November 12, 1945 -
Judith Roitman was born in New York City. Although she enjoyed reading about mathematics as a high school student, her career plans leaned more towards English and literature. She attended Oberlin College for a year, then transferred to Sarah Lawrence College, a women's college in New York (now coed), to prepare to become a college literature teacher. She once said , "I began life as an English major, never dreaming that the tremendous pleasure I got in junior high from the identification of algebra with geometry, or from the proof that the reals were uncountable, could have anything to do with my own life." After her graduation in 1966 with a degree in English literature she decided to pursue mathematical linguistics instead of literature. One problem, however, was that Roitman had only taken one math course in college. So she headed to Berkeley, California, to take a summer course in calculus at UC Berkeley while working as a secretary.
Enjoying both California and mathematics, Roitman spent the next year studying philosophy and taking more mathematics classes at San Francisco State and Berkeley. Eventually, in 1969, she began graduate studies in mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley where Lenore Blum, then a postdoctoral instructor, became a friend and mentor. As Roitman told Claudia Henrion in an interview , "My first year of graduate school was a total disaster. I didn't know how to prove things. I had big gaps in my training. I had a lot of catching up to do." During the early part of her graduate years she served as a Community Teaching Fellow, teaching mathematics in elementary schools. Roitman received her Ph.D. in mathematics in 1974 with a thesis on "Hereditary Properties of Topological Spaces" with Robert Solovay as her advisor, but having also worked with Mary Ellen Rudin and Ken Kunen at the University of Wisconsin. Parts of her thesis were published in the Proceedings of the American Mathematics Society (1974) [Abstract].
After teaching for three years at Wellesley College, Roitman spent a semester at the Institute for Advanced Study, then moved to the University of Kansas where she has been ever since, rising to the rank of full professor. For her first eight years she was the only woman in the department above the rank of instructor. Her mathematical research has been in set theory applied to topology and Boolean algebra. She has published over 40 papers in this area, including a 1992 survey on applied set theory in the Mathematical Intelligencer [Summary] and one book, Introduction to Modern Set Theory, published in 1990.
From her early days in graduate school Roitman was active in the newly formed Association for Women in Mathematics, serving first as newsletter editor, then as a co-Vice-President, and then, from 1979 to 1981 as President. In her history of the early years of the AWM , Lenore Blum quotes Roitman's perspective on AWM's first decade:
"I can summarize my time in AWM office by saying that I was one of the last–perhaps the last–President of an amateur AWM. What do I mean by this?
The AWM grew out of the feminist movement of the 1970s, which was marked by confrontation, attention to, and expression of, personal feelings and individual incidents, and ignorance of history. Having finally read some of this history (Margaret Rossiter's excellent book on American women scientists) I suspect that had we known how closely we were following in the footsteps of earlier feminists, and how little change their tremendous efforts made, we probably never would have bothered. So the early job of the AWM was just to look around us and report the obvious—the situation for women was terrible—and the apparently not-so-obvious—it didn't have to . . . be that way. We spent a lot of time popping up at meetings (departmental, local, national) saying over and over again that women could be perfectly good, even great, mathematicians if given the opportunity ... and that there were several steps the mathematical community could take to improve things for both women and minorities. It was an easy kind of agitation–you just had to look around you and report what you saw....
But while this style had its successes, it was based on a sort of shooting from the hip. That is why I characterize it as being amateur...."
By the end of Roitman's term as AWM President, however, the association had grown to over 1000 members and had approved a set of by-laws to provide a formal structure and procedures for AWM's governance. The AWM had also initiated the Emmy Noether Lecture Series in 1980 with Jessie MacWilliams as the first speaker.
Roitman's other strong interest has been mathematics education. For seven years, starting in 1988, she ran workshops for elementary teachers in Northeast Kansas and observed the teachers in their classrooms. She has also run workshops for high school teachers, and has been active on national committees and advisory boards for K-12 and post-secondary education where she has been a strong advocate for the involvement of research mathematicians in K-12 education. Roitman was a member of the writing group for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Principles and Standards 2000 for School Mathematics, the update of the earlier NCTM Standards. As she wrote in a January 2000 commentary "Revising the NCTM Standards" in the AMS Notices,
"Would I do it again? Yes, in a heartbeat, and no, not in the same lifetime. I learned an enormous amount about kids, schools, how people learn, and how people teach. I think about school mathematics very differently. I have tremendous respect for my Principles and Standards colleagues and will miss not only our personal collaboration but collaboration with people of their professional interests. It is vital that the mathematics community be involved in this kind of work. It should be seen as a major area of our responsibility, and I am continually astonished that it is not. Our community generally does not reward or honor this sort of time-consuming, challenging, socially important, and intellectually interesting work. Until it does we should not complain that our students come to us unprepared nor wonder why so few mathematicians are involved in educational policy."
Judith Roitman received the 1990 Louise Hay Award for Contributions to Mathematics Education from the Association for Women in Mathematics (along with Glenda Lappan from Michigan State University.) The award citation for Roitman reads:
Judith Roitman has a long and distinguished career as a mathematics researcher, advocate for women in mathematics, and mathematics educator. Her research activity in set-theoretic topology and Boolean algebra spans several decades, and she has encouraged other research mathematicians to be actively interested in education and educational reform. She has helped influence and shape policy and practice in education through her service on committees such as the MSEB Panel on College and University Programs, the AMS Committee on Education, and the MER Advisory Board and has assumed critical leadership roles over the last two decades. She was AWM president from January 1979 until January 1981.
She has encouraged and mentored young persons in mathematics and freely and expertly shares her knowledge and experience about research, teaching, and mathematical history and folklore.
Elementary teachers have benefited from the workshops that Professor Roitman has directed. The standards of excellence and high expectations of Professor Roitman and her staff have inspired and motivated these teachers to share their new knowledge of both mathematical content and educational practice district wide. In addition to the local impact of these projects, Professor Roitman has been active on the state level and currently serves as a board member of the Kansas Mathematics and Science Education Coalition.
Professor Roitman believes that post-secondary institutions need to acknowledge their responsibilities to K-12 and has disseminated her thoughts broadly through invited talks, publications, and electronic networks, as well as informal conversations and interactions.
Professor Roitman is truly a model of a research mathematician who maintains substantive involvement in mathematics education.
Roitman never lost her love for literature while becoming a professional mathematician. She continues to write poetry and has published at least three volumes of her poems, including her 1999 chapbook Slippage with Potes and Poets Press. Roitman has also been involved with Zen Buddhism since 1976. She was one of the founders of the Kansas Zen Center in 1978 and was a guiding teacher at the center.
Photo Credit: Photo used with permission of Judith Roitman