Professor inspires students in teaching, tenacity

Dance pose color[1]

By Linda Nguyen
Copy Desk Chief

Dr. Roger Kirk doesn’t just know statistics, he wrote the book.

Kirk, distinguished professor of psychology and statistics and master teacher, embodies the Baylor professor students are told about during orientation — one-of-a-kind. Known for his cha-chaing in class, he succeeds in academia through his research and textbooks, but he also serves as a mentor for students. Despite being diagnosed with pancreatic lymphoma less than two years ago, his dedication to teaching has persisted, and he has returned to Baylor to teach after only a two-semester absence.

Kirk currently teaches undergraduate and graduate-level psychology statistics using books he wrote during his time at Baylor.

“When I first came to Baylor [in 1958], I was using books written by other people, and I was always searching for a better book,” Kirk said. “I thought that I could write better books that I was reviewing and it turns out that I could.”

Kirk said he always tries to approach teaching in different ways – even after 55 years.

“He really, really cares about his students,” said Seattle doctoral candidate Thomas Carpenter. “Even when he gives us something that’s challenging it’s because he knows we need it. He invests in students – grad and undergrad — he invests in people who come and ask him questions. He says call me at home. He really cares. He’s trying to come up with new ways for undergrads to comprehend the material. It’s rare to see people who innovate 50 plus years into their career. It’s all in his mission to teach students. I think that’s one of the most amazing and positive things about him.”

Kirk said he has spent many years trying different techniques to help students – especially undergraduates — learn the material.

“I’ve learned that I love teaching,” Kirk said. “I’m always searching for better ways to teach.”

He said he’s always trying to present the material in a new and more approachable way so students can leave the class with a more positive attitude toward statistics

“I’m always trying out new ideas– some ideas work, some don’t,” he said. “Each year I try one or two new ideas when teaching.”

One of his ideas has persisted throughout the years and has even spread to other professors in the department.

“One idea I tried years ago has been very effective,” Kirk said. “Students are always apprehensive about taking examinations. To alleviate anxiety, a week before the exam, I give them a sheet of colored paper and they can write whatever they want on the sheet.”

Many of his students recognize how unique Kirk is and strive to learn as much from them as they can – both in statistics and in how to interact and mentor students.

“We’re so lucky to be learning our statistics from the man who wrote the book.” said San Antonio doctoral candidate Karenna Malavanti. “Some of the undergrads don’t feel that way, and they’re immensely blessed. I hope we get that across to them. You’re learning from the best that Baylor has to offer and the best in statistics, that’s Dr. Kirk.”

She said being in one of his classes is an extraordinary experience.

“Sometimes I’ll sit in on his undergraduate class, and you feel like something magical is happening,” Malavanti said. “He’s enthusiastic, and he says everything perfectly. You can have the book open, and he’s reciting from it. Everything is perfect. Who else can say that?”

He has also been known to demonstrate a dance step or two during class.

“He actually will demonstrate dance moves in class and he’ll do it by himself,” Malavanti said. “He’ll just do it in class.”

Kirk said he does this to break up his classes when he feels like he’s losing his students.

“When you teach statistics, you see a lot of glazed expressions and slumped postures,” Kirk said. “To get student’s attention. I chase rabbits—I talk about Jane or demonstrate a cha cha step and it brings them back to the real world.”

Kirk’s passion for teaching has even extended into his research. Currently Kirk and Carpenter are performing research that looks at more than 20 years of data about trends in math skills in college students.

“We found all sorts of interesting trends and how important math skills are in a class that arguably students aren’t asked to do much computation in,” Carpenter said. “It’s really kind of a cool project. It’s really kind of a cool project. That was an amazing opportunity for me to get to work with him and part of the reason it was a great opportunity is Dr. Kirk. He said to me early on is one of his biggest goals is to get students to where they wanted to go, and I knew early on that I wanted to work with statistics.”

One thing his students, past and present appreciate are his daily office hours.

“He has office hours every single day, which is kind of rare,” Malavanti said. “They’re usually right after the classes he teaches. He gets to class early and stays later. He tries really hard to be engaging, and you kind of get this feeling that while there are some people who are scared of the class, they’re not scared of him.”

People have also said Kirk displays compassion and patience with students when they come to see him.

“Dr. Kirk always keeps his office hours, and his door is always open to students,” Dr. Jim Patton wrote in an email to the Lariat. “As a student I felt, at times, a bit intimidated by his knowledge and especially so when he was asking questions in oral examinations. He maintains high standards for his students and that leads to developing students with excellent skills. Yet, I’ve never seen him be unkind or short with a student and I’ve seen him spend a great deal of time attempting to help students who struggle with statistical concepts.”

Carpenter described Kirk as very authentic especially when dealing with students.

“He’s not afraid to tell you what he thinks, but he’s a very humble person,” he said. “When you’re talking with him, he’s good with sitting back and listening.”

He also said Kirk is not only concerned about statistics, but he’s also concerned about how his students are doing. He said Kirk aims to get students to a level of understanding that will get them the grade they want without sacrificing the rigor of statistics.

Throughout his time at Baylor, Kirk has not only succeeded in the realm of academia with his tremendous accolades, but he has also served as a mentor and role model for undergraduate and graduate students – some of whom have gone on to make waves in their respective fields such as Patton.

“I met Dr. Kirk 41 years ago as a graduate student and took several of my graduate statistics classes from him,” Patton said. “He was graduate program director for our department then, and he was on my doctoral supervisory committee, so he was very influential in my graduate training.”

He said Kirk teaches very thorough and rigorous courses.

“He never condescends to students by doing less than his best and therefore if you take his classes and do well, you are as prepared as anyone you might meet when your training is complete,” Patton wrote. “But, I have never worked harder in classes than when I was studying with Dr. Kirk.”

Kirk has many accolades such as being past president of the Society for Applied Multivariate Research, Division 5 of the American Psychological Association and Southwestern Psychological Association; being named Outstanding Tenured Teacher in the College of Arts and Sciences; receiving the Jacob Cohen Award for Distinguished Contributions to Teaching and Mentoring and receiving the Cornelia Marschall Smith Professor of the Year award.

“I’m always pleased when I receive an award,” Kirk said. “You never feel like you deserve the award, but I’m always happy to get awards.”

His students and colleagues, however, have much praise for his teaching and research.

“Dr. Kirk is an outlier,” Carpenter said. “I think any single person you’ve talked to about him will tell you he is highly unusual. Very few people have published as many things as he has. As a scholar, that’s very rare. If you go anywhere, he’s a big name. When he sets a goal, he achieves it.”

Occasionally, when he goes to conferences, students and professors will approach him about his books or his research.

“He’s so humble,” Malavanti said. “He never brags about anything even his accomplishments. If you talk to him, you wouldn’t know. He’s very humble and very gracious. I don’t know if other people with that level of success do that.”

Although Kirk has reached a level of success few professors have, he has also managed to cultivate a life outside of work and research. His wife, Jane Abbott-Kirk, said he is much like any other person in his personal life.

“He’s a pretty typical person in terms of doing yard work on the weekends, working on electronics, plumbing, fixing things, carpentry — so he’s typical in that regard,” she said. “He’s a workaholic, but he just loves what he does. Regardless of what he’s doing, he does it with just as much excellence — whether it’s research, work or learning dance steps.”

In their spare time, the couple enjoys ballroom dancing.

“We typically go to a dance almost every week. Fortunately, we share an equal passion for dancing. That’s how we spend our time,” Kirk said.

They got involved in ballroom dancing in 1992 when they enrolled in a continuing education class at McLennan Community College and when they took private classes.
“One Christmas, without the other knowing, we purchased ballroom dancing interests for each other,” Abbott-Kirk said.

They also taught ballroom dancing classes and participating in competitive ballroom dancing.

“It’s very similar to what we do professionally,” Abbott-Kirk said. “Each of us loves what we do. He loves writing. I love teaching and preparing performances, and we carry the same thing into our teaching. We carry that into our ballroom dancing. We work hard to find the best ways to present and to make it not only a technical and artistic experience for students, but to help them have fun. When you have to teach something, you learn it in a different way, a more thorough way. Every time we teach, we learn something new about our teaching. You know the subject matter in a totally different way.”

His wife described him as very playful and with a very dry sense of humor.

Last year, Kirk battled pancreatic lymphoma. For two semesters, he was unable to teach his statistics classes, but he persisted in his research and scholarship.

“There were two semesters that he was not teaching but I honestly think as a person, he’s the most regimented, routine person I’ve met,” Carpenter said. “I think he gets a lot of joy and personal fulfillment out of his work… As much as he was physically able, he was keeping his mind in the game — which is writing and publishing and working with students and professionals.”

According to the National Cancer Institute, pancreatic lymphoma is a type of pancreatic cancer. Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system of the body. It is very rare and requires a different set of treatments than normal pancreatic cancer.

“That was a difficult year for me. I never expected to have cancer. It’s not in my family. It came as a great shock for me. The hardest part for me was the chemotherapy. I had 6 sessions. I finished May 1 [2013]. After the fourth session, I started sleeping 20 hours a day. I lost 30 pounds and became fairly weak.”

Kirk underwent the Whipple Procedure, which is essentially a rearrangement of the stomach.

“He had his surgery Sept. 10, 2012,” Abbott-Kirk said. “It is a seven hour surgery.”
She said their ballroom dancing may be one of the reasons he has been able to withstand the battle and one of the reasons he was considered a good candidate for the surgery.

“The recovery rate is less than 5 percent,” she said. “It’s really a miracle — the fact he recovered. A lot of that had to do with him being in good physical shape. The doctor took into consideration that we were involved in competition.”

Kirk said, however, he still feels the effect of the cancer.

“I still haven’t gotten over the residual effects of the chemotherapy,” Kirk said. “It’s affected my balance and I suffer from occasional mental lapses called chemobrain. I’ll be lecturing and there will be a formula that I’ve put on the board a thousand times and I don’t remember it. I’ll want to go some place in Waco and I won’t remember how to get there. It’s one of the consequences of chemotherapy. It’s devastating. Gradually I’m recovering from the symptoms. It’s been almost a year, and I’m still experiencing the symptoms. It’s not fun.”

Malavanti said he’s adjusted well to coming back, but it’s hard for him to be gone.

“He was happy to be back,” Malavanti said. “He gets sick easier, but his students know if they’re sick, they sit at the back… He takes each day as a blessing and each appointment that his cancer hasn’t come back is a blessing. It wasn’t an ‘if’ Dr. Kirk would come back, it was a ‘when’ he would be back. That he would be there for his students. And I can just tell that he loves being back.”

His colleagues and students all agree that it is a blessing and honor to work with and learn from a professor like Kirk.

“The best thing about Dr. Kirk is that he has spent over 50 years at Baylor being a legendary role model to students, both graduate and undergraduate,” Patton wrote. “His service to Baylor has helped launch countless careers both because he develops students competent in statistical reasoning but also because he teaches them the value of discipline and tenacity.”

He said it has been a distinct blessing in his personal and professional life to have studied under Kirk and serve with him as an academic colleague.

“In the future, he’ll be regarded as one of the 20th century’s best and greatest statisticians,” Carpenter said.