Williams Receives MAA Award, Lectureship

Harvey Mudd College mathematics professor Talithia Williams opened the decade with two honors: the Robert V. Hogg Award for Excellence in Teaching Introductory Statistics and a term as the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) Pólya Lecturer for 2020–2022.

The Special Interest Group on Statistics Education (SIGMAA) of the Mathematical Association of America selected Williams to receive the Hogg Award, which recognizes an individual who has been teaching introductory statistics at the college level for between three and 15 years and who has shown both excellence and growth in teaching during that time.

“In all of her student interactions, Talithia Williams communicates mathematical and statistical ideas by building relationships,” says Art Benjamin, Smallwood Family Professor of Mathematics, who nominated Williams for the award. “She relates statistical concepts with applications involving real-world data and in the process, builds relationships with her students that are unlike any other professor at HMC.”

“Art has been a huge advocate in getting members of the mathematics department the recognition that they deserve but don’t always seek,” says Williams. “I’m really thankful for him. And since data science has become an in-demand area of study, it’s been exciting for me to build the statistics offering at Harvey Mudd. When I came to the College, there were only a few introductory statistics courses. Working with mathematics professor Susan Martonosi and statisticians at the 5Cs, we’ve built a suite of upper-level statistics courses that fill up each semester.”

Williams accepted the Hogg Award at the Joint Mathematics Meetings earlier this month in Denver.

Williams says she’s happy to be recognized for her work, which is intentionally public facing. “Often, faculty at other institutions may not see the value in this work because there’s a disincentive for faculty to engage in the type of public visibility that I’ve engaged in in my career and to instead focus on more traditional metrics for tenure.” Williams’ engagement with the public has included giving a TED Talk, hosting the PBS series NOVA Wonders and authoring a book, Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics, which is geared toward a wide audience. “I want to encourage STEM faculty to engage in the kind of public work I’ve been doing. It’s important that we move the needle on issues that are affecting society today, such as global warming, and that we inspire the next generation to become STEM enthusiasts.”

Williams’ enthusiasm for mathematics and for increasing its audience is evident in the classroom as well. An excerpt from an anonymous student evaluation reads, “Prof. Williams is outstanding. She is energetic, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and has fantastic sense of humor. She does a great job engaging students, provides fantastic explanations, is excellent at answering questions and is very accessible outside of class.”

As the 2020–2022 Pólya lecturer, Williams will have a chance to share her experiences with other mathematicians around the country. The MAA established the George Pólya Lectureship with the goal of encouraging high-quality exposition embodied by George Pólya, an educator, author and prominent figure in mathematics. Williams, notably the first African American to receive the lectureship, will speak at three section meetings each academic year during her term.

“I look forward to getting the public excited about data science and statistics, engaging diverse groups in STEM and talking about how we can present math with equity, excellence and inclusion,” she says. “I want audience members to ask themselves what work they can do to engage the next generation in math and science and how they are making room at the ‘mathematical table’ for the shift in diversity that’s happening in our country. It’s an honor for me to have this platform and a chance to push people outside of their comfort zone.”