Swiss math professor admired by many on campus
Professor of Mathematics and Statistics Otto Bretscher poses for a photo with his wife, Marilyn.
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“Here’s a fun anecdote for you: [I’m] the absent-minded math professor [who] doesn’t drive. I don’t have a driver’s license. I tried, but I don’t have a driver’s license,” Otto K. Bretscher, assistant professor of mathematics and statistics, said.
But this math professor is anything but absent-minded when it comes to teaching university-level calculus and linear algebra. Students coming out of Mudd—the math and physics building—had overwhelmingly positive things to say about Bretscher.
Although his former student Lindsey Hunterwolf ’12, acknowledged that linear algebra with Bretscher was incredibly challenging, it was also more “fun and applicable” than she ever imagined it could be.
“[Bretscher] is personable and goes out of his way to help students master the material,” she said. “I really appreciated his final, which was an oral math exam. It forced us to really know what we were talking about, as we had to explain to him how and why we would solve given problems the way we did.”
Bretscher is an expert on the material that he communicates to his classes, his students say. He is currently in the process of writing his second textbook. His first textbook, Linear Algebra with Applications published in 1997 and currently in its fourth edition, came to fruition in a most unexpected way.
“It almost happened by accident,” Bretscher said. He always used his own lecture notes to teach classes, and in the early ’90s, “a guy who was selling textbooks came to my office, saw my lecture notes and said ‘Can I take a look at this?’” If he had been more cautious, he said, he “would have said ‘no’ because [the textbook seller] could’ve given [the lecture notes] to someone in his office.”
But it worked out for Bretscher; the man contacted him soon after and said, “We can publish this.”
Even though the book was heavily based on the lecture notes that Bretscher was already using for his classes, writing a textbook was no walk in the park. It took five years for Bretscher’s text to be published. “I don’t think anyone would set out to write a math text if [he or she] knew what it entails,” he said. “It’s absolutely grueling.”
But that doesn’t mean that his hard work didn’t pay off: “It’s, of course, an awesome feeling to have the first edition in your hand,” he said. “Some people say…it’s almost like a child.”
He is now working on a calculus textbook with Fernando Q. Gouvêa, Carter professor of mathematics.
Bretscher was born and educated in Switzerland. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1979 from the University of Züric where he majored in math and minored in philosophy and physics. He went on to pursue his Ph.D. in mathematics at the same university, and received his degree in 1981.
When he first came to the United States, he worked as a visiting scholar at Brandeis University, a school in the suburbs of Boston.
He soon began attending weekly seminars that took place alternately at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University and Brandeis. At these rotating seminars, Bretscher spoke with many of his peers about his primary interest: teaching.
“Then one day—I think it was a Friday—somebody called me all frantic from Harvard” to teach that coming Monday, he said. “‘We just lost a teacher and we’re really in a bind here,’” the Harvard staff member told him. “‘We were wondering if you could teach a calculus class here next semester’.”
Harvard’s math department wanted Bretscher to teach Calculus 1 but after his interview, he said, ‘They looked at each other and said, ‘We can’t let this guy teach [first-years Calculus 1]—these students are not going to understand him.’”
Bretscher hadn’t studied English in Switzerland, so he “could read and write a little bit, but not speak,” he said. The math department faculty decided that second-year Harvard students were already used to foreign professors; thus they asked Bretscher to teach Calculus 3 at Harvard. While he taught, he simultaneously took courses at Harvard and received his M.A. in mathematics from the university in 1991. Bretscher still returns to Harvard every summer to teach calculus to summer students.
Even though Bretscher is very fond of Cambridge, and may even eventually want to retire there–he doesn’t need to drive to get around, among other things–he has yet to come across another community like the one here on the Hill.
Bretscher loves the sense of community and spirit of “helping” that is always prevalent on the Colby campus.
The self-described travel bug said he loved his time spent on sabbatical at Koç University in Instanbul, Turkey from 2005 to 2006. However, for him, the students just weren’t the same there, and, “really about the students,” he said. “I really enjoy my work with students the most,” he said. “I would probably have stayed in Turkey, for example, after the sabbatical, for everything else but the classroom and the working-with-the-student kind of atmosphere.”
Bretscher said that “there’s something magical about” the classroom culture and level of student engagement that he has encountered at Colby.
Luke Bowe ’13 took Calculus 121 with Bretscher. “Otto is the professor who does not just address the material; he engages the students with the theory, history and minutiae of the material itself,” he said. “I really like his dedication to the course and his students, as well as his willingness to help students. He won’t hesitate to go above and beyond his duty as a professor to ensure that a student is succeeding in his class. He’s always ready to work with students until they completely grasp a concept.”
Bretscher’s connection with his students extends beyond the classroom. He and his wife Marilyn “also interact with the students a lot privately,” he said. For example, four Colby students took part in his and Marilyn’s wedding which was held last year on a boat outside of Camden, Maine. “The ring bearer was one of the students,” he said. The students who attended drove up to Maine from Dartmouth, where they were all studying for their junior years.
Many of his students are acquainted with Marilyn, as she spends a significant amount of time with Bretscher in his office and even sits in on his oral exams at the end of the year. “I really rely on my wife’s kindness” to travel from place to place, he said. But that may just forge a closer bond between Bretscher, Marilyn and his students.