The man behind Business Mathematics

Meet Bernd Heidergott, the lecturer of the first and most important subject of the year, Business Mathematics. You probably already met him, and might not be the biggest fan of Business Mathematics. Besides being a Mathematics teacher, Mr. Heidergott is an academic and has a lot more to teach. Read his interview to learn about him and his experiences with teaching Mathematics.

What is your study and work background?

Currently, I am a mathematician. I did my Ph.D. in maths in Hamburg Germany and there I kept myself busy with mathematical methods to steer complex systems. Also, I previously taught in the Maths department in Eindhoven a very mathematically driven business administration course. Before that, as a student, I worked at IBM in the same department. 

Did you always know you wanted to be a teacher?

That’s a strange question. I always knew I wanted to be in academia. I think teaching is a very fascinating way of interaction. You could teach a subject, a dance, to someone and repeat 100 times the same thing, and then at some point, the student is going to get it. That is proof of our inability to communicate. To me, it is fascinating to see and find a way to get one idea from me to you. However, I am not a teacher. I am a researcher at the university, and I also teach, but that comes second. That is why I am teaching that course. There should be someone who can tell the story from the silly exercises we do, till the current frontiers of researchers. Otherwise, we could simply hire high school teachers.

What is so special about mathematics for you?

I am fully aware that the people who have chosen that course didn’t choose it for mathematics. I believe everyone should know the stories from the Bible. Not to become religious, but if you don’t know the stories, you don’t understand the paintings from the 12th to the 19th centuries. It is part of our culture, the way our society works. It is the same thing for Mathematics.

In this course, I proved that if a function reaches its maximum, the derivative is 0. Every time I do this, the lecture room becomes totally quiet: everybody more or less connects to the logic of mathematics. And many students have never seen mathematical rigor in action, they are kind of scared of it. It is crucial to at least see this once. To reason without experience and understand an abstract thing. And this is what makes this course so important. This is so different from the rest of the subjects in IBA. It is nice to see in its clean form. It’s my function of a messenger to give you a glimpse into the mathematical technical paradigm. 

This course is in a way merciless because it builds on it. You cannot skip week 2 or 3 and start at 4. Maths is discipline and frustration resistance. I always say you can have 3 types of the outcome when solving an exercise: either you can do it easily, or you don’t know how to do it and become really angry and frustrated, or after some serious thinking, you solve it and think “oh! I am so stupid I could have solved way earlier it was easy!”. And that is what I find fascinating about maths that no other subject has. Mathematics is a way of thinking, a different mindset. 

In maths, if you understand something, it is so clear to you that the minute later you can’t even understand why the others are not getting it. My job is to get you to that moment of complete insight, but it is hard.

Can you tell me the worst experience you had with a student?

I fully understand maths is not easy for students. I am the personification of mathematics for you, of course you hate me. 

I was once verbally attacked. I was doing a tutorial. Students had to hand me a project, and apparently, I didn’t have the paper of one student and consequently, I could not grade it. He was totally upset and he shouted in front of the group that it is impossible, that I lost it and that it was all my fault. And everyone was dead silent. I said I understood it was very frustrating and I asked if he did it by hand or by computer. Turns out he did the paper by computer, so I proposed he send it to me again and the whole class went back to normal. I like challenges. In between breaks during lectures, I have a lot of people telling me that the subject is too complicated, to trivial. But I like it, this is academia I should be able to argue.

Also, students don’t realize that nobody is perfect. I sure make mistakes sometimes, it is inevitable, so I might as well enjoy it and do things step by step.

Have you learned anything from your students?

There is two way of thinking about what knowledge is. One type is knowledge about life and changing time. For example biology, animals: they’re changing all the time. The other one is absolute knowledge, the pyramids of mathematics. I come from the second type of knowledge, but through the years I’ve gained respect for the other type. And I learned to communicate with the two worlds. Neither of them is superior, they are just a very different way of looking at the world. I’ve learned to dive into the other world and then explain my point of view. And that came from questions from students, and from criticism. Thanks to that, I come across new points of view of students and I realized there are many ways of interpreting things, and I like it very much.

What would you tell your younger self?

I would like to cite a Catholic: “Don’t look for yourself in things”.

If you can’t solve an equation that is something. But what people usually do is complaining such as “oh I knew it, I’m so stupid”. It is a drama that doesn’t belong there. Separating the events from yourself keeps your energy available for other things. And that works for everything. If you have a flat tire, the same thing will happen. You are going to look for yourself in it and think “oh why now, why me”.

Hopefully, you see Business Mathematics from another perspective now! If you still struggle with it, we recommend you to look at our previous blog on tips for the exam, here.