Professor combines math and art, two interrelated ways of seeing the world
Whether you are a Social Science and Commerce or Science student at Marianopolis, chances are you may study Calculus with Professor Tamara Zakon. Like a lot of Marianopolis students, she is immensely talented both inside and outside the classroom.
Since she started teaching at the College in 1968, a year after the creation of the Quebec CEGEP system, Professor Zakon has supported Marianopolis students in many ways. For 8 years she was Chair of the then-joint Mathematics and Science Department; for a decade she coordinated the Arts and Sciences program, helping create the well-rounded, multi-disciplinary program that it is today, offering a broad education to young people who have varied interests.
Professor Zakon has a B.Sc. in Honours Mathematics from the University of Windsor and a Master’s in Mathematics from Harvard University.
In addition to being a mathematics professor, she is a keen painter who regularly exhibits her work. Just this past fall, her art work was honoured by the Table ronde sur l’art de Mont-Royal. Look for a reproduction of one of her paintings in the 2016 calendar published by the Friends of the Mount Royal Cemetery. Here is what she had to say about combining math and art.
Q: When did the spark for art ignite?
A: Wanting to be an artist was a romantic wish in my early teens, while I was taking art and sculpture classes outside school. My father, however, said “There is no future in it.” Having survived the upheavals of World War II in Eastern Europe, he was concerned, as he saw it, about my future security and self-sufficiency.
I returned to painting only a couple of years ago. I started by attending a drawing class taught by Selena Liss at Marianopolis, and continued with painting and drawing classes at the Mount Royal Rec Centre and at the Westmount Visual Arts Centre. I work mainly in watercolour and live-model charcoal drawing. Portraits are of special interest to me—it is exciting to be able to capture the individual’s personality on paper.
Q: What is your favourite course that you have taught at Marianopolis?
A: I don’t really have favourites. I have taught nearly every math course we offer. I request different courses each semester because I like variety. I like to teach first-year students as they enter the College with open minds and ready for new ideas, and I like to teach second-year students just before they graduate. It is great to see the progress they have made during their time with us.
One course I have enjoyed is an independent study course in Linear Algebra II, which I have supervised for many years. It covers one of the more advanced math topics at the collegial level and provides students with a unique opportunity for independent learning. I found it very rewarding to see the students’ feedback on how they appreciated this particular learning experience. Many of these students have continued in mathematics at prestigious universities and still keep in touch with me.
Q: What do you like best about Marianopolis?
A: I like our ability to make things possible, to recognize individual needs and talents, to find ways of saying “yes.” This is what “student-centered learning” means to me.
Q: What do you like best about teaching?
A: I especially love the interaction with students both in the classroom and in person. It is always a challenge to look for ways of getting ideas across as clearly as possible, because students come with different talents. It is very rewarding to see a spark in students’ eyes, when a particularly difficult concept makes sense them.
Language is the essence of communication, as are painting and music. In my teaching of Mathematics I use writing and language very extensively; it is definitely not a “number-crunching” approach. I like to give an overview of each topic, put it in context with previously learned concepts, as well as indicate where the concept might come in handy in future studies. I also like to recognize my students’ special interests and provide them with opportunities for optional enrichment work, both for their pleasure and for extra credits.
Q: How do you combine math and art?
A: Mathematics to me is a language, a way of seeing things and of making connections. And art also is primarily a way of seeing and interpreting, so the two are quite related.
The judges’ comment about the portrait sketch that won an award at the TRAM Salon d’Art was “A strong polysemic image that leads to multiple interpretations.” That summarizes my approach to both art and mathematics. There are no fixed boundaries, but many ways of seeing and interpreting things.