People of IWU: Dr. He brings the best out of IWU students

Steven Watts, Features Editor

Illinois Wesleyan’s math department is home to a number of professors who push students to strive for another level of excellence. Of all of the great math professors at IWU, one of them particularly stands out to students. Dr. Tian-Xiao He has found a way to truly inspire his students to reach their full academic potential.

Two things are abundantly clear when you take a class from Dr. He: he is incredibly smart, and he is incredibly passionate about math. In any given class, you can expect Dr. He to write out at least four whiteboards worth of information as he seamlessly walks through some of the most complicated problems you’ll ever see. 

Dr. He has published over 110 journals and written six books since he joined IWU. Eight of those journals were published with IWU students. His main research interest right now is enumerative combinatorics, an emerging field that focuses on forming counting functions to find the number of ways that a particular pattern can be formed. The subject is often used in making estimates in the analysis of algorithms. 

In 2013, Dr. He was given the Earl H. and Marian A. Beling Professorship of Natural Sciences, an honor given to very few professors who demonstrate outstanding teaching and engagement with students. 

The professorship has allowed Dr. He to attend conferences throughout the world that highlight emerging topics in math. He has also been able to host a few international conferences here at IWU, boosting the school’s reputation and giving students an accessible way to further their math education. 

Dr. He also claimed that the honor has motivated him to be the best professor he possibly can. The topics in Dr. He’s class can often be very abstract, so when asked how he keeps his students engaged with the content, he said that his goal is always to “make you think about how useful the topics would be in real life.” He also tries to think of many different ways to solve the same problem in case some students don’t quite understand his first approach.

I’ve found that what keeps students engaged is the energy Dr. He brings to his lectures. When I asked Dr. He what his favorite courses to teach were, he explained that it’s not about the individual courses: instead, he likes “math as a whole integrated approach.” Dr. He said likes to find connections between different math courses that are offered here on campus and help students find how each type of math complements each other.

Professors and students alike have struggled with switching from in-person teaching to online learning on such short notice over the past two years. When asked how he was able to adapt to Zoom learning, Dr. He immediately responded “first, thanks to the students for adapting to the different teaching style.” He described how the encouragement and understanding from his students was very helpful in overcoming the challenges that came with remote classes. 

The adjustments Dr. He made to his teaching methods during COVID were essential to students’ success. He recalled expanding his office hours to make sure that help was available to all of his students when they needed it. He also made sure to prepare electronic teaching notes with his lessons so that students could easily review any topics they might not have fully grasped during his lecture.

Dr. He ended our interview with some helpful advice to students as we enter the second half of this semester. According to him, “sometimes effort is more important than achievement.” He went on to discuss how students come from different backgrounds and, because of this, every student has topics in which they struggle or exceed. 

Instead of comparing themselves to one another, Dr. He asked for students to learn how to embrace their differences and trust themselves to do their best work. He also wanted to remind students that as much as we work for classes, we will remember these four years for our entire lives, so take advantage of the time we have here.