Alumni Distinguished Professor Ezra 'Bud' Brown still passionate about teaching math
April 2, 2015
Bud Brown loves teaching. Everything about it, he says, from the preparation to the instruction to the interaction with students outside class.
As the professor of 46 years puts it: “A teacher can make a tremendous difference.”
The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors recently reappointed Ezra “Bud” Brown to his second 10-year term as an Alumni Distinguished Professor, a designation granted to less than one percent of faculty to recognize individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the instructional program of the university and who have touched the lives of generations of alumni.
The board resolution calls Brown “a truly gifted scholar, educator, speaker, and mentor, recognized within and well beyond the university for his passion for sharing mathematics insight enthusiastically with broad and varied audiences.”
That’s a description echoed by Brown’s current and former students and colleagues.
“Bud teaches with a contagious enthusiasm that communicates his deep love for the subject and cultivates a similar spirit among his students,” said Mark Embree, one of Brown’s former students, who’s now a professor of mathematics at Virginia Tech.
Embree said Brown’s teaching style combines technical content with historical details, demonstrating math “to be a real human endeavor.”
“I try to channel some of that enthusiasm and humanity in my own classroom," he said.
Brown, who joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 1969, said he didn’t go to college thinking he’d have a career as a math professor. Along the way, though, he found professors and mentors who provided encouragement and coaching.
“You read biographies or interviews of famous mathematicians, and there is always somebody in there who mentored them,” he said.
But Brown said he doesn’t consider himself a great mathematician. He hails his colleagues -- several of them former students like Embree -- as some of the best in the world.
“If you can’t be the best mathematician, you can sure teach the best mathematicians,” Brown said.
In explaining his philosophy on teaching, Brown recalled a student who required extra assistance outside of class to master a difficult topic. Years later, the student was an invited speaker at a conference Brown was attending.
“He came by and said, ‘You’ll never know what a difference you made,’” Brown remembered.
Some people might fall behind or appear disinterested in class, Brown said, but it’s often not because they lack a desire to learn. Some students might need a different approach or extra guidance, he said.
“The reason students fail is not because we expect too much of them, but because we expect too little,” Brown said.
Brown said he enjoys giving talented students the tools to succeed and then sitting back “to marvel.” But as he wrote in his application for reappointment as an Alumni Distinguished Professor, he’s just as comfortable helping “the quiet, scared, failing kid in the last row — encouraging her to sit in the front and participate, seeing her growing confidence as she becomes the most engaged student in the class, and watching as she receives her diploma with her proud family in attendance. That’s what teaching is all about.”
Nicholas Loehr, an associate professor of mathematics at Virginia Tech, and another one of the professor’s former students, said it was that hands-on approach that inspired him when he first took an introductory class with Brown.
“I had already seen a lot of this stuff on my own through outside reading,” Loehr said. “Bud realized this immediately and created a special ‘course-within-a-course’ just for me. It was a very positive experience for me. This typifies how Bud will take on a lot of extra work to enhance the educational experience.”
“Having great mentors and role models like Bud Brown certainly influenced me to choose this career path,” Loehr said.
A connoisseur of bow ties, the professor is often referred to as “Doc Brown” by his students, many of whom stop by just to say hello.
Brown’s research areas include number theory, cryptography, combinatorics, and the history of mathematics. He enjoys expository mathematics, a field that focuses on explaining and writing about math.
“He loves his mathematical material, cares deeply for his students, and has the gift of communicating sophisticated ideas clearly,” Embree said. “That's a powerful combination.”
Charles "Jack" Dudley, Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Director Emeritus of University Honors, collaborated on research with Brown, spurring a close friendship.
“Bud’s great strength is that he enjoys students a great deal,” Dudley said. “We say that about so many people. With Bud, it’s above and beyond that. He will try to be a better teacher next year than he was this year. That’s simply the way Bud is.”
Brown holds a Ph.D. and master's degree in mathematics from Louisiana State University and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Rice University.
Since his initial appointment as Alumni Distinguished Professor ten years ago, he has been recognized with several awards, including the first-ever Sister Helen Christensen Service Award in 2014, given for outstanding service to the profession by the Maryland-DC-Virginia Section of the Mathematics Association of America; the 2013 Carl B. Allendoerfer Award for Excellence in Expository Writing; the 2010 Allendoerfer Award; and the 2006 George Polya Award for Excellence in Expository Writing, awarded by the Mathematics Association of America.
Brown is a consulting mathematician for Project NExT (New Experiences in Teaching), and to organizations in Washington, D.C. and Princeton, New Jersey. He contributes professional service through roles in the Mathematical Association of America and the Pi Mu Epsilon National Mathematics Honor Society.
Brown has taught 45 courses over the last ten years and published 22 scholarly works in peer-reviewed journals. He’s a frequent invited speaker at conferences and workshops, and has made more than two dozen presentations to alumni and other university groups.
But as Brown himself wrote in the nomination paper for his reappointment: “Prizes and papers are nice, but writing about mathematics with these and other bright young mathematicians ... that’s the part that was and remains a joy.”
Written by Jordan Fifer.
Bud Brown in his office
Ezra "Bud" Brown in his McBryde Hall office. Students often stop by to say hello or ask questions -- sometimes just to take a picture with the professor.