SPOTLIGHT ON BOB HOGG

Sherry A. Wasserstein
Freelance Journalist

Newsletter for the Section on Statistical Education
Volume 3, Number 1 (Winter 1997)


A student might see him humming and strolling across the University of Iowa's campus in a Santa Claus costume without realizing at first who he is. Or a new student in statistics may gasp and return to the dorm explaining that the stat teacher asked her--and only her--every question that day in class--before falling to his hands and knees to pray for a correct answer. Someone in an office down the hall might hear a unique rendition of "Thanks for the Memories"; or see the flash of green that accompanies the "Wheaties Outfit."

All the above could be signs that Robert V. Hogg--yes, Hogg of the famous Hogg and Craig team that wrote the ground-breaking book "Introduction to Mathematical Statistics"--is on the move and impacting students right and left.

Called "outstanding" by colleagues in the fields of teaching, research, publishing and speaking, he is famous nationally despite the fact that his career has been based entirely out of the university from which he received his master's and doctorate degrees. It is an unusual feat in this day and age where climbing to success seems to require moving from one learning institute to another. What is the key to such a successful communicator in statistics?

"Well, the good Lord gave me the mathematical abilities and I got my sense of humor and gift of gab from Mother," he explains. What that means practically is that he is one of the few statisticians who can communicate the science with the ease of talking to a best friend.

"I'm fairly relaxed. I really believe in interaction with the students," he said. "There are not many in academics interested in feedback. But students' complaints are blessings because they say, 'I'm doing something wrong.' But before they can complain they've got to trust you."

To build that trust, Hogg continually does the unusual and really opens up to the students. Laying his own personality on the line, he tells his class throughout the year that Wheaties is the cure to every ill known to man; it is the answer to every nagging question; the way to improve anything; you can, in fact, cure cancer with the cereal. Then to complete the inside lecture-joke he shows up to class in the "Green Wheaties Suit." Or he may begin singing one of the many tunes he has revised like "There's no Theorem like Bayes' Theorem." It's an unusual approach that not every statistician could employ.

"He is outlandish just to get the students riled up," quipped Ron Randles, chair of the Department of Statistics at the University of Florida. "Students remember his class. He loves people. He particularly enjoys working with students and colleagues. He is a very friendly guy--very bubbly. And he is very effective. The rest of us have to adapt--but he does it very, very well."

Randles knows of whom he speaks, having researched and published with Hogg. Hogg, in fact, labels Randles as being one of the two great partners in research--Craig being the other.

"I don't do research any more--but I had two great partners," Hogg explained. "Those two guys did a lot with me. You're lucky if you find one or two people in a lifetime to work with. I had two. We were concerned about students. We tried to do better. We talked a lot," he said.

Although Randles believes there is "a lot of ham in that Hogg," and notes that the theatrical styles employed by Hogg are effective, it is more than just a show that has led to Hogg's successes.

"His textbook is a classic and has brought him much fame," Randles says. "There are few within the profession like him. And I think one of the things is that Bob always has a positive outlook and in doing that he always inspires the best in people."

Sometimes doing what's best in people is painful, too. Hogg is admired for his tact and caring attitude about dealing with students. He has been overheard telling students in conference sessions that either they were in the wrong major or needed some revision in their commitment. These are not easy words to communicate without making people feel threatened, but words that are necessary if you really care as a teacher.

And sometimes the discomfort can be two-way. He is known for his "minute papers." These slips of paper are handed out the last minute of class, with the request that students relate the "muddiest" topic in class. The next day, the first five to ten minutes of class are devoted to reviewing these comments.

Even in large classes, he encourages students to "wave their hands if I'm going too fast." He has even had them use signs: green means "too slow, you can speed this up" and red means "slow down--this is tough stuff."

But the classroom isn't the only place Hogg has had success. Committees, national conventions and other campuses have also been the host of Hogg's wisdom and charm.

"When he is in a meeting--you know it," Randles said. Jim Calvin, associate professor of statistics at Texas A & M, concurs, "He's never met a crowd he wasn't willing to win over."

"He has a tremendous reputation as an instructor," he said. "The reputation in Iowa is he did not fear to use humor as part of his educational repertoire. He can teach the material and keep the students' attention."

Calvin experienced this first-hand when Hogg visited his university and agreed to give an hour lecture to his graduate statistics students. Although Calvin "thinks the world of Bob!" he assumed his "lecture" would really be a 20-minute joke session. What he got was the "most well-organized, prepared, sequential lecture I've ever heard," he said. Filled with references to articles and historical perspectives, Calvin said he looked down at his watch expecting just a few minutes to have passed and the hour was up.

"You know how you hear people say they hope they will have that much energy when they're that age? Well, I wish I had that much energy now!" Calvin muses.

And "energy" is exactly the adjective that describes Hogg. He has attained numerous successes in publishing and teaching. He has received honors and filled prestigious positions at both the university level and in national statistics organizations. Now, at 72 years of age, he is in "phased retirement," meaning a half-time position. What this means, in reality, is a full-time schedule this fall semester and a 27-university speaking and research tour in the spring. Leaving January 13 and concluding May 2, Hogg plans to start in Arizona and conclude in Minnesota, offering university statistics departments a choice of six lectures. And when he is not speaking he will be researching his own personal quest to see how Total Quality Management can be applied to university teaching. This drive is stimulated by his on-going desire to improve education in America.

"Unfortunately, in America today, mathematical skills are not as good as they should be. We've missed the boat," he said. He refers to the 1983 "Nation at Risk" revelation that the United States wasn't doing enough in math, chemistry and science. "We're even in worse shape," Hogg said. "They (students) are playing with computers but I get worried about basics. Maybe we should shut the TV off and the computer off. There's got to be a balance--and these guys that do (have a balance) get great things. But they know their basics."

This concern is the focus of his energy right now. After experiencing the mathematical and teaching success he has attained and after expending a lot of energy in his personal life with the loss of his first wife Carolyn, his marriage to Ann in 1994, raising four children and working professionally with some of them, he has the luxury of picking what he really wants to spend his time doing. And his choice is trying to fix the future of mathematical education.

"He is working on this because he's a man that has concerns. With his accomplishments, he must judge it as the most important thing he can accomplish," Calvin said.

This accomplishment would be the realization by society that we must not only get back to basics but also use those skills to reach out to other areas and a lot more people with training. "Unless we get involved," Hogg warns, "we'll have trouble. It's OK to do the math--but it's very important to reach out and get truly involved...not just consulting, but really involved."

He suggests degrees in statistical sciences with the emphasis in science. He suggests statistics majors get involved in other areas of interest and work in other fields. "Maybe even politics," he said, "but that's really going out on a limb."

Editors' Note: Bob has graciously given us a copy of his speaking tour schedule. Please check with the person listed in parentheses at each university for further details.


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