And the winner is…


Written on Doron Zeilberger’s $\lceil (e\pi)^2 \rceil$ birthday.

This year I won two of the TA teaching awards given by the Rutgers math department to graduate students. In the past 25 years the department has given 100 such awards, but only five people have ever won more than one, and none more than two. I don’t know if this is a Joe Pesci, “Thank you” moment, or a Sally Fields, “You like me!” moment. Either way, I am glad to be in the company of many excellent teachers1.

I am particularly happy to contribute to the excellence of teaching in my academic bloodline. I wrote a small script to gather data on the recipients of teaching assistant awards, and am pleased to share the results.

Which advisor at Rutgers produces students who win the most teaching assistant awards? Doron Zeilberger.

Advisor2 Students TA Excellence awards
Zeilberger 21 11
Huang 12 5
Woodward 9 4
Tunnell 6 4
Lepowsky 13 4

Of course, Professor Zeilberger has many students, which gives him more chances to get lucky. To account for this, take advisors with at least five students and sort by awards per student. Zeilberger is still second.

Advisor Students TA Excellence awards per student
Tunnell 6 0.666667
Zeilberger 21 0.52381
Woodward 9 0.444444
Huang 12 0.416667
Wilson 5 0.4

To really get a feel for this data you should just look at the picture.

While Zeilberger is very far away from the rest of the faculty, this scatter plot does not convey how far away. Almost all advisors “produce” zero TA teaching awards.

Even if you think that the TA Excellence awards are flukes, according to the department only five math graduate students have ever won the more prestigious School of Arts and Sciences Award for Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Education. Four of them—Andrew Baxter, Lara Pudwell, Paul Raff, and Matthew Russell—are Zeilberger students.

It does not surprise me that Dr. Z gets the best teachers. Here is the first line of Opinion 77:

We professional academic mathematicians are lucky to be paid for something we enjoy doing the most, mathematical research. Many of us also enjoy teaching, and I for one, would be willing to pay, if I had to, for the privilege to teach, even Freshman calculus.

Whether Dr. Z puts this ethos into his students, or just happens to attract ones that already have it, I don’t know. But there is obviously something in the water, so to speak.

It has been a real joy to teach all of my students over the past four years. Every thankful email I get, every nice (or constructive!) comment in evaluations, every time someone (unwisely) asks me for a letter of recommendation, I feel happy that I’m helping someone along. If these awards reflect anything, they reflect that.

  1. Each award comes with \$200. I’ve donated \$100 to the OEIS and $100 to the Wikimedia foundation

  2. This data was collected by matching teaching award recipients with their listed advisors on the graduation page. For current students who had not graduated, I attempted to determine their advisor myself. This worked for all but three current students.

    The data also only counts students who existed after the creation of the TA Excellence award. For example, Tunnel had 7 students in total, but one was before the award existed.