Mathematical Instruments: Patrick Vennebush

March 1, 2013 § 1 Comment

This post is part of the series Mathematical Instruments in which we introduce you to some of the math bloggers listed on our site. Today:

Mathematical Instruments

via Wikimedia Commons

Patrick Vennebush — Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks

Apart from Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks, any places like other blogs, Twitter, Google+, Facebook, etc. we can find you on?

I’m on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, but I shamefully admit that I’m not terribly active in any of those forums.

Would you tell us a little bit about yourself? E.g., where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?

I live in northern Virginia with my wife Nadine, who laughs at 80% of my jokes; my twin sons Alex and Eli, who only appreciate 20% of my humor; and my golden retriever Remy, who has never been very good with percents. I’ve worked at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) for the past eight years, though I recently accepted a new position as Director of Mathematics at Discovery Education. I’m a teacher by training but a math dork by design.

When and how did you first discover mathematical blogs?

I have no idea. I’ve been reading math blogs for years. I couldn’t tell you which math blog I read first. Smart money says that it was one of Sam Shah, Dan Meyer, or Wild About Math, but I don’t remember for sure. I do remember that Sol Lederman at Wild About Math was instrumental in helping me to start and promote my own blog.

What is the story behind the name of your blog?

The short answer is that it’s the name of my book with the same title, but that’s not very satisfying. Truth is, I thought it was fun that jokes and folks rhyme, and I’ve always liked the word mathy. (I especially like that mathy is gaining acceptance in the math community, but spellchecker still gives it a squiggly, red underline.) And what would a math title be if a number wasn’t used in some cutesy way to replace a word? Putting all that together brought me to Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks.

When did you start blogging?

About a month before I finished writing my master’s thesis, I told my wife that I had a collection of 400 jokes that I wanted to publish. Ever practical, she said, “How ‘bout you wait till your thesis is done before you look for a publisher?” So, I waited to find a publisher… but I started blogging immediately. The Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks blog was born on March 10, 2010, and the Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks book was published on August 9, 2010. (Which is an inside joke, by the way… the publication date in the American format was 8/9/10.)

Why did you start?

In 2008, my boss encouraged me to jump on stage and do some math jokes at the NCTM Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City. To his surprise, I did. It drew a small crowd, and I told jokes for about ten minutes. Buoyed by the success of that silliness, we planned a “math joke hour” at the 2009 NCTM Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. It drew over 400 attendees! The only problem was that I had only prepared 18 minutes of material. One disgruntled attendee walked out saying, “That was only a math joke third-of-an-hour!” But even though that event wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped, it was exhilarating to make people laugh. I understood the comedian’s high that I’d heard about. I figured that I should try to make folks laugh more often. About six months later, I finally found time to start a math jokes blog.

What do you write about?

Jokes, mostly, and no topic is taboo. I make fun of mathematics, professors, teachers, public education, and myself. But I also try to sprinkle in lots of classroom ideas, and I love to post interesting problems when I find them. Especially ones that I haven’t been able to solve myself, and then let the comments pile up on the way to an elegant solution.

What wouldn’t have happened to you without the internet?

My job for the last eight years has been Online Projects Manager at NCTM, in charge of the Illuminations project. The resources on that website — and my job — wouldn’t have existed without the Internet. More importantly, my community of colleagues would have been much smaller without the web. How awesome is it to solicit opinions from thousands of people with the click of a button?

What does the internet need more of?

Exceptional math resources. There are so many people doing great work in this regard — Colleen King at Cool Math, the good folks at NRICH, and Wolfram Alpha, to name just a few. But I can’t say what we need more of without addressing what we need less of. Instructional videos that use pedagogical techniques from the 19th century have done nothing to help our cause; they perpetuate the misconception that blindly enacting algorithms is what it means to do math. Far too many sites have flash card apps, drill-and-kill math games that fail to promote conceptual understanding, and similar dreck that causes kids to perceive math as a big memorization game. We need more resources that promote conceptual understanding and fewer resources that try to teach math like it’s still the 1950’s.

Mathematicians on the web have…

…an awesome sense of humor! I love that we are slowly dispelling the myth that mathematicians are humorless.

Your daily web reading (mathematical or otherwise):

My must-reads change regularly, but Dan Meyer continues to inspire, Denise at Let’s Play Math continually provides great ideas, and xkcd, Spiked Math, and The Oatmeal often make milk come out of my nose.

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