June 6, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 19

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    Faculty Award for Graduate Teaching: Peter May

    Peter May, Professor in Mathematics, said he was jovially roasted in the Mathematics Department's annual "beer skits" at the end of ninth week. The skits, put on annually by the second-year graduate students, poke fun at all the faculty members in the department. "The students mimicked my mannerisms at the board, my overenthusiastic style," he said, laughing. "My teaching philosophy is that if a lecture is boring, it's not effective. There's always a certain amount of, shall we say, acting involved."

    May, who has been the adviser for 26 students who have received their Ph.D.s in mathematics, said, "While I love the classroom, what I love most about teaching is the one-on-one interaction and seeing a student master the transition from learning to doing creative research."

    The graduate program in mathematics at Chicago is unique, May said, particularly the first-year program. All of the students take the same nine courses that cover a broad range of mathematical subjects. There are no grades, they have no teaching duties, and they are encouraged to work together. "We assign more work than any individual can do working alone," he said.

    He added that the collegial and collaborative nature of the department sets it off from peer institutions.

    "While I may be more visible than other faculty members, I am not atypical of the people here," he said. "There is a lot of camaraderie, and many professors have close relationships with their students. In mathematics, graduate students are almost like family. In fact, it's a tradition of the discipline to keep genealogical tables."

    May, a specialist in algebraic topology, was Chairman of Mathematics from 1985 to 1991, and then Chairman of the University's Council on Teaching from 1991 to 1996. He also served, from 1991 to 1994, on the national Joint Committee on Women in the Mathematical Sciences. May received his B.A. in 1960 from Swarthmore and his Ph.D. in 1964 from Princeton. He taught at Yale before coming to Chicago in 1967. He was recently selected as the Hardy Lecturer of the London Mathematical Society for 1997.

    -- Diana Steele