Potash Hill

Math as a Living Subject: An interview with Matt Ollis

In May, Hannah Noblewolf ’18 sat down with math professor Matt Ollis to talk about math—obviously—game theory, student research, and sustainability.

Hannah: Remind me, how long have you been at Marlboro?

Matt: I arrived in 2003, so I’m just finishing my 14th year. My first year was as the math fellow.

H: So, very few people actually enjoy math to a degree where they’d spend most of their lives doing it. What about math appeals to you so much?

M: Hmm, I don’t know. At school and high school I didn’t particularly love it. I enjoyed it well enough and was good enough at it that I kept going in that direction. Then when I was an undergrad I did a “research experience for undergrads” in the UK. That was the first time where I realized what it was actually like to do math, rather than just understanding the recipe in the book to follow—given this problem you do these steps and get this number and you put a red circle around it and everyone is happy. It’s much more, “Okay, here’s a problem that no one knows the answer to, you’ve got a batch of tools you can use, and you can try and invent new ones: try and come up with something. And we came up with some new little advance in math that no one else knew about and admittedly very few people cared about it. [laughter]

H: But if you cared about it, then...

M: It was a very different feeling, sort of like advancing knowledge in a way that math had never been to me, before that. It was fun to work on, very similar in vibe to solving puzzles. Like, if you enjoying doing Sudoku puzzles it’s the same sort of feeling of not knowing how to do something, figuring out how to work it all out, putting it all together and a feeling of success when you do it. I’ve found that doing math, upper-level math, has much more of that feeling to it than high school math does, or at least did for me. I got hooked at that point, sort of late in the process. I went from “math is what I seem to be best at, I’ll keep on doing it” to actually wanting to do it.

H: Where did you do that research experience?

M: I was at Queen Mary in the University of London, and then the research was in Keele, which is a small university that’s basically in this very small town, so the whole town is this small university.

H: Kind of like Marlboro? [laughter]

M: Except it’s much bigger than Marlboro. [laughter]

H: Yeah…

M: There were many thousands of students. Obviously at University of London, it’s embedded in London. Like it’s a small part of a huge city. Keele’s a very different vibe, and still a big place, but out in the countryside in the middle of England.

H: Do you see a utility for math no matter what your goals are? Do you think everyone should do math to some extent?

M: Sort of, but only in the way that I think everyone should do languages, and poetry, and like a hundred other things that no one actually has the time to do all of. I’m certainly against having a math requirement at Marlboro. I really like the sort of structure where people work out what it is they want to do and need to do, and are able to do that. So I try and make the math curriculum accessible in that sense, so that anyone who realizes that they want to add some math in can do so. What I’d really like is for everyone to think that they want to do some math. [laughter]

H: That’s funny.

M: I think most people would think that they’d want to do ceramics for example, because ceramics seems fun. And they don’t all get to actually go and do ceramics, but it seems vaguely appealing to most people and many people actually follow through on it. The bit that I’d like to change, if I had the power to change anything, is that sense of “yes I would like to do it.” I’d like everyone who leaves Marlboro to at least have the attitude that they could’ve done some math if it had fit together, and it would have been a valuable thing to do. There are all sorts of reasons why you might do that, ranging from it’s a beautiful thing to study and it’s fun to do, to you want to go and build bridges and you don’t want them to fall down. [laughter]

H: Ha, makes sense.

M: I’d like people to appreciate that more, and see how it might fit in with what they’re doing, even if they don’t end up doing it that same way. When you think about languages, perhaps, whatever you’re studying there’s probably something in another language that will help. And while you may not learn that language, you’d recognize it as something that you’d want to do given infinite time. I don’t think people feel that about math in the way that they do other subjects, which is a shame.

H: It is. What could we do to attract more people?

M: Every semester we try and offer a class, between me and the math fellow, that’s really inviting to different sections of the community.

H: I know that people always get really excited about the Theory of Game class.

M: Yeah. That is a class we’ve offered a few times, sort of like a “what’s going on” with board games. It’s certainly less than half math in that class, but there’s a bit of probability—sort of understanding dice—and then there’s traditional game theory—‘which is both math and economics, people interacting, making decisions—and also design features—like art components. People in that class can take whatever they’re most interested with in relation to games and run with it. The final project is usually either to design a small game or a component that adds on to an existing game, and changes it in some way. People have done some really creative things with that.

H: I know you offered that my first year and everyone was so excited.

M: Yeah, I think it’s run twice now. Maybe three times? Actually the first class came out of a Plan. There was a student who wanted to do game studies and did a brilliant Plan in a mix of economics, history, and math—all of those tools being brought to bear on games. There’s so much you can do with that.

H: Who was that?

M: Ian Mahoney (’12). Since then we’ve had a couple more people. For Martin Cahill (’10), we got an outside evaluator from Hasbro, which was cool. He was a game designer. It was really funny. Martin’s final project was a space-based combat game, and the guy from Hasbro was actually working on a space-based combat game at the time, which he couldn’t tell us about because he was under a non-disclosure agreement. [laughter]

H: What happened?

M: He said yes, Martin had been wrestling with some of the same sort of problems: how to make it feel like a game that’s set in space—other than just having spaceship encounters. What is it about being in space that you want to convey, and what’s different? That was a really really good orals, and it went well. It also means I got to be second reader on Plans that have got nothing to do with math at all. Paul Vorvick (’10) did one in sociology and theater, and he was really interested in the storytelling aspect of games and role playing, which I sort of tend not to be interested in as a general rule. But it was really fun to work with Paul and be able to look at these things and think about them.

H: So are you currently doing any sort of research outside of Marlboro?

M: Yes, but in many ways it’s not outside of Marlboro. I’ve tried with varying levels of success to maintain a research program—n the last few years it’s gotten increasingly more systematic. I’ve involved students here in research and there’s various ways to do that. If they’ve any interest in my subfield of math, then they can often incorporate that in their Plan and we can collaborate on that. Ambrose Sterr (’07) was probably one of the first. Our research was part of his Plan, we co-wrote a paper together, and that was great. I’ve since done it with a few other students.

H: That’s so great.

M: More recently, I’ve been getting money from the faculty professional development fund to employ a student research assistant over the summer, and that’s been really productive both for me and for the student. We’ve had a few papers come out of that as well. I’ve done that with Devin Willmott (’11), who’s now a grad student at the University of Kentucky, and Gage Martin (’16) who’s now a grad student at Boston College. And this year, (writing professor) Bronwyn Tate started this thing in November for NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. And so for that I set up something I called MaMaReMo, or Marlboro Math Research Month [laughter]. I tried to do a little bit every day, and I’ve done that a couple times since, with Bronwyn and some others. The whole thing is accountability, so I’ve sort of told them what I’d done.

H: Cool.

M: Actually, one of the papers that I’ve worked on with Gage when she was a research assistant, we got stuck at one point. We were dealing with infinite objects and I usually play around with finite objects, so we didn’t quite have all the tools that we need. But (math fellow) Kaethe Minden plays with infinite stuff all the time. Usually different types of infinite stuff, but she was able to un-stick us, and we’re in the final stages of the three of us collaborating on a paper that we’re hoping to submit when we finish writing it. [laughter] It’ll probably be this summer. So that’s been really good.

H: So all of your research is in collaboration with Marlboro students?

M: I really have embedded it in Marlboro, and collaborate with Marlboro people a lot. There’s one project I’ve been working on for a while that’s almost finished as well, with John Schmitt from Middlebury College—he’s a mathematician there. Working on that with him has been fun. That's been a long, slow-ish one, but that’s almost done too.

H: How does your research tie in with teaching math at Marlboro?

M: I think it’s good to have an active research component to what I do as well. I think it helps the teaching here, as well as the sort of direct “hey here's an open problem that no one knows the answer to that you could work on and I can help you” with Plan students. Even in classes, having an active mathematician there, having that transition to thinking of math as a thing that people do and are still doing, as a living subject and there are problems that people still want to know the answer to. I think having someone who can embody that is different from having someone say, “here are the cookbook recipes, when you see this problem do these things.” Even if that’s the point of the course, and you’re just learning some Calculus to be able to apply these skills, I still think getting an appreciation for what math is is an important part of being in a math class.

H: What has been your role in encouraging sustainability monitoring at Marlboro?

M: I’ve been involved in various environmental committees, almost since I’ve been here. I’ve been on the EAC—the Environmental Advisory Committee—I had a break recently but I’m back on it now and I think I was the chair of it for six years, something like that. I’ve also been on the EQC (Environmental Quality Committee) and the Farm Committee, and as part of those roles I’ve tried to generally increase awareness about sustainability and change our practices—and also do various monitoring things.

H: What kinds of monitoring?

M: One of the things, when I was on the EAC last time around, was to introduce an annual energy report that looked at all the different buildings on campus, how much heating oil they used, how much electricity they used, and how those changed over time. It was a way to identify places where things seemed to be out of proportion, so we could do some work that would reduce the energy use. There are still problems, I’m actually going to be on the EQC next year, which is sort of the hands-on community action committee, about changing practices, whereas the EAC is much more structural and big picture. One of the big successes of the energy report, I think, was identifying the admissions building as one that was using a lot of energy for its size. So that’s where we put a lot of energy into retrofitting, and it cut its heating oil use down to one third of what it was previously, after adjusting for weather and how cold things are. It was a huge savings. There were lots of smaller things we did, other places where we identified that we could make a difference.

H: That was based on a class, right?

M: The energy report was just in the EAC, but then I did a class that was called something like “How Sustainable Is Marlboro College?” and that was looking more broadly. We used a couple of different ways to measure things, and the ecological footprint was one the main ones. That’s a much broader measure of how sustainable we are. How much electricity and fuel oil we use is a big part of it, but also how much trash do we generate, what’s our impact on the world overall, compared with how much the world regenerates—that’s sort of the setup for an ecological footprint. A good definition is how much average earth area would it take to regenerate the ecological systems that we’re using up by burning oil and generating trash. It’s hard to get a good absolute value for that kind of thing, for what it is, but what the real benefit of those things are is that we can track changes. So as long as we use the same methodology each time we do it, we get a comparison and we can say okay, we’ve tried to reduce our trash contribution to the regular waste stream and we can see: have we cut it in half, have we knocked ten percent off of it? Once we get these benchmarks in place we can try and improve in comparison, which I think is often a more useful internal tool than knowing just the total number.

H: What would you say is your favorite thing about teaching at Marlboro?

M: I think the close working relationship with students, and the collaboration, and how I decide what to teach based on what students want to do. They teach me new things, and I have to learn new things based on the direction that they’re interested in, where I was previously handed a syllabus and told here’s the syllabus, here’s exactly what you need to teach. Any changes had to go through committees, and it would very much be top-down, students’ interests wouldn’t have much of a say. Whereas here, even within an individual class, even a fairly standard one like Calc 2, I can say here are the things we definitely need to cover in Calc 2, so you know the sort of things that you should know, but then there’s still plenty of flexibility within that and as the students see what they’re interested in and what they enjoy most and what would be most useful to them we can adjust. And the classes are small enough that they can either split up and do their own thing and report back, or they can agree that they’re interested in the same direction and do that so that’s a really good feature. It works really well in classes and it works even more so in tutorials. That’s a really great process, having students so much in control of what they learn, and why they learn it, and making the choices about what they’re going to study.

H: Is it ever overwhelming? It must be sort of a double-edged sword, in a way, that you’re responsible for the whole math curriculum.

M: It can be, but mostly in a good way. It sort of comes back to the lack of math-focused students here, so I don’t have years where I’ve got eight students, all seniors, all pulling me in different directions. I quite often have to teach lots of classes because lots of students need some basic math skills to go and do other things, while other students needing fairly advanced math, so that they can do physics. There’s usually only the one or two students a year who are pulling me in new directions. So there’s usually something new I’m learning, while in the process of teaching, but it’s usually only one or two things at a time rather than ten.

H: Do you have any insider information on when our professor of coloring, Molly Ollis, will return from sabbatical?


M: She’s quite annoyed that someone else has taken over her office and she’s looking forward to reclaiming it this summer. She’s got a good attitude to teaching, she does it over the summer when the students aren’t here, and it’s much easier that way.