Word problems

Anthony Barcellos, professor and author

PHOTO by trina l. drotar

Visit the website for Anthony Barcellos' latest book at http://astrollthroughcalculus.com.

Anthony Barcellos has taught mathematics at American River College since 1987 and was honored by colleagues in 2014 with the American River College Patrons Chair Award for his work within his department, the college and in the greater community. He’s the author of a novel, Land of Milk and Money, co-author of a mathematics textbook and author of the upcoming A Stroll Through Calculus: A Guide for the Merely Curious (Cognella Academic Publishing, $30.95). He’s a math and language guy who entered kindergarten speaking more Portuguese than English and received comments such as “Tony is very good with his numbers” on his kindergarten grade report. In first grade, Barcellos discovered the word “something” in the class reader. “There was this one $5 word right in the middle of everything,” he said. And so began his love of words and rapid rise as a reader.

What is calculus and how does it affect daily life?

Calculus is the mathematics of how things change and how you can measure that.

For technical people, the practitioners, it's a tool of the trade. They, for example, worked out why canned goods must be a certain size in order to make the best use of raw materials. For consumers, you don't have to be able to do the math yourself to take satisfaction in the knowledge that optimum can sizes were simply computed—not handed down by legislative decree. The world makes rational sense and you see this in matching can sizes!

Math is also embodied all around us in infrastructure. I rather wish bridges were labeled with their designer's GPA. I'll happily drive over 3.0 bridges, but I'd have doubts with 2.0.

A Stroll through Calculus doesn’t sound like it was written by a math professor.

It’s a very personalized way of approaching things and that was very deliberate. There’s a lot of stuff behind the scenes, which for a mathematician is an important omission, which for the casual reader is a mercy.

I have used it as fodder for the calculus essay that I assign each semester that I teach calculus.

An essay in a math class?

Of course, I’ve been challenged on this many times. The essay assignment is an opportunity to describe and discuss some math-related topic in a way that demonstrates understanding and clarity of expression.

How do students react?

I get a wide variation in the responses. My favorites, of course, are the students who tell me at the end of the semester that it was an extremely valuable assignment that they hadn’t appreciated initially. Some of them have recycled their essays in English composition classes.

Reactions from other professors?

My English professor colleagues will root me on. [My math professor colleagues] are very supportive, but they’re not following me. I suppose I could make it look more attractive if I didn’t complain during essay-grading time.

Some people say numbers and words shouldn’t touch.

In terms of subject matter and curriculum, some of the boundaries are artificial. They should be permeable and telling students that you expect them to use their English-comp skills in a math class may strike them as wrong, but I think it is perfectly natural. I argue vigorously in its favor.

Is it difficult to move from numbers to words?

It’s very much who I am. If I’m not doing stuff pertaining to my math classes, which is working up cool examples or grading or correcting exams, there’ll be a book somewhere calling to me, a book that needs a reader.

There are bumps in the road because if you wax too excited about something you've been reading, it might turn off certain math colleagues. If you're jabbering with English professors and you get too mathy, if you're talking about some writer and you're saying, “Yeah and he has this wonderful conceit where he invents this pattern. …” Ahhhh, you see the veils coming down. Unless, of course, you're insulting Dan Brown. That's always good with English professors.

What do you read?

Science fiction. History. Biography. Not too many modern novels. Old novels more often. Of course, I read The Infinite Tides by [Christian] Kiefer and of course, Let The Water Hold Me Down, Michael [Spurgeon]'s book. Yeah, I read both of those. And I'm thanked in Kiefer's book because he and I had a chat about various mathy things.

Iain M. Banks. The Player of Games is wonderful. I've read that a couple of times. Normally I don't do a lot of rereading.

What about games?

My sibs don’t play Scrabble with me very often. It usually works if we buddy up and I am someone’s adviser. They’ll let me do that, especially if it’s one of my willful nieces who doesn’t take my advice. Love crossword puzzles. It’s a weakness in my math make-up.

So what do you do in your free time?

What is this free time of which you speak? That’s how my novel [Land of Milk and Money] happened, of course.