McCombs Awarded Tanner Award
Tanner Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching – this award was created in 1952 with a bequest by Kenneth Spencer Tanner, class of 1911, and his sister, Sara Tanner Crawford, and by them also on behalf of their deceased brothers, Simpson Bobo Tanner, Jr. and Jesse Spencer Tanner, establishing an endowment fund in memory of their parents, Lola Spencer and Simpson Bobo Tanner. The award was established to recognize excellence in inspirational teaching of undergraduate students, particularly first- and second-year students. Each of the five winners receives a one-time stipend of $7,500 and a framed citation.
Marc McCombs has been a Teaching Professor of Mathematics at UNC since 1989
Hometown Kind of hard to say. I was born in Huntsville, Alabama. By the time I graduated from high school, my family had lived in Tennessee, Florida, Virginia, Germany and North Carolina. I entered Carolina as a freshman in 1978 and promptly decided that I had finally found my hometown.
Excerpt from award citation “When I look back on my time at Chapel Hill, I am reminded of the impact that Professor McCombs’ class had on me. One of the most fundamental lessons I learned was how great things come from small intentional actions adding up.”
Who was the best teacher you ever had and why?
Carolina math professors Sue Goodman and Karl Petersen continually inspire me through their unflagging commitment to helping students recognize that mathematics is not a secret club, accessible only to an exclusive few. Nor is a mathematics teacher some inscrutable fountainhead of complicated equations and esoteric jargon. The specific content details are, of course, important in a math class. Far more important, however, is creating an environment in which students can discover their ability to approach a complicated task both creatively and analytically.
What is something you’ve learned from your students?
Eight years ago, a student in my first year seminar on math and art asked if the course syllabus included origami techniques. When I told him that I had always felt too intimidated to try to make origami, he volunteered to teach some of his favorite folding techniques to the rest of us. Thanks to his enthusiasm and generosity, I discovered an artistic voice I never believed I had.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
My origami sculpture and fractal artwork were recently exhibited in the Swedish Museum of Science and Technology in Stockholm.
What does it take to be a good professor in 2020?
A good professor in 2020 must effectively meet the challenge of inviting and fostering engagement and participation in courses whose class roll exceeds 150 students. The UNC Center for Faculty Excellence and the BeAM makerspaces have been invaluable resources in my efforts to help students stay connected to the human relevance of academic explorations. Mary Oliver’s poem, “Instructions for Living a Life,” articulates with sublime eloquence the importance of this connection.
Tell about it.
What’s the most creative thing you’ve done to engage your students?
I’ve enlisted my 8-year-old chocolate lab to be the official mascot for my classes. Uma frequently stars in class examples and test questions and currently has 241 followers on Instagram, uma_mccombs. I bring her to campus every couple of weeks to hang out with students and share her math insight and encouragement.
Story by The Well, February 26th, 2020