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Irena Swanson ’87
Professor of Mathematics
Arrived at Reed: 2005
Undergraduate Degree: Reed College
Graduate Degree: Purdue University
Previous Teaching Jobs: University of Kansas, New Mexico State University, Università di L’Aquila, University of Michigan, Purdue University
Recent Classes Taught: Multivariable Calculus I; Real Analysis; Abstract Algebra.
Recent Thesis Advised: Prime Filtrations of Monomial Rings

Why I Teach at Reed

Irena Swanson ’87, Mathematics

I came here from Yugoslavia in kind of a roundabout way. I was an exchange student in high school in Utah. I had applied to universities, but I couldn’t go to a public school because my parents didn’t pay U.S. taxes. Two of the daughters of my host family went to Reed, and that’s how I heard about it. So I applied only to Reed. I got in and I came here.

Reed is a good place for curious students who work hard. I thought I was in heaven when I got here. I didn’t have to worry about pretending that I didn’t do the homework or study last night. I was able to be me. I liked to study. I liked to read. I’d go to a party and people would be discussing quantum mechanics or they’d be speaking in French. It was wonderful. I always wanted to come back here to teach.

"We don’t tell our students ‘this is the anti-derivative of X squared.’ We prove it. We don’t serve up formulas. We train thinkers.”
—Irena Swanson

Some Reed students have a hard time with math, just like anywhere else, but what is different and so wonderful is that these students come to see me and keep asking questions, sometimes for hours. I might be getting tired and thirsty, but their minds are still able and eager to absorb more. Even though they might fall behind for a time, they trust themselves enough and have enough ability to come back. It’s really something special. When a math or physics major goes on to graduate school, you gain pleasure looking back and saying he or she went far, but as far as the immediate rewards are concerned, the best moments for a teacher are when something suddenly clicks for the student and you see the light go on and they really understand.

In Reed classes we prove everything. There is great beauty in explaining how things work and why they work—not just somebody telling you the formula, but showing you how to derive it. We don’t tell our students, “this is the anti-derivative of X squared.” We prove it. We don’t serve up formulas. We train thinkers.

swanson image
Evan Ward ’06 working on his thesis with professor Irena Swanson


The quilts on my office walls are all related to math. Three of them are tessellations. A tessellation is a pattern that repeats endlessly. You take an n-gon, a triangle, a square, or a hexagon, and when you stack them together they will neatly tile a plane. On another wall there’s a red quilt that is a geometric progression, and a blue quilt that is an arithmetic progression. The quilt in the corner is a fractal. One of the definitions of a fractal is that if you zoom into the pattern you keep seeing the same thing, but I can’t really use a microscope for sewing, so I stopped at a quarter-inch.

The junior- and senior-level courses at Reed are on a par with graduate courses. When I got to graduate school I did not have to take the first-year analysis or algebra because I’d had it all. But you do not have to become a mathematician to benefit. One of the mathematics majors I went to school with became a minister and another became a journalist. He felt mathematics could help him sort things out. In mathematics you distill all the facts down to what is essential and with these essential facts draw a conclusion. You want to argue a law case? You are doing a law case when you do a proof and employ logic and clarity of thought. I would like to think that mathematics keeps you honest. You cannot fudge a proof.