Mark Conger, a lecturer in the LSA Comprehensive Studies Program, received the Golden Apple Award and gave a lecture on Monday in Rackham Auditorium. His lecture, titled “The Local, the Global, and the Nature of Infinity,” discussed the relationship between the number infinity and his personal life.
The Golden Apple Award is a student-selected award given to professors on campus to recognize those who demonstrate exceptional teaching abilities. More nominations were received this year than ever before, with close to 1,000 submissions, making it the most competitive yet. Students nominate professors using a Google form circulated throughout campus groups by the event coordinators. Education junior Kyle Riebock, president of the Golden Apple Committee, said Conger received many heartfelt nominations.
“Not only did Mr. Conger have the quantity (of nominations), but he also really did have the quality, which is something that is not as common with the nominations that we see,” Riebock said. “I would say almost 90 percent of his nominations had paragraphs about why he’s such an amazing teacher, and so it was a no-brainer at that point that he deserves the award.”
Conger is a mathematics professor and faculty member for the Comprehensive Studies Program. He also develops and teaches for the Douglass Houghton Scholars Program, which is a small learning community for freshmen taking Calculus 1 and 2. Conger’s students in DHSP coordinated to nominate him for the Golden Apple Award.
LSA sophomore Hailey Atkins, one of Conger’s students, helped facilitate his nomination.
“Mark’s played such a fundamental role in my college experience,” Atkins said. “My life would be totally different if I hadn’t taken his class and he hadn’t done everything he’s done to support me. So I just wanted to give back as much as I could to him because he deserves it. He puts in so much effort, he’s so genuine and caring, and he just puts in so many hours with his students.”
Golden Apple Award recipients are invited to give a lecture as if it was their last, anidea inspired by a sage from the second century named Rabbi Eliezer Ben Hyrcanus, who is quoted to have said, “Repent one day before your death.” For his lecture,, Conger chose to speak about the number infinity. Throughout his talk, he frequently paused to discuss his more personal thoughts on his life and relationships with his students.
“I spent 17 years pursuing a Ph.D. and five years writing a thesis, and I’m proud of that accomplishment, but it’s not the thing that I’m proudest of,” Conger said. “The thing that I am proudest of is the community that we have built in DHSP.”
Conger presented multiple math problems, through which he proved infinity is not one but at least two entities. He used this mathematical proof to discuss life and coming to terms with the legacy that one leaves after death.
“This (mathematical) perspective does not solve the problem of how to deal with death,” Conger said. “Each of us has to find our own way, but I can say this to each of you: You are not alone in the cosmos, and death does not erase you from the cosmos … Our lives are finite, but they are permanent.”
Conger shared with the audience his 17-year journey to attaining a Ph.D., which he received at the University of Michigan.
“The straight-ahead path, the normal beat of the drum, does not work for everybody,” Conger said. “I talk to a lot of students these days who feel like their education seems like a series of hoops to jump through … I’m just always delighted when they realize that it’s much more than that.”
Conger also referenced inspiring quotes, including the following from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Conger related this quote to his teaching practices.
“There’s more than one way to be a good teacher,” Conger said. “Some students remember a teacher who demanded a great deal of them, and so expanded their confidence. Others remember the teacher who made them feel excited about what they were learning, but, in either case, teachers neglect the feelings of students at our peril. Any teacher fails unless the student feels empowered and engaged.”
Conger mentioned the students in DHSP throughout his lecture, demonstrating his close relationship with those in the program. He showed the pictures of his classes he collects, frames and puts on his wall each year. He keeps in touch with classes from previous years, as he spends much of his time outside of class working with students in the Comprehensive Studies Program.
Conger has been nominated in the past but did not receive the award. He said he felt grateful to win in this competitive year.
“It means a great deal to me,” Conger said. “It’s very hard to receive that award, and I really appreciate how hard the students worked to make it happen. I know that it takes organization to make something like that happen.”
The Golden Apple Award gives students an outlet to celebrate their teachers, considering the nominations come exclusively from students.
“I think it really is a testament to a teacher to see all of the support extended from the students,” Riebock said. “The fact that we’re able to provide this kind of recognition to our teacher as students at the University I think is really special.”
Golden Apple Award recipients also receive the opportunity to contribute to a charity. Conger selected an environmental charity, Earthjustice, and two local organizations, Bird Center of Washtenaw County and the LSA Emergency Scholarship fund.