a middle-age man standing in front of a blackboard with mathematical figures on it.

Herb Gross, making math make sense in a video recorded at MIT in 1970. (Image by MIT OpenCourseWare.)

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

Today we’re delighted to wish a very happy birthday to Professor Herb Gross, who is turning 90. When he was a senior lecturer in mathematics at MIT in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was recruited to film a series of instructional videos under the title of Calculus Revisited.

In the digital era, these videos have reached a much larger audience than might originally have been expected; between 2010 and 2011 MIT OpenCourseWare worked with Professor Gross to publish them as a trilogy of special supplemental resources on our website: Single Variable Calculus, Multivariable Calculus, and Complex Variables, Differential Equations, and Linear Algebra.

The videos might seem to have a lot going against them: they’re nearly fifty years old, they’re in low-definition black and white, and they have no special effects or flashy visuals. (Their content consists purely of Professor Gross standing in front of a blackboard, explaining math.) But collectively, these resources have been accessed well over a million times at the OCW website, and they’re also extremely popular and much loved on YouTube.

Herb Gross’s time at MIT was part of a long career in teaching math, often to those students most in need of patient encouragement and support. He taught for many years at community colleges, and starting in the late 1970s he was also involved in prison education, creating math programs for inmates at correctional institutions in Massachusetts and later in North Carolina.

In 1988 he instituted his Gateways to Mathematics video course at several prisons in North Carolina. (The material for the entire course has been preserved at the Internet Archive.)

He enjoys making teaching videos and regards them as offering some advantages not available to live teaching; he explains that “You can pause, rewind, and/or fast forward the lectures as you see fit—not to mention that the boards are written in a much more orderly way than how I wrote in the live classroom!”

Professor Gross has always maintained that the best mathematicians don’t necessarily make the best math teachers, and likewise that you don’t have to be a great mathematician to be a great math teacher.

As he puts it, “There are many examples of great athletes who failed as coaches; and there have been great coaches who were at best mediocre players.” He has returned to this analogy again and again throughout the years, most memorably in another video series, Teacher as Coach, produced in 1988 by the North Carolina Department of Community Colleges.

He sees his vocation in life as being the best coach he can be for the most vulnerable and “mathephobic” of students. And he has always been dedicated to the idea that the best teaching materials should be made freely available to as wide an audience as possible. To further this goal, not only did he work with MIT OpenCourseWare to put the Calculus Revisited videos online forty years after they were originally recorded, he also has created his own website, where all his work in arithmetic, algebra, and calculus is available free of charge.

Writing in reply to YouTube viewer comments on one of the Calculus Revisited videos, Professor Gross says, “It took several days to prepare each lecture. While this seems to be a very long time, the beauty lies in the fact that the lecture is there forever and is available to any viewer, in any place and at any time. In my case the reward is that it would have taken me several lifetimes to reach the same number of students if I had been teaching in a traditional classroom.” Though he’s now retired, he sees his online lectures as allowing him a sort of pedagogical immortality.

“I feel very blessed that thanks to the Internet, I will be able to continue teaching for years and possibly generations to come.”

We’re so grateful to Professor Gross for sharing his knowledge and love of math so generously, with so many students, over so many decades. Happy birthday to you, Professor Gross!