A 36-Year Perspective On Fredonia: An Interview With Mathematics Professor Nancy Boynton

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All four of Nancy Boynton’s grandparents went to college, including her maternal grandmother who received a degree in mathematics in 1916. 

Both of Boynton’s parents then went to college, including her mother who received a degree in mathematics secondary education. There was no questioning the importance of college in the Boynton family, and though they lived modestly, Nancy’s education was paid in full.

When her parents passed away, Boynton endowed “The Kenneth and Mary Boynton Scholarship” in their name. Given yearly to a student who has done excellent work in the mathematical sciences, it’s her way of continuing her parents’ generosity in funding a college education.

Boynton announced her retirement this year after 36 years as a professor at Fredonia. Our conversation, which took place in Fenton Hall, explored how Fredonia has changed and how faculty and staff can best serve its students:

Jon-Ryan Maloney: Why did you originally want to come to Fredonia?

Dr. Nancy Boynton: Fredonia is the kind of school that serves an important role. As I was coming into campus today I was thinking about a time when Bob Rogers and I were at a conference at Williams College. Williams is a premier liberal arts college and they’ve got money–they’ve got everything–and you’re like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice,” and so forth. We were walking around in the evening and he said, “This is really great, but I’m glad I teach at Fredonia because I think you can make more difference with Fredonia students than with Williams students.” I think he was right. We have students with a lot of potential, but they might not have a lot of confidence, or they might need some extra mentoring, or some extra work. We have a good group of students that you can try to make a difference with.

Maloney: I think about it in the same way. Williams has one of the best Division III athletics programs in the country.

Dr. Boynton: In athletics as well as academics?

Maloney: Yes, in athletics too. But at the end of the day I think what we do here is more impactful.

How has the student who comes to Fredonia changed over time? I ask because I interviewed Dr. (Cedric) Howard last year and he indicated that we were going to recruit the type of student who wouldn’t normally think about going to college. From your perspective, has it always been that way or has the type of student at Fredonia changed?

Dr. Boynton: I think it’s changed, and changed, and changed. I think it’s always been true that we’ve had a lot of first generation students. I don’t know that I’ve always realized all the questions and misconceptions they might have. I think we’ve always had those students but you don’t necessarily recognize who they are. Now we’re thinking a little bit more about that. We have more racial diversity than we did in the past, which is a great thing because I think that’s been a problem here in the past.

Maloney: And it seems like it’s increased in just the last few years.

Dr. Boynton: Yes, and particularly in the STEM fields–there tended not to be as many racial minorities and women going into STEM. For a long time this department has had a strong presence of women students, and in the last twenty years a strong presence of women faculty. It wasn’t always that way.  In some years we’ve had better students, and some years not. Social media, computers, and phones have obviously changed things. I think there are more students who find it easier to sit in their dorm rooms and play online video games with their high school friends rather than go out and get involved with the community here, making new friends. I think the students you see in athletics often don’t have time to do that.

Maloney: Yes, I think you’re right, and I wouldn’t necessarily notice those other students.

Dr. Boynton: Student-athletes are involved enough that they don’t have time to sit in their rooms, but there’s a certain group of students that haven’t experienced going out and making new friends. In my day it was very hard to stay connected to your high school friends so you had to go out and make new friends. Now it’s easier for them to stay connected, which is a good thing, but can hold them back from really making the most of college.

Maloney: As a professor, how do you recognize that and counsel that person?

Dr. Boynton: I think it’s hard for us to know that. One thing we did a number of years ago–before all the phones and laptops–is we made the Fishbowl, where students can work on homework and chat with their friends. The students who come and hang out there really do form a community. If a student is working on some homework she can come into my office and ask a question, go back out there and work on it some more, and be back and forth.

Maloney: I was going to ask about the Fishbowl because it seems like every academic department wants something like it. We’re redesigning the weight room right now and I’m thinking about how it can be more of a space like that.

Dr. Boynton: Space is something that we don’t pay enough attention to. I know when they designed the Science Center they did, but people are only starting to think about how spaces change how we interact with each other. When we put the Fishbowl together I think it changed us because our students were here; it really made them here with us. I think this is a department that gets along very well with each other–we’re in this rectangle where we always bump into each other. We have a room over there with a refrigerator and a Xerox machine and mailboxes, and we bump into each other there and we talk. In some departments offices are not set up so people have those easy interactions. It’s important that we think more about how we can use our spaces to make people do what we want them to do.

Maloney: I think about that all the time. We have two buildings: Dods and Steele. Some of us work in one building and some of us work in another. I can go a week without seeing certain colleagues. It’s hard with the space we have but it’s important to think about. Do you think your set-up helps student retention?

Dr. Boynton: (pause) I hope so. Students who are connected–and I think we’ve seen a lot of data on this–are more motivated to stay and graduate. They have friends who help them do what they need to do to graduate. Students who have a job on campus, or who are in athletics, or who are involved in clubs or research or special projects are much more likely to stay and do well.

Maloney: You’re approaching retirement but you seem so invested in Fredonia at the same time. What’s on your mind at this point in your life?

Dr. Boynton: Over the years, being a college professor is less and less fun–there’s just more paperwork and justification and reports and so forth–but teaching statistics is more and more fun. There’s a whole community of people out there thinking about how we can best get these concepts across. There are a lot more resources now and the textbooks are a lot more interesting. It’s an exciting time, which makes me a little sad, but I also think it’s time for someone else to be leading this area.

Maloney: Can you talk more about the importance of statistics? I ask because during my grad work I had to take a biostatistics class. At the time I didn’t want to, but I came out of it realizing how applicable it is to understanding the data I collect on our athletes. If I’m a student talking to you and I don’t want to take statistics, what do you say to me?

Dr. Boynton: The first thing might be, “What’s your major? What are you interested in?” In the world we’re in now there are a couple of things: one is classically-designed experiments where you want to show that scheduling workouts at certain times or doing certain food regimes really makes a difference. You want to be able to set up an experiment, collect data, and analyze that data. There’s always a difference between the data that comes out of one group over another group. The question is: Did that difference happen just by chance, or is there something really important going on here? The other thing–and the thing that’s probably different today than even ten years ago–is all the data we have access to on the internet. We often have lots of data–how can we make some meaning out of that data? Baseball is overwhelmed with data. You can look at all different kinds of questions having to do with what’s going on there, what’s changing over the years, what’s changing between teams, players. . .

Maloney: Yes, one of your students was telling me about a project she did analyzing NBA statistics over the years.

Dr. Boynton: Yes, she was in my data science class. That was taking data from public sources and trying to make sense out of it. Her end-of-the-semester project had to do with looking at three-point shots. She took her passion for basketball and her passion for statistics and put them together.

Maloney: Thinking back over the last 35 years, is there anything that you would have done differently? Or conversely, something that you’re really glad you did?

Dr. Boynton: I’ve walked out of classes thinking I should have done small things differently, but I don’t think I’d change the big things. I’ve done a lot of things on campus: I was chair of the University Senate for a little while; I was on the Senate for a little while; I was Department Chair for six years. People say, “How can you keep teaching the same classes over and over again?” Well, I’m not teaching the same things I was teaching 35 years ago. I think when I chaired the University Senate and became Department Chair shortly after it was a good time to stretch and try some different things. It was a nice way to change my daily life. In our department the Chair steps down after six years, and when I stepped down it was exciting to come back and really focus on the teaching.

Maloney: You’re not teaching when you’re Department Chair?

Dr. Boynton: Oh, you’re definitely teaching, you’re just teaching less. One of the things I did after being Chair was to start a statistics minor. I’m glad I did it, but I wish I was leaving feeling more secure about its position. When I started it we did it under the Interdisciplinary umbrella. People think statistics is math, but it’s really not.

Maloney: It’s everything.

Dr. Boynton: It’s everything. It uses math as an important tool, but in some ways language is a much more important part of statistics. Pulling something out of context and putting it back into context is really what we’re all about. Sometimes I ask my students: “What’s hard about this class? The numbers or the words?” It’s always the words. We’ve moved the statistics minor over to the math department instead of interdisciplinary studies so that it has a real home, but in the beginning I didn’t want people to think it was only math.

Maloney: What will your identity become now that you’re retiring?

Dr. Boynton: That’s a tough question.

Maloney: I can’t relate yet, but I’m told by people retiring that it’s frightening.

Dr. Boynton: I’m not frightened, but it is a question. I’ve postponed it in my mind because if I spend time thinking on that I won’t get my work done. Really, all my adult life this is what I’ve been. It will be very strange. I haven’t decided what parts of my identity as a faculty member–and a statistics professor–to let go of. What professional organizations that I’m a member of should I drop?

Maloney: Will you stay on in some capacity as a professor?

Dr. Boynton: I don’t have plans to continue teaching. On the other hand I haven’t ruled out teaching a class. I do plan to stay in the area. I’ve told lots of people that I’m going to go to all that stuff on campus that I don’t have time for now. I’ll probably even take in a basketball game.

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