Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

April 26, 2016

CORNELL CLOSE-UPS | Professor Calls Life a Balancing Act of Teaching, Learning and Art

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“I don’t think in terms of unfulfilled dreams,” said Prof. Paul Velleman, social statistics and statistical sciences.

Velleman described his life as a balancing act, saying he can often be found working well over 40 hours a week at his office. His main project currently involves a major revision of his fundamental introductory text, a task he said takes two to three nights a week and weekends.

“I have three careers,” he said. “I have my career here as a professor at Cornell, and that’s my principal career. I have a small software firm in town … And I write textbooks which are published by Pearson. Those overlap because the textbooks are the subjects I teach and incorporate the software I’ve developed.”

When he isn’t working, Velleman said he serves on the board of the State Theatre of Ithaca and is a member of a barber shop quartet and The Community Chorus in Ithaca.

“I am now culturally illiterate in television,” Velleman said. “I don’t spend my evenings in front of the tube. Name any major important television series that everyone has watched, and I haven’t.”

Velleman said he started working with the State Theatre when it was about to be shut down.

“We saved [The State Theatre],” Velleman said. “It was within a week or so of being torn down. We formed a nonprofit to take it over, got the necessary loans and are running it as a nonprofit now.”

Velleman said he also serves on the board for a foundation that raises money for the theatre in addition to serving on the board of the Community Foundation of Tompkins County — part of a nationwide movement that provides small grants to help local organizations.

“That’s what I’m fitting in,” Velleman explained. “Two things have changed. The kids are not at home, and I’m not paying tuition.”

Velleman said he continues to pursue his passion for teaching as a professor. A EDUCOM Medal award winner, Velleman said he has wanted to teach at the university level since high school.

“The fun part of statistics is that everyone who brings me a consulting question has to teach me something so that I can understand how to help them,” he said.Pg-3-Closeup-2-by-Cameron-Pollack-Editor

After teaching for over forty years, Velleman said he has finally overcome the “scary part.”

“People come into your office and they start telling you their problem, and you think to yourself, ‘What am I doing here? I’m a fraud,’” Velleman said. “Somehow you figure out that, yes, you can help them. You know how to lead people through thinking about their problem, even if it’s not statistics.”

Velleman said he uses this attitude with his students constantly, and he has found that they often come back to him years later.

“I tell my students that they should consider me to be their statistician from now on,” Velleman said. “I mean not for the rest of their time at Cornell; I mean from now on.”

In his introduction to statistics class, Velleman said many of his students are only taking the course to fulfill a requirement but gain valuable life skills.

“I think knowing statistics makes you a better citizen,” he said. “There are so many presentations of data and many of them are not as straightforward or honest as they should be. You should have a healthy skepticism.”

Velleman called his students the reason he continues to enjoy his job. His role as their professor ranges from helping them with homework to providing them with consulting information on a project.

“I’m constantly learning about everything, and that’s what I love about the job,” he said. “Every time someone brings me a consulting question, I learn something. That’s the sense in which I’m an academic. I want to continue to learn all my life.”

Velleman said his love of academics will not cease. If he ever retires, he said he hopes to take classes possibly in art history, music or law.

“It’s a nice life,” Velleman said. “You don’t get rich but that’s why I stayed here. I walk across campus and just pinch myself that I get to live and work in a place like this. It’s just beautiful.”