Humans of PCC, an Interview with Ralf Youtz
Ralf Youtz was once a PCC student for five years. He is now a Statistics professor at PCC for the past six years.
In 1990 Ralf dropped out of Reed College after three semesters. In 1999, he started taking classes for fun. Before completing his Japanese language sequence, completing his AAOT (Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer Degree) from PCC in 2005, completed his bachelors at Portland State University in 2008. He would go on to get his masters at San Francisco State University in 2010.
“When I came home to Portland,” Ralf said, “I spent one quarter back at PSU in the Math Ph.D. program before dropping out again. I went to four colleges and dropped out twice, but somehow I still ended up where I want to be. Phew.”
What made you want to become a teacher?
Back when I dropped out of Reed, I thought I’d never step foot on a college campus again. But about a decade later as a PCC student, I started to think about becoming a teacher. I loved learning here, and even more, I loved the community of learners. I started to wonder if I could help other people having their own positive learning experiences.
What do you love about teaching math?
I love the students. I don’t get to talk to everyone I work with, but at the beginning of the quarter, I ask all of my students to share their values with me in a brief writing exercise. The values that motivate PCC students really represent the best of humanity, and those values inspire me to do my best to connect my students with the mathematical and statistical tools that might help them to live their values and to achieve their personal, community, and career goals.
What makes a great math teacher?
I think that’s different for every math teacher, since we all have different motivations and backgrounds. For me, it’s important to be as supportive as I can to all of my students. I know that the math education system (K-12, colleges all over, including PCC) doesn’t generally treat people well. So many people consider themselves “bad at math” because some jerk along the way convinced them of that lie. I don’t want to be that jerk. Instead, I do my best to let every student know that I respect their intelligence, their perspective, their goals, and their mathematical ability. To become a great math teacher, I need to be able to meet people where they are, and to help them connect to whatever mathematical or statistical ideas that could help them get where they want to be and do what they want to do.
What advice do you have for those who have a fear of math?
Fear of math is a real issue for lots of people. But contrary to popular belief, no person is bad at math. Being able to count and measure is a uniquely human trait—we all have it!
But it’s true that plenty of people have had bad experiences with math—especially in school—and they’ve been told by someone, usually by a math teacher via a poor grade, that they are bad at math. When that’s happening, someone might develop a genuine fear of math. That makes sense. If math (really a math teacher or someone else who was a math jerk) hurts someone’s feelings, fear is can be a natural response. I try to share my hope that having a positive, new math experience could help someone with that fear to work through it. I also do my best to not be a math jerk, that is, I make it as explicit as possible that I respect every student’s intelligence and mathematical ability, wherever they’re at.
I have never, in my life been a math person. Math was my nemeses for all my academic career until I came to PCC. Statistics was a required course I had to pass and ended up taking it twice. I have never failed a college course until statistics, and yet Ralf’s teaching ability and charisma he has for not just the subject but for the student’s success is the reason why I HAD to take his MTH 243 course again. If you have a fear of math, are required to pass a statistics course, or you genuinely want to take statistics, or you just really want to take a math course with one of the best professors PCC has to offer, Ralf Youtz is your man. You won’t regret it, even if you don’t pass it the first time.