Catching up with alumna Meghan Burke
From Mathematics to Sociology: Catching up with Meghan Burke (’02)
Meghan Burke came to GVSU in 1998 planning to major in physics; four years later, she had studied mathematics early in her time at Grand Valley, and ultimately graduated with a major in sociology and minor in mathematics. Megan went on to earn her MA and PhD in Sociology from Loyola University in Chicago, and since 2009 she has served on the faculty of Illinois Wesleyan University, a highly selective small liberal arts college in Bloomington, IL. Recently, we had the opportunity to catch up with Meghan and hear her reflections on GVSU and her experiences since graduating.
What was the best part of your Grand Valley experience?
One thing was certainly the faculty. To this day I still have vivid and fond memories of working on proofs outside of Dr. Fishback’s office and how patient he always was with me, in my many visits to Dr. Boelkins’s office where he always made things so simple and clear, and especially of the day Dr. Beckmann looked me in the eye and told me that she saw a Ph.D. in my future. I got personal attention and such a good quality education at GVSU! Working now at a private liberal arts university, I’m even more impressed that I got this from a larger, public university. And thank goodness!
What aspects of your mathematics studies were most appealing to you?
I was lucky to have good teachers that demonstrated the beauty of mathematics. For me, mathematics has always been as much about philosophy as it is “numbers." When I took philosophy courses and then eventually switched to sociology, mathematics helped me with logic, problem-solving, and also of course gave me the foundation in formal reasoning that is core to the empirical work in sociology. I was one of the few people in my sociology classes who wasn’t freaked out about taking stats!
What led you to change to being a sociology major?
Well, really, I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. I loved mathematics in high school, so I had imagined a career teaching math. But when I got more involved in social justice activism on campus and studied abroad in China, I began to want to take more courses with a focus on social inequalities. In my activism, I found I was better at “tabling” (explaining our work) and giving talks about social issues than I was at political strategizing, so I then decided that I wanted to teach sociology instead. That’s why I switched majors and pursued my Ph.D. in sociology.
What are some highlights of your graduate work in sociology?
I earned my MA and Ph.D. at Loyola University Chicago; I chose it because of its location, its Jesuit mission, and because there were a few faculty members there whom I wanted to work with. During my time there I earned several teaching awards, the Outstanding Graduate Scholarship Award, a diversity leadership award, and a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Dissertation Research Grant. I also was awarded several competitive fellowships, which allowed me to take a hiatus from teaching and finish my Ph.D. in 2009. From there, I was hired right into a tenure-track position in sociology at Illinois Wesleyan University.
What is most rewarding about your work today?
Like any faculty member, I’m very busy, but I love my work. I was lucky to find not just a tenure-track job in this tough economy, but especially one that is such a good fit. IWU allows me to give my students much of the same quality and personal attention that I got from my professors at GVSU. I teach 3 courses per semester, both in my areas of specialty and those that serve our general education curriculum. We get to know, and work closely with, our students here at IWU, so I love that contact time with students; they get lots of personal attention. I also am able to pursue my research; I’ve written two books and 5 articles in my 5 years here, which allows me to remain current in my field and share my work with students. I’ve also taken an active role in our campus diversity efforts, spearheading a unique pre-orientation program that focuses on race and privilege. I really love being at a small university because it allows me to collaborate and really get to know faculty and staff working in all areas of campus.
How, if at all, does your study of mathematics affect your work as a sociologist?
Although I’m not teaching or directly using mathematics any longer, my math background helps tremendously in my use of logic, especially in sociological theory, which is one of my areas of expertise. I also excelled in all of my statistics courses that I took as an undergraduate and grad student. While I primarily use qualitative research methods for the kinds of empirical work I conduct in sociology, I still need to be able to understand quantitative studies when serving as a peer reviewer for journals or supervising my senior seminar students. I’m also very comfortable with assessment in our program or on grants that I earn, which often draws on my math background.
What advice would you give to students who enjoy mathematics but also have other interests they might pursue in parallel, or instead?
Everyone has to find their own way, but for me it was a great choice to not leave math entirely. I’m proud of my math minor and appreciative of the skills that my mathematics background gave me. It sounds cliché, but you really do use those skills, be they in the logic of proofs or in statistics, everywhere! Mathematics is a tool for thinking, for understanding, for discovery and communication. We need those skills now more than ever!
Is there anything else about yourself or your GVSU educational experience that you'd like to share?
I tell my own students all the time about how I was too stubborn to drop Dr. Fishback’s class one semester, and how that means I have an F on my transcript to this day. That’s not at all why I changed majors, but it does reveal how our own stubbornness can get the best of us. I would go to class and feel like I totally understood things because he’s such a good teacher, but when I sat down to do my homework I just got stuck. I was a good student and dropping would have made me feel like a failure. So, instead, I failed! I fell too far behind and couldn’t catch up. While that sounds like a negative story it’s one I tell to my students to encourage them to be gentle with themselves and know that it’s OK sometimes to admit defeat. I also tell them that because they see me as so successful. One F on my transcript doesn’t change that one bit! We all fail sometimes, but that has nothing to do with whether we can really still succeed.
You can learn more about Meghan and her work from her faculty web page at http://meghanburke.weebly.com/