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Profile: Larry Gilligan

Date: May 22, 2000

Larry Gilligan is the type of teacher who changes his suits -- whether in cards or clothing -- in order to better suit students. And his creative teaching methods -- using stories, jokes, bets, a "crooked" deck of cards, or a body-twisting change of wardrobe -- all add up to one thing: better mathematics education for students.
Gilligan's trademark "vest striptease" begins by unbuttoning the vest.

Gilligan, professor of mathematics in the University of Cincinnati's College of Applied Science, is willing to do just about anything to get the community at large, not just the students who sit in his classroom, into the fun of math. One way he entertains while educating is a "vest striptease" during which he wears a traditional three-piece suit and manages to take off the vest without ever removing his arms from the jacket sleeves, all performed to orchestral music called "The Stripper" once commonly played in burlesque houses.

negotiating the first arm

He most recently performed this feat on stage at Paramount's Kings Island theme park with "The Stripper" music blaring over the loudspeaker as part of a local radio promotion. The "vest striptease" is not just entertainment though Gilligan recalls "it was a hoot" the first time he performed it. It actually illustrates a special kind of geometry concerned with the ways in which surfaces can be twisted, bent, pulled, stretched or otherwise deformed from one shape into another.
negotiating the second arm

Gilligan, originally from New York City and now a resident of Morrow, Ohio, doesn't have only his vest "up his sleeve" as a teaching "trick." He also uses a childhood set of carnival performers' cards (where every other card is the Ace of Spades) and probability bets about birthdays as well as calculus problems that focus on credit-card debt and police speed traps to reach students and community members.

the "vest dance" to move the vest down the sleeve

"I'm really trying to combat the societal belief that math is dreadful. Our culture makes it harder than it has to be. When I tell people that I teach math, I'm always hearing that math was the worst thing for them, that they can't 'do' math. If I said I taught English, people wouldn't boast that they were illiterate. Math avoidance is a common social occurrence," he explained.

pulling the vest out of the sleeve

Though some of Gilligan's penchant for performing comes from a childhood desire to be an actor, most of it comes from community members who suffer math anxiety or avoidance. For instance, in an "Overcoming Math Anxiety" course he taught many years ago, Gilligan recalled, "I asked the class to tell why they're here. Most of it went back to when they were kids. One woman was literally crying. In the fourth grade, she had a teacher that would stand next to her when she had to answer a math problem. The teacher would start twisting the girl's hair in a tight curl that got tighter and tighter until she got the right answer."

Gilligan's teacher career spans 31 years, the last 16 at UC. He travels the country, leading seminars on incorporating technology -- computer software and calculators -- into college curriculums. He is the author or co-author of 25 mathematics books and numerous journal articles. Among his published articles are: "Oh Craps! A Computer Simulation of the Dice Game" and "Who Dunnit? Using Mysteries to Motivate Logic." Visit Gilligan's home page at

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