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‘We really, really love him’: Students petition to keep math professor at UCLA

The Math Sciences Building, which houses the Department of Mathematics, is pictured. Students are petitioning the department to renew the contract of Richard Wong, an assistant adjunct professor. (Mia Tavares/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Sam Mulick

March 1, 2024 12:19 a.m.

Few North Campus students are ever seen in a math classroom. Even fewer enjoy taking math classes so much that they start attending them for fun.

So when first-year comparative literature student Hero Jay found out Richard Wong – the professor who inspired his love of mathematics – was going to leave, he and fellow student Sophia Sharif couldn’t just sit there.

“We really, really love him,” said Sharif, a second-year computer science student. “We feel like it would be a great loss to UCLA if he didn’t end up coming back.”

Jay and Sharif launched a petition in January to ask the Department of Mathematics to rehire Wong, an assistant adjunct professor at UCLA who has reached the end of his three-year postdoctoral contract. Wong has taught classes including Mathematics 32A and 32B, which focus on multivariable calculus, since arriving at UCLA in 2021.

[Related: For new professors, teaching Mathematics 32A creates learning experiences]

Wong said although he was initially confused about why his teaching was getting so much attention on Reddit, he appreciates the gesture and is grateful to have taught so many students.

Wong added that he feels the petition is misguided because he did not expect to stay longer than the three years specified by his postdoctoral contract. He added that he has felt supported by the math department and his colleagues during his time at UCLA.

Sharif, who took Mathematics 32AH: “Calculus of Several Variables (Honors)” in fall 2022, said Wong’s teaching goes above and beyond. She added that his dedication to supporting students is shown through his creating detailed slideshows and lecture notes, as well as recording every lecture to ensure accessibility.

One highlight of the course was the “social office hours” Wong would host to build a community of people who enjoyed math and wanted to strengthen their skills, Jay said. Sharif added that she liked Wong’s teaching style so much that she joined Math 32AH this fall as a learning assistant.

“He also created a very friendly class environment where we got to interact with him in office hours in a very friendly and informal way,” she said. “In other classes, office hours are much more formal, and it’s just asking the professor questions, and then the professor’s directing the answer as if it’s a Zoom lecture.”

Jay said one moment that stood out with Wong was when he reached out offering to walk them through better study strategies and the process of writing proofs after they did poorly on a midterm.

“I got a 50 on the midterm. I got a 97 on the final. The learning curve is insane,” he said. “You have the room to learn, which is what’s really important.”

Sharif and Jay initially reached out to their classmates after deciding to start the petition, then made a Reddit post about it at a friend’s suggestion, Sharif said. The petition has since gained about 700 signatures with the support of undergraduate students and alumni, Jay added.

On the Reddit post Jay made, commenters said they appreciated Wong’s efforts to make the course material accessible, and some said he was the best math professor they had at UCLA.

Second-year applied mathematics student Olivia Luo said she wanted to become a learning assistant for Wong after her experience in his honors class. She said Wong prepared her for teaching students by pointing out the common pitfalls that students fall into.

“Out of all of my professors, I think Dr. Wong was the best one I’ve gotten to learn under,” she said. “I was really excited to work alongside him and build the same community that I had.”

Wong said a big goal of his teaching is to help students apply mathematical skills to the real world and communicate about mathematics in a deep and meaningful way, adding that it breaks his heart when people claim they are not “a math person.”

“I don’t expect you to remember how to do derivatives in five years,” he said. “But what I do want my students to take away from (the class) is the power of mathematics – the ability to think about a complex idea and then try to break it down into stuff.”

Wong also said he would want to remain at UCLA if academic contracts were structured differently. He added that it is difficult to make a significant impact on the university in just three years.

UCLA spokesperson Katherine Alvarado said in an emailed statement that assistant adjunct professor positions in the math department are usually made on a two-year basis with the possibility of renewal for a third year. She added that all adjunct positions are made with a specific end date.

Siddharth Mulherkar, a doctoral student in mathematics who was a teaching assistant for Wong in spring 2022, said postdoctoral scholars must balance their teaching with the research they are expected to produce.

“It’s extremely admirable because if I was in his position as a postdoc over here, … I don’t know if I’d go above and beyond,” he said. “Not because I don’t want to, but there are just so many things that you usually have to do at this level and so many things you have to balance.”

Luo said her experience in Wong’s honors class and seeing the way he conducted his classes further solidified her goals of becoming a teacher. She added that she hopes to one day give the same support he provided to students in her own teaching.

“I originally already had aspirations to becoming a teacher or professor in the future, and seeing the way Dr. Wong taught his classes gave me a lot of inspiration,” she said. “If I do go down that path in the future, I’d like to be someone like him.”

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Sam Mulick
Mulick is a news contributor on the features and student life beat. He is also a third-year sociology student from northern New Jersey.
Mulick is a news contributor on the features and student life beat. He is also a third-year sociology student from northern New Jersey.
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