Faculty Awards for Excellence in Graduate Teaching: Robert Soare

Robert Soare planned on running for the school board in 2003 when he made an off-hand comment before class one day to Barbara Csima, who recently had completed the requirements for her doctoral degree in mathematics and had accepted a faculty position at Cornell University.

Soare, the Paul Snowden Russell Distinguished Service Professor in Mathematics and Computer Science, had lamented to Csima, PhD‚’03, that it was unfortunate she didn’t live in his district so that she could write a letter of support for him.

“She looked at me and her eyes got big and she said, ‘Oh, Professor Soare, I would write a letter for you every day for the rest of my life for all you’ve done for me.’”

“I just about dropped the chalk on the floor. I was standing there and I thought, forget the school board. This is my calling. This is what my career is about.”

Soare always has strived to treat his graduate students as if they were his own adult children. Now he has a Graduate Teaching Award to show for it. The award surprised Soare because in past years it often has gone to professors who teach large graduate courses with students from different fields, thus the faculty member becomes more widely known. “Most of my work has been with graduate students in my own field for the last 35 years,” he said.

Eighteen letters of nomination “attested to and praised the wide-ranging breadth and penetrating depth of your classes; the unselfish commitment of your time in advising and mentoring students; and your enthusiasm both for your own work and for that of your students,” wrote Cathy J. Cohen, Deputy Provost for Graduate Education, in a letter to Soare delivering the news of his award.

Soare joined the UChicago mathematics faculty in 1974 and soon established a logic group, which he built into a program that now ranks seventh in the country. He also served as founding chairman of the Computer Science Department from 1983 to 1987. Soare’s 1987 book is the standard text on computability and mathematical logic at many universities. His new book, Computability Theory and Applications: the Art of Classical Computability, will be released in 2012, as a worldwide celebration of the 100th birthday of Alan Turing, the father of the modern computer and computability theory, commences.

Soare teaches four courses in computability, which is his specialty, but he also teaches Logic Programming and Model Theory. He has mentored 19 doctoral students during his career, many of them jointly with Denis Hirschfeldt, professor in mathematics. Among those students is Rachel Epstein, PhD‚’10, who now is the Benjamin Peirce assistant professor of mathematics at Harvard University. “This is perhaps the most prestigious academic position for a new PhD in mathematics in the country‚” said Soare, who suggested Epstein’s research problem and guided her methods. Soare’s other PhD students have taken positions at Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, and the Fields Institute in Toronto, among other institutions.

On the wall directly opposite Soare’s desk, in a corner office on the third floor of the Ryerson Physical Laboratory building, hangs a reproduction of the Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. It includes a close-up of the fingers of God and Adam nearly touching, and though they don‚’t quite touch as God animates Adam, “there’s a palpable spark between the two extended fingers,” Soare noted.

The painting reminds Soare that professors can analogously animate their graduate students intellectually. He discussed this transformation with references to legendary gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, Pygmalion and Galatea, Dr. Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady and that Michelangelo masterpiece.

“I view my role here as breathing life, breathing mathematics, breathing spirit, breathing my own abilities and my own way of looking at things and problem-solving ways into the students,” Soare said. Preparing them for high-profile presentations, helping get their articles published in top journals and recommending them for good jobs also figure into the equation.

“They’re going to get every possible opportunity that I can give them,” he said.