Words to the Wise: Nalsey Tinberg


Nalsey Tinberg

Professor of Mathematics Nalsey Tinberg is retiring after 41 years at Oxy. This tribute to her career is part of the Spring 2021 magazine.

Favorite course: “I enjoyed teaching courses in my specialty (abstract algebra), so Math 320 comes to mind, but I truly enjoyed teaching math majors and non-math majors Linear Algebra. Math 214 is a beautiful self-contained course on matrices and vector spaces—just enough applications to keep the students interested, all while they are exposed to and can appreciate the beauty of the pure mathematics they are learning.”

Plans for retirement: “I plan to travel, spend more time with my wonderful adult children, my brothers and their families, and my great friends; write plays and movies, and go to plays, movies, and as many baseball games as I can. I also am a proud dog mom now so there are many adventures on that front. I may also be available for consulting on higher education issues such as accreditation and governance.”

On retiring during the pandemic: “The timing wasn't great because I wasn't able to even acknowledge that my last class was indeed my last face-to-face class! The sabbatical was great allowing me to make my choices as to when to engage and when to disengage with the College in many ways.”

On her six years (three terms) as Faculty Council president: “I was the first woman, the only person to do it back to back, and even did an additional term before I retired. I was also the youngest, the first Jew, and the oldest to serve as well. During the four years I served with President Slaughter and Dean David Axeen, I'm very proud of the work we did to change to the semester system, fully engage SCOF [Subcommittee on Finance] in financial matters of the College, and work with them to advance a plan to bring our salaries into line with our then-comparison schools. In my final term, I'm proudest of meeting our goal to increase the salaries of those known as adjunct faculty at the time.”

“I have always believed in academic governance, which includes faculty at every stage. I hope that I have always taught by example that faculty must be an equal partner in the governance of our College. I am deeply honored to have worked with so many faculty over my four decades at Occidental.”

Final thoughts: “I am only the second woman to be tenured in the Mathematics Department. I'm so proud of the work that my colleague, [Associate Professor] Treena Basu, is doing with students and undergraduate research. The Mathematics Department is central to any high quality liberal arts program. I encourage my departmental colleagues to continue to engage with the College as a whole, while increasing their numbers and visibility by adding more women to the department.

“I also served as executive assistant to both President Slaughter and President Mitchell, and as associate dean of the faculty and director of assessment. I got us through a difficult accreditation by introducing assessment to all departments and programs. I also planned President Mitchell's inauguration! 

“I am especially honored to have worked with John Slaughter throughout his tenure at the College. I was able to observe firsthand what leadership means at schools like ours and why I became an American Council on Education Fellow. I continue to be proud of our mission and what we have been able to accomplish.”

Alumni Tributes

Steve Millman ’84: Nalsey Tinberg and I both started at Oxy in the fall of 1980. I met her briefly that first semester when she stepped in to cover my calculus class while Joan Moschovakis was away. It wasn’t until my sophomore year, when I took her second-year calculus class, that I got to know Nalsey well. As a physics major with a math minor, and then an EE student in grad school, I took a lot of math classes with many excellent professors. Nalsey’s class was special—she managed to engage her students and make mathematics fun. I’ll never forget the discussion we had the last day of class: Would all conversation in the future be in some computer language? (Some smart aleck leaned over and asked another student if they wanted to come over later and do some for loops!)

Outside the classroom, Nalsey showed that mathematicians weren’t all geek all the time. She kept juggling pins in her office—and she even let me borrow them! I practiced quite a bit and got to the point where I could successfully juggle one at a time. (OK, maybe that’s not really juggling, but it’s the journey, not the destination.)

Due to the strict schedule required of physics majors, I was unable to take any more courses from Nalsey. But she remained my unofficial adviser my last two years; whenever things got tough, she was always there to get me centered. We’ve kept in touch over the years and have managed to visit a few times when I’ve gotten back to Los Angeles.

After 30 years as an engineer, I decided on a career change and unexpectedly landed a gig as a professor of practice at Arizona State University. In this role, I try to emulate Nalsey. I ask my students to call me by my first name, just as Nalsey asked us to do. It was an important lesson I learned from her—having students call you by your name, rather than Dr., breaks down the barrier between student and professor. It’s a way to show the students that we are here for them, not the other way around, and makes for a better learning experience. Students come to understand that professors aren’t tyrannical dictators but are people, too. And Nalsey is definitely good people.

Millman holds more than two dozen engineering patents and has taught at ASU since January 2019.

Emily Heath ’15: When I met Nalsey during my first year at Oxy, I never imagined that I would be finishing a Ph.D. in mathematics this spring. I had entered college uncertain about my interests and contemplating majors in chemistry or history or Spanish; essentially, most subjects other than math. I decided to take Nalsey’s Discrete Math course to learn more about math beyond calculus, and what I found was intimidating. Learning how to explain your reasoning clearly is hard, especially when the ideas you are trying to explain feel so natural!

Thankfully, I persevered, motivated by Nalsey’s clear lectures and encouraging office hours, which slowly chipped away at my confusion and insecurities. Her articulate and enthusiastic lessons inspired me to take every possible class with her over the next three years. For three semesters in a row, Nalsey introduced me to new and increasingly exciting areas of math and helped me to imagine that I might become a mathematician.

Nalsey has been an invaluable mentor and role model whose advice I have held onto throughout the many challenges of graduate school. Along the way, I have returned to Oxy to visit the place where my mathematical journey started, leaving each time with a renewed resolve built on the reassuring advice I received from Nalsey. I have often repeated this advice to friends in my program dealing with slow research progress or lack of motivation: “You don’t need to be the best; you just need to finish.”

As I recently wrote in the acknowledgments of my dissertation, having finally finished as she has always said I would: Thank you for 10 years of advice, encouragement, and faith in me that has always pushed me to have more faith in myself. Your words of wisdom have comforted me when my confidence faltered, and I am truly grateful.

Heath is a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.