Summing up Jim Kirkwood: Intuitive teacher, prolific author, mentor, family man

Professor Jim Kirkwood has taught mathematics at Sweet Briar since 1983. He is in negotiations with a publisher for his 14th, 15th and 16th textbooks either authored or co-authored. Photos by Charlotte Barbour '16.
Professor Jim Kirkwood has taught mathematics at Sweet Briar since 1983. He is in negotiations with a publisher for his 14th, 15th and 16th textbooks either authored or co-authored. Photos by Charlotte Barbour ’16.

It started with An Introduction to Analysis, Jim Kirkwood’s first mathematics textbook and the one nearest to his heart.

“I don’t think there is anything in my professional world that has compared with the excitement of the first book, both the phone call from the publisher saying they would like to publish it and holding it in my hand the first time,” Kirkwood says. “Kind of like your first home run. They are all good, but nothing quite like the first.”

Undergraduates today still use the second edition, which came out in 1994. Thus, Introduction to Analysis accounts for two of the 16 textbooks Kirkwood has authored, co-authored or is working on. He’s quick to qualify that number, though.

He was one of several Sweet Briar math and biology faculty members to contribute a chapter to Mathematical Concepts and Methods in Modern Biology (2013), which was co-edited by his colleague in the math department, Raina Robeva. And three volumes, Calculus, Calculus 2 and Modern Algebra, are used at Sweet Briar but not commercially published — which he reckons has saved students more than $100,000 over the years.

Subtracting those four titles leaves nine that Kirkwood published between 1989 and February of this year when Markov Processes was released. Adding three more in negotiations with publishers — the second edition of Mathematical Physics with Partial Differential Equations in two volumes and Advanced Linear Algebra — makes 12.

Is that a lot? We asked two of our faculty experts.

“Yes, I think Jim’s output is astonishing,” says Professor Robin Davies, a cell molecular biologist and one of the faculty collaborators on Robeva’s 2013 textbook. “He’s a great teacher as well, and his authorship is an extension of his teaching.”

Marine biologist and department chair John Morrissey is more effusive: “The technical term for it is a shit-ton of books! I have no idea how he does it!”

Books by Jim Kirkwood
A few of the books Jim Kirkwood has written, co-written or contributed to are displayed.

Davies put her finger on it, though. Kirkwood wrote his first — and maybe his best book, he says — because he couldn’t find a text written at the appropriate level for the course he was teaching.

“There were a lot of books that were much more advanced and our students were having a lot of trouble with that, so I basically wrote some notes up and they seemed to work well with our kids,” he says.

“I sent the notes off to a publisher and they published it and it really did well for several years. In fact, I’m still getting royalties on it from twenty-five years ago and that’s kind of unusual.”

What’s not unusual is how the project began. He almost never starts with the idea of writing a book, Kirkwood says. The National Science Foundation’s rejection of a grant proposal spurred his second, third and fourth books. He and then-math professor Judy Elkins had applied to fund a computer lab.

“They said we didn’t have exceptional expertise in the field,” he recalls. “So, I wrote calculus exercises for Derive, Mathematica and Maple [software] that were designed to use computers in teaching calculus. And those were all published. The next time we submitted the application, they didn’t think expertise was any kind of a problem and we did get the computer lab.”

That was in 1994. He laughs, noting the ensuing gap in his writing vitae.

“My kids were about two and five and I took a big hiatus so I could watch them grow up.”

Katie Kirkwood ’04 recalls hanging around with her younger sister, Elizabeth, in Guion Science Center, where both parents were math professors. Bessie Kirkwood was on the faculty at Sweet Briar when Jim completed his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia in 1982. She retired from teaching statistics at Sweet Briar in 2014 — then unretired this summer to fill gaps left by the threatened closure of the College.

Math isn’t quite a family affair. The Kirkwood daughters chose divergent paths, but both inherited the aptitude. Katie, a biostatistician living and working in New York City, can remember her excitement when occasional dinner conversations around math began to click for her. Elizabeth did well enough in AP calculus to skip the math requirements as a theater major at the University of Richmond. She now does improv comedy in Chicago.

A violin sits on a table strewn with papers and books in Jim Kirkwood’s Guion office. It’s the one Katie played in high school. He became interested in the instrument when she took it up as a youngster, and after she graduated from Sweet Briar, he took lessons for a while.

“I wanted to learn what it felt like to be really lost, to get an appreciation for students who feel scared about math,” he says.

The classroom experience is a theme that appears often in conversation with Kirkwood. Writing textbooks, for example, improves his teaching because it forces him to express concepts rigorously.

“Organization now comes pretty easily,” he says.

He is, hands down, sophomore Jona Cumani’s favorite professor. She appreciates the methodical approach, and that he ensures his students practice problems until they’re ready to move on.

Jessi Fortner, a 2016 graduate, believes that comes from his ability to survey the room and see who doesn’t understand the concept.

“He’d then re-teach the material in a different way,” Fortner says. “He never needed to ask are there any questions, or does everyone understand, because he was able to tell by looking at the students.”

Students love math professor Jim Kirkwood for his ability to read and empathize with them when they need help in class.
Students love math professor Jim Kirkwood for his ability to read and empathize with them when they need help in class.

Kirkwood exudes optimism and energy, too, Cumani says. “It always puts a smile on your face. One thing I also love about his class is he finds ways to relate math topics to our everyday lives, in a humorous intellectual way.”

The process of creating a textbook is intense, Kirkwood says, from the initial research to the tedium of proofing. But it’s rewarding.

“I have fun with it,” he says. “Several of my last books were in an area I was not an expert in, at least when I started. It was motivation for me to keep current. I’m lucky that I’ve been in this career for so long that I still get fun out of it.”

Spending so much time on publishing might explain why students find Kirkwood in his office at all hours.

“He is always, and I mean always, there for his students and the other faculty,” Cumani says. “I have found myself numerous times in his office, to talk or get a hug when I’m having a stressful day. Professor Kirkwood is not just a mentor in math to me, he is a mentor in life.”

Kirkwood has spent his career at Sweet Briar, arriving from a postdoctoral fellowship at the NSF’s then brand-new Institute for Mathematics and Its Applications in Minneapolis. He completed his undergraduate studies at Southeast Missouri State and his master’s at the University of Oklahoma.

Before entering academia, he served in the Air Force and was a member of the volleyball team, playing tournaments at bases throughout the United States. The heart of an athlete still beats in his wiry frame. Kirkwood is famous for the demands he places on his body in the gym — to keep his mind healthy, he says.

In 2008, he was named a Cameron Fellow in recognition of his publishing vitae, as well as his contributions to the College’s teaching excellence and curriculum. A few years earlier, Kirkwood, Robeva and Davies had developed the biomathematics major. It was an effort to incorporate mathematical sciences in biology curricula to better prepare students for the technological advances that were changing life science research.

“The field of biomathematics has recently come into prominence nationally, and our early entry into the area is a selling point for the College,” Kirkwood noted at the time.

He is a co-author on three titles that came out of the biomathematics initiative. Using these materials, Robeva and Davies also began hosting teaching workshops for biology professors, making Sweet Briar a leader in transforming undergraduate biology education — an unusual role for a small liberal arts college.

For many years, Kirkwood also taught real analysis to entering graduate students at the University of Virginia during the summers. He enjoyed those classes, but differences between a large public university and a small residential college came into stark contrast for him on March 3, 2015.

The College announced it would close in August — a plan thwarted by an alumnae-led movement to save Sweet Briar that ended in a mediated settlement in June. Kirkwood, feeling betrayed and angry, was among the faculty members who actively joined the opposition.

“I really liked all my years at Sweet Briar working with the students and doing math, but I never realized I loved my job until they said the College was closing. Then it came to me how much I was going to be losing,” he says.

“If you walk down the sidewalk at UVa, people don’t look at you. Here, everybody’s a friend. It’s a very close-knit atmosphere. If one didn’t believe that beforehand, after this Saving Sweet Briar movement did what it did, you’ve got to believe that now. It’s just a special place.”