'Family first' is mathematician's approach to teaching
For Jude Kong, an assistant professor in York University’s Department of Mathematics & Statistics in the Faculty of Science, the secret to successful teaching is creating a family feeling among his students.
“I believe in building families,” said Kong, a native of Cameroon who joined the York Faculty last winter. “If I’m here and my mother calls, there’s undoubtedly something happening, so I always pick up the phone. That’s how I treat my students.
“I spend a lot of time at the start of the year letting my students know that they’re in a family and they can talk to me any time. I’m a mentor to guide them through their class.”
Kong teaches two first-year math courses: Applied Linear Algebra, which is geared to probable science and engineering majors, and Mathematics for Life and Social Sciences, a class designed to provide a comprehensive mathematical background for students in the biological and social sciences. In the latter course, he seeks to allay the fears of many students who have math anxiety.
In general, he says that he seeks to be caring, approachable and positive, drawing on his own experiences to inform his style. “If you feel your voice won’t be heard, you have no motivation to work harder, keep all your concerns to yourself, and get even more frustrated,” he said. “I’ve seen this in my volunteer work with the Indigenous community in Alberta, for example.”
Kong finds that asynchronous learning doesn’t have a strong impact, so he teaches all of his online classes synchronously, conversing with his students in real time. He calls on student by name during the class session, attempting to foster their confidence in speaking up. Kong sees himself as being there to moderate a conversation, serving as a mentor as his students learn, and he has created online spaces for the students to talk to each other: A WhatsApp forum and a moderated eClass forum. He also encourages them to visit him individually on Zoom for a conversation.
Kong works to create trust and demonstrate that, simply because he is a professor, he isn’t unreachable or far above them. He says it is all about building trust between himself and his students and among the students themselves. He is committed to treating his students as equals.
“My strategy is to uplift people, especially disadvantaged people,” he said. “I want to empower them in whichever life path they take, be it academia or otherwise.”
Kong’s gift for teaching comes naturally. Since childhood, he has enjoyed solving math problems on the blackboard and helping his friends understand them. He originally trained as a secondary school math teacher before realizing he wanted more from his career and pursuing further studies.
One of his research passions is mathematical biology, which is using mathematical modelling to understand the spread of infectious diseases. It’s a passion that developed after he attended a workshop on malaria, a disease that killed his aunt and a cousin and is prevalent in Cameroon.
“I didn’t realize until then that I could use modelling to save lives in the community and help people understand and improve their health,” Kong said.
A member of the Canadian Centre for Disease Modelling at York University, Kong dreams of opening a similar centre in Cameroon to train others to model diseases mathematically. He believes strongly in giving back to his community – both in his homeland, Cameroon, and his new home, Canada.
“Canada has given me almost everything I have dreamed of including training me to be what I am now. I would love to give back as much as I can to Canada and the community that raised me by mentoring and training students to help keep our communities healthy and economies thriving,” Kong said.
His passion for teaching ensures that he is already succeeding with the latter, as an email from one of this term’s students illustrates.
“I just submitted my midterm for math 1505 and I just wanted to thank you for being such an amazing professor,” she wrote. “I really appreciate everything you do from the way you teach, to the way you prepare us for the tests and the way you treat us as your friends. … Having understanding professors like you really helps a lot when it comes to managing the stress in first year.”
By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus