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Outstanding in His Field

Lifelong farmer and award-winning math teacher Bill Wolesensky on how math changed him and how it can change the world

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Bill Wolesensky vividly remembers the walk he made every day to his first teaching job. It took him right down the Nebraska State Penitentiary’s death row. This year, the assistant professor won the $25,000 Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award. But this is not an educational rags-to-riches story. This is the story of someone who finds riches everywhere he goes.

Wolesensky grew up on an 80-acre farm 35 miles outside Lincoln, Nebraska, planting and harvesting corn, sorghum, wheat, oats and soybeans and surveying the biological world from the seat of a tractor.

He attended the nearby University of Nebraska, working in an Alpo pet food factory each summer, and after 6½ years earned a bachelor’s degree. He then worked in a bar and trained racehorses on his farm. But economic necessity propelled him back to school. “My student loans were coming due, and I heard that if you went to graduate school, you got them deferred.”

Though his loans were deferred, he still needed money for grad school. “My family had no money,” he says flatly. When the farm crisis of the 1980s hit and interest rates soared to 20%, Wolesensky, then 22, purchased the family farm to save it. (Two years ago, at 56, he finally paid off the farm, which he checks on about three times a year.)

He responded to a want ad for someone to teach Lotus software to inmates. “I didn’t know Lotus!” he says laughing, speculating that he got the job because he was the only one who applied. (He taught it by reading two classes ahead.)

“You hear about people in a penitentiary, and think, ‘Oh gosh, they’re scary people!’ But they were more like me than not. I actually connected with my students in the penitentiary. I don’t have a single bad memory about teaching there. This world is full of very worthwhile people, and I never said, ‘Oh, this person won’t be successful.’ That never entered my mind. In my mind, they were all going to be successful.”

There’s a through-line from that first teaching job to his current one. “I tell my students they have my trust. You don’t earn my trust; you earn my distrust. I only want them to be successful. I get no joy when students do poorly in my class. In fact, it bothers me insomuch as what I could have done better.”

Wolesensky was not a math prodigy, and he didn’t start as a math major. His first college math class was algebra during his sophomore year. He needed more math to major in computer science. “I connect well with non-math majors because I remember taking college algebra and trig, and I liked them, but didn’t think I would major in math.

 “I worked my butt off to earn B’s,” he says. But he nonetheless got a letter from the math department asking whether he would be interested in an assistantship. “I didn’t even know what that meant, and I never returned the letter. I sat in the back of the class. I never said a word or distinguished myself by my work. I was struggling to do anything good.”

Then one day as Wolesensky was leaving class, his teacher, David Logan, said, “Bill, can I talk to you? Why didn’t you return that letter?”

“This is way too hard for me,” Wolesensky replied.

“But Bill, this is supposed to be hard. That’s not a problem. Come to my office and talk to me.” Logan persuaded him to take the assistantship. That fall, he earned a B, C+, and C, and in graduate school, C’s didn’t count.

“That summer I went home and farmed like I usually did. In the fall, I retook the courses, but now everything was clear.” Wow, I get it, he recalls thinking. But something else happened. “Everything in my life changed: The way I worked on cars — I became a way better mechanic. The way I worked with my horses — I finally became smarter than my horses. The way I farmed — everything I did I was better at, not because I saw equations but because of the way my brain started thinking and solving problems. It wasn’t just math problems — it was everyday problems.

 

Sure, there’s great value in things mathematicians do, but the greater value of mathematics to society is how it changes the way people think about everyday problems ...

Bill Wolesensky

“When I’d have a conversation with someone, I was so much better at convincing them of my way of thinking. Everything changed, and I credit it to mathematics. I could solve problems for the first time in my life. Sure, there’s great value in things mathematicians do, but the greater value of mathematics to society is how it changes the way people think about everyday problems, from raising children to working on cars to working with horses.”

The fact that he was older when this happened gives him a “growth mentality.” “It’s not fixed. We can get better just in the way we think. I’m living proof of that!” Moreover, it informs his life philosophy and teaching philosophy. “If David Logan hadn’t believed in me, my life would be different by quite a bit. But he believed I could get better and be successful. Also, there was nothing in it for David. He was a full professor. He didn’t need to help somebody out, but he did. I try to give that back to my students. I’ll walk out with them, and if I see one I’m kind of worried about, I will start talking to them. Sometimes, all it takes is to let someone know you care about them, that you give a hoot.”

Having earned a bachelor’s, master’s and, in 2002, a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska, he worked at small colleges near the farm, including a women’s college for 17 years and a liberal arts college. But he was getting tired of academia. His brother lived in the Austin area and persuaded him to move to Austin and start a beef jerky business with him. After two years, he tired of that situation, needed a new job, and, liking Austin, applied to UT.

“I tell my students that it’s so important at every stage of your life to do your best. Even when I was at these small colleges, I did research. For a small-college professor, I had a lot of publications, so when I sent my résumé here, even though I hadn’t been in academia for two years, they still thought, ‘Oh, this guy might be OK!’ ”

After clarifying for the hiring committee how a math Ph.D. winds up making beef jerky, Wolesensky started at Texas in the fall of 2012, teaching a wide range of undergraduate courses including team teaching calculus with UT legend Michael Starbird.

But his love of teaching is paralleled by robust research interests, and virtually all of his publications have been in math biology. “For 35 years of my life, I sat on my tractor. That gave me good insights into insects and spiders, because they’re a big part of agriculture.”

One example he gives of math biology involves climate change. Moose populations in New Hampshire are declining because ticks, which in great enough numbers can kill moose, are thriving due to shorter winters. One of his research groups has created models for how the date of a first snowfall can affect the moose population. The “stochastic” model introduces the element of randomness to simulate the variability of the first snowfall each year.

Another research group is looking at the level of vigilance in prey animals and mathematically modeling how being scared of a predator affects survival.

Of the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award, he says, “I was very surprised to win it, but what was more meaningful to me was what students wrote in letters of recommendation. One of them wrote, ‘He seemed to care more about my success than I did.’ Reading that was the most meaningful of all.

“I’m very truthful in everything I say,” Wolesensky proclaims with Midwestern forthrightness as a preface to what comes next: “My students here are far and away my favorite students anywhere I’ve ever taught. They’re not just bright — I’ve taught bright students before. They’re really kind, decent human beings. I’ve never taught at a place where I had better students, not just because they’re smart but because they’re so decent. It’s almost without exception. They’re awesome human beings. They are nice people who care about the world. If you wonder why I didn’t leave and go back to Nebraska or somewhere else, it’s hard for me to leave when I have students like this.”