken Monks (who goes by Kenneth M. Monks professionally) in graduate school at Colorado State University. He was a year behind me in coursework, but was way ahead of me in general mathematical knowledge and pun-making ability. People went to Ken for help with homework, teaching questions, and general mathematical stuck-ness, and to soak up his distinctive kind-and-caustic, pun-filled banter. He is also a great cook and excellent guitar player (check out his band Mama Lenny and the Remedy), but I always assumed that research mathematics would be at the center of his work life because he is just really good at it.  However, Ken surprised me and many other people by choosing to stay on the front range of Colorado after his PhD, accepting a position at the Boulder County Campus of Front Range Community College (FRCC).

Ken comes from a mathematical family—his father Dr. Kenneth G. Monks is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Scranton, his mother Gina Monks has a degree in math and teaches at Penn State Hazleton, his sister Dr. Maria Monks Gillespie has earned a huge number of mathematical honors and recently finished her PhD at Berkeley, and his brother Keenan Monks studied math and computer science at Harvard and is now a software engineer at Facebook.  Together they founded Prove It!, a summer math camp for talented high school students, which takes up a lot of Ken’s spring and summer energy.  He is also working on an open-source calculus textbook built around active learning techniques. It wasn’t easy to find a good time for an interview with Ken last few weeks, between the book, getting ready for the camp, and his double commencement duties: he played guitar with a jazz quartet for the ceremony, and was also the keynote speaker after being named Master Teacher for the year (here’s a video of the commencement, if you want to check out Ken’s speech at 48:11 about how Good Will Hunting is a mirror of FRCC life). I caught up with Ken recently by email to ask him some questions about his math life.  Let me just get out of the way and let Ken take over from here…

Me: Thanks for agreeing to do this!  First, I want to write a paragraph about you and your path in math.  Maybe a few stats would be helpful.

Ken: I never took stats.

Me: I should have seen that one coming. Where did you go to undergrad, what year did you graduate from CSU, and how would you describe your research there?

Ken: In middle school/high school my math was homeschooled by my dad.  Undergrad was at University of Scranton where my dad taught. My mom and I went through the math BS pretty much together there (took Discrete, Algebra, Complex Analysis, etc. together).  Scranton is a small Jesuit four-year liberal arts school.  Graduated in 2006, moved to CSU and got my Masters in 2008 then PhD in 2012.  My research was in combinatorics/group theory since my advisor was Alexander Hulpke. Tim Penttila also put in an unbelievably generous amount of time mentoring me.

My research in my Masters was just to compute the Möbius number of the subgroup lattice of S12 (symmetric group on 12 points).  Möbius numbers in essence are just the “plus and minus ones” that you use on subsets of a set when you do Principle of Inclusion/Exclusion, except generalized to substructures of any structure.  There was lots of Richard Stanley-esque combinatorial trickery and lots of group theory that played together in really nice ways.  My PhD was a continuation of this thread, further studying Möbius numbers of symmetric groups.

Me: Tell me about your job.

I teach a few classes per semester, usually one or two sections of Calculus 2, a section of either Calculus 3 of DiffEq/Linear, and some mix of a section or two of Math for Liberal Arts or College Algebra.  I do a lot of college service in the form of committees within our campus, college, and the Colorado Community College System.  I also run a student Putnam Club where students can train to take the Putnam.  I have a lot of freedom to run Independent Studies whenever a student is interested.

Me: Can you tell us a bit about the choice you made to teach at a community college instead of looking for a research career?

Ken: Ha!  Ok that’s an interesting question. Yeah, because I did have an option.  I got a job offer at University of Wyoming and I turned it down to take the Front Range Boulder gig.  Location was one factor… I was living in Fort Collins, didn’t want to leave, and Longmont is way easier of a drive than Laramie, especially in the winter.  But that wasn’t the only reason.  I LOVED the fact that at the community college there was really no attitude there whatsoever regarding academic chest-pounding or totem-pole climbing or status or prestige or anything like that.  The only thing anybody cared about is student success.   If someone with minimal resources or external support walks in the door and says “I’d like to improve my position in life,” we are all obsessed with how do we collectively help them do that.  There is a ton of interaction at every level, constant conversations, initiatives, and innovation involving faculty, adjuncts, advisors, deans, VPs, and our president Andy Dorsey himself.  This collaborative caring and nurturing aspect of it was extremely appealing to me.  You get to see it first-hand.  We take tons of fast-food employees and help them become nurses, machinists, etc., and enormously improve their lives for themselves and often for their families.  We also take students who are not quite ready to jump into an academic program at a place like CU Boulder and give them an inexpensive first two years with a big sense of community.  They choose us sometimes for financial reasons, sometimes for social reasons, sometimes for reasons involving childcare or location.  A lot of times that option to do the first two years with us makes the difference between someone pursuing a four-year degree or not.  So, we have a mix of quick two-year degrees to get people in the workforce in skilled jobs, and then students looking to transfer to a four-year school.

I love this mission because it seems very selfless and very genuine.  It is super rewarding!  I feel like I make a huge difference by being there and being warm, comforting, accessible, and providing excellence and expertise in a place where it is needed.  Geography might have been the single biggest reason I tried the job out in the first place, but the values and mission of the institution are why I’ve stayed rather than search for a position at a four-year school.  I haven’t even visited MathJobs once since going to FRCC BCC, and it is sure going to stay that way.  Unless something drastically changes, I see myself at Front Range Community College forever.

Me:  Wow. Awesome. Besides all that, what’s the best part of your job so far?

Ken: I think my biggest accomplishment has been getting three students to get positive scores on the Putnam.  Being that they’re two-year college students, and the fact that frequently even junior and senior level math majors at four year institutions get zeros on the Putnam, I was very proud of them and very pleased with this.

The best part of my work environment is how supportive administration has been.  Basically, if you have any idea that genuinely will impact student success, they have your back all the way.  My department chair the last five years, Christy Gomez, was a fantastic mentor.  Our president Andy Dorsey was very supportive and offered me an Innovation Grant when I pitched the idea of writing an Open Educational Resources Calculus textbook designed for Front Range (emphasizing our competencies and Active Learning/Learning Assistant use in the classroom).

Me: What are some big issues or challenges in your math life/career?

Ken: I think the biggest is just managing my own time.  I tend to want to take on so many cool projects at FRCC that I can spread myself too thin or get super sick because I haven’t been sleeping enough!  Fortunately, my fiancé Faith Mata is good at making me actually sit down and go to sleep when she can see that I look a little worn thin.  I’m also lucky that she’s a spectacular personal
trainer, so she keeps me from getting hunchy mathematician posture from too much typing and grading

Me: Have you realized anything surprising in the last few years of your math career?

Ken: Yes, the biggest surprise for me is how ineffective of a teaching method traditional lecture is. I always loved lecture-based classrooms and had no problems learning from it, but eventually I had to be honest with myself that I had a very unusual and fortunate background, being homeschooled by my math professor father in math. So, I had to trust the volumes of research out there that unanimously show that Active Learning is so much more effective and just let go of my beloved lectures! I still lecture a little of course on some topics here and there.  But by and large my courses have been redesigned to reflect that best practice.

Me: Any other questions I should have asked you? If so, what are they and what are the answers?

Ken: Hmmm, yes!  Maybe if you were going to ask me what makes my classes special or unusual, I’d say that I include a lot of math history in my classes, even when it’s not a history of math course.  My students always comment that they love the context it gives the material, and they never fully realized that math was not a system of rules imposed upon us by our alien captors to torture us, but rather a language invented by people to solve problems and to study for its own sake!

How does this compare with your math life?  What would you want to ask people about their math careers?  Let me know in the comments.

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