Ann Robertson, Connecticut College Professor of Mathematics for 15 years, died on Nov. 20, 2013 after a long-fought struggle with endometrial cancer. Despite her cancer diagnosis three years ago, Robertson, 70, retired just last spring, braving frequent long trips to Boston for medical services and the side effects of chemotherapy to continue teaching. As her colleagues will attest, there was very little that could keep Robertson out of the classroom and a smile off of her face. Even on the most trying day, Ann remained cheerful and talkative, galvanizing those around her with her joy for life.
Professor Robertson was a woman who saw connections to mathematics in every aspect of her life and the lives of her students. In conjunction with Professor Bridget Baird, Robertson developed a course on Ethnomathematics, the study of the relationship between mathematics and different cultures, which was awarded a grant in 2004 from the Connecticut College Center for Teaching and Learning. This work also served as a basis for her freshman seminar course, entitled “Fractals, Chaos, and Culture,” which Robertson began teaching in 2006.
Robertson believed that everyone could find the usefulness and importance of math in all areas of study. Robertson herself found the intersection between math and the arts particularly intriguing. She was interested by the fractional dimensionality of Jackson Pollock’s paintings from his drip period, as well as the symmetries present in the Alhambra, a ninth century palace and fortress in Granada, Spain. She published numerous works that demonstrated the complex relationship between mathematics and art, establishing herself as both an admirer and expert in the convergence of these diverse disciplines.
While one may assume that courses on fractals and cross-cultural math applications are intended for upper level students, Robertson primarily taught introductory level classes that are often taken to satisfy general education requirements. She saw these classes not as a burden but as an incredible opportunity to engage her students in the beauty and wonder of mathematics. Robertson was the type of professor who believed that any one of her students, “mathematically inclined” or not, was capable of understanding complex ideas if they were presented in the right way.
Robertson’s passion for teaching extended beyond the confines of Connecticut College and into middle school classrooms in New London and Bridgeport through her work teaching mathematics to “at risk” girls. Through a grant from the Mathematical Association of America/Tensor Foundation Program in 2005, Robertson created the Fractal Geometry For Girls [(FG)2], which focused on teaching the concepts of fractal geometry to middle school teachers and young girls. Ann firmly believed that girls and young women of today are not exposed enough to mathematics or encouraged to pursue this field of study, so she strove to empower young girls with the mathematical knowledge and the self-confidence to ignite a lasting love for math and education.
Ann Robertson was a woman who was not only a teacher of mathematics, but a student of the subject throughout her life. She did not simply teach her course material to her students, rather she personified the excitement about mathematics that she wanted to share with them. Her enthusiasm, optimism, and caring demeanor were a constant force of encouragement for her students and inspiration amongst her colleagues.
Ann Robertson truly embodied the liberal arts. She was a scholar in the truest sense; applying her mathematical knowledge to everything she encountered. It was clear to all who knew her that her work and her personal interests were not two distinct entities; rather, her work as a professor was an extension of her lifelong passions for mathematics, arts and culture. Her love of learning and her desire to share her interests never dwindled, no matter what obstacles she faced. Ann Robertson’s zeal for life and learning was a gift to everyone who knew her. She will be deeply missed.
The following are letters from from faculty, staff, and students:
No one worked harder than Ann Robertson. She taught Connecticut College’s toughest customers: these were the students who were very reluctant to fulfill a mathematics course requirement. 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 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. I will add that not too long ago, when Ann was undergoing treatments, I took over one of her Introduction to Mathematical Thought courses. It was so clear that they loved her, and they loved her even though she made them work very hard.
Ann had fascinating research interests, mostly in the relationship of mathematics to the arts. One of these interests was fractal geometry, that is, the geometry of objects whose dimensions are not integers – for example, a line is one dimensional, a disc is two dimensional, but a very complicated curve may have fractional dimension. In particular, Ann studied the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, and found, among other properties, that these paintings exhibited fractal dimension. Ann had planned to work on a book about the mathematics of the paintings of Jackson Pollock 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 what she’d wanted to say.
Ann died within days of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Indeed, over these days, we’ve been reminded of the famous lines from his iconic inaugural speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Hearing this repeatedly last week, 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 was 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.”
Finally, Ann Robertson was among the nicest, most considerate individuals I’ve ever met. For me she was often a source of sage advice about how to deal with other individuals in both my professional and personal life. Her instincts always revolved around being kind and fair. I will miss her warmth, her friendship and her perspective very much. She was a lovely person.
- Perry Susskind, Professor of Mathematics
I knew Ann only one semester, but it was enough to miss her presence deeply and to feel a great sadness. I met Ann during my official visit to Connecticut College for a teaching demonstration. I was really nervous. Ann was the one who brought up small talk about small things that were not related to the reason I was there. She did it to make me feel like I was among people I already knew. After my presentation she said to me: “You did great.” Concerning my worries about not writing well on the board, she said: “It is the worst blackboard in the building.” I felt much better right away.
After that we often had small chats. She stopped by my office and asked me how I was doing often. She listened to my concerns and answered my questions. She always was ready to help and give advice. It was very pleasant to talk to her about anything: teaching, weather, traditions or holidays. Every Friday, before leaving she stopped by and said: “Have a great weekend!” Those were not just words. Those were warm wishes.
Before Easter weekend she told me how much she loved holidays. She and her husband celebrated Easter and Passover with their friends. “The more holidays, the better,” she said. I could not agree more.
The last time I saw Ann was the gathering for math students at the end of spring semester. She brought delicious baked goods (as always). We talked a little bit, but I had to go to teach my class. I didn’t have a chance to ask her for the recipe. I had thought that the next time I saw Ann, I would ask her for it. I never did get that recipe…
I wish I could have spent more time with Ann engaging in small talks about small things. I will never forget Ann and her kindness.
- Zhanna Pozdnyakova, Adjunct Instructor in Mathematics
Ann was amazing. She battled her cancer head on. She was strong and courageous and 95% of the time she was upbeat and happy and strong. Ann was a woman with so much to give and she did so on a daily basis to her students, to faculty and to staff. She cared about everyone! As the Administrative Department Assistant for Math, she always made me feel appreciated. She would leave me little mementos, cards and knick-knacks on my desk from “a secret admirer.” She brought a smile to my face every day with her stories of how she wanted to help her students get through MAT105 – no easy task as these were students who had to a fill a Gen-Ed requirement and weren’t usually terribly interested in math. She did it though, tirelessly, because she cared about each and every one of her students! I miss Ann terribly. The math department is not the same without her cheery presence.
- Stacey Lion, Administrative Assistant, Department of Mathematics
When I think of Ann Robertson, I see, in my mind’s eye, her wonderfully welcoming and joyous face. She was always ready to talk about a mathematical idea, a symmetry pattern she had discovered in the Alhambra, a cultural connection she was reading about. Our conversations were full of her passion for learning, her devotion to her students, her enthusiasm for living. She is so missed.
- Bridget Baird, Professor Emeritus, Computer Science and Mathematics
For the past 15 years, Ann Robertson, senior lecturer in mathematics, almost single-handedly staffed the general education courses in our department. It was her life’s work to communicate the beauty and the utility of mathematics to an often skeptical audience. In doing so, she demonstrated day after day, year after year, a nearly infinite level of patience and good will. I don’t know the source of her energy and her optimism, but in Ann’s case it was certainly infectious.
- Christopher Hammond, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Mathematics
To a spirit that never failed to explore new thoughts, loved art, explained complex ideas such as 5th and 6th dimensions, shared time with people, gave surprises to people with a small gift for a remembered date or event, and always listened intently when a friend needed attention. Ann was our rare gift for too short a time.
- Janet Hayes, Instructional Developer, Information Services and Instructional Technology
I was fortunate to have Ann as both a colleague and a friend. With a mutual passion for art, we spent many pleasant hours at museums sharing ideas about art and anything else on our minds. She suggested we each join an art museum of which the other was a member. I joined the Wadsworth Antheneum and tagged along on her membership to MoMA. She in turn joined the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, where we each lived. She searched for mathematical patterns in art, especially in works by Abstract Expressionists; her favorite was Jackson Pollock. At an artists’ installation of scarecrows on the Florence Griswold grounds, the one with a Jackson Pollock theme caught her eye. Three years ago, to Ann’s delight, MoMA had all 18 works in their collection by Jackson Pollock on exhibit. It was lovely to watch Ann become totally absorbed in Pollock’s large canvases. The perennial optimist, Ann planned to write a book about his work when her health improved. She was a warm, caring, grounded and genuine individual and my dear friend. I consider myself blessed to have known her.
- Chris Penniman, Director of Instructional Technology
Although I was never one of Professor Robertson’s students, I was fortunate enough to meet her early in my career at Connecticut College. Professor Robertson served as my freshman advisor and I later graded assignments for her classes. She was much more than someone who signed off course registration papers every semester. She was a mentor. During my conversations with Professor Robertson, I learned about her passion for fractals, and what a great person she truly was. She was always willing to give, whether it was her time, chocolates for Christmas, or even extensions to grade papers. Working with Professor Robertson prepared me for math graduate school. In my first semester of graduate school, I taught a similar general education class that was taught by Professor Robertson at Conn and only hoped that my students adored me half as much as everyone adored her. She will be greatly missed.
- Nina Pham ’10
One afternoon, Professor Robertson asked me to call her Ann.
Ann, thank you so much for the kindness, care, and attention with which you approached every individual to come to know you. You are a strong woman, a wonderful educator. You will be missed very dearly. My thoughts will always be with you, your advice will always remain valuable, your kind heart will be remembered!
- Olha Townsend ’13
I have never enjoyed math, but I somehow always enjoyed waking up in the morning and heading to class with Professor Robertson. She instilled in me the belief that everyone has the capacity to do math, and made sure that everyone left her course without a hint of disbelief that this statement could be false. Professor Robertson was easily one of the most passionate professors I have had the privilege of taking a course with here at Connecticut College, and while that was the only class I took within the math department, I have taken her exemplary charisma with me through all of the courses I have taken thus far, and I cannot begin to thank her enough for that.
- Sam Peaver ’15
Despite my stubborn reservations regarding my mathematical skills, Professor Robertson’s infectious excitement and dedication to her discipline motivated me to seek enjoyment and enthusiasm in my education. I’ll never forget her elation when she told our class about the time she got to discuss fractals with a photographer from National Geographic magazine in a doctor’s office. Professor Robertson’s love for teaching mathematics was strongly apparent as she always made time for students, such as myself, who needed extra help. Her patience and nurturing manner gave me a new appreciation for a subject that I struggled with in the past. I remember our discussions about her research regarding the math behind Jackson Pollock’s paintings. For the first time in my educational career, I wasn’t intimidated by math. I wanted to learn more. Above all, Professor Robertson taught me the importance of developing a passion for one’s work.
- Francesca Volpe ’15
I was incredibly fortunate to have Professor Robertson for class last year. She was an exceedingly compassionate individual, who took the time to learn and understand the needs of each student. She was particularly attuned to the needs of students such as myself, who struggle with math-related anxiety. Professor Robertson demonstrated her enthusiasm for math by incorporating relevant themes of art and literature into class, which, in turn, captured the attention of students interested in various areas of study. Professor Robertson was a truly dedicated teacher and an unbelievably kind individual who will be greatly missed.
- Sam Wilcox ’16