Department Profiles: Hakim J. Walker
Dr. Hakim Walker joined the Harvard Department of Mathematics as a preceptor in 2017. A graduate of Boston University and The George Washington University, he has received numerous teaching awards and is a seven-time recipient of the Harvard Certificate of Teaching Excellence. He is involved with multiple student outreach and service activities, and coordinates the Harvard College Emerging Scholars Program, an academic enrichment program that seeks to support STEM-interested students enrolled in introductory calculus.
A Life of Mathematics
Walker’s earliest memory is loving math. He remembers dreading readings and adoring basic arithmetic in kindergarten. His mother provided him with plenty of math-based logic puzzles, riddles, and games. In high school, Walker realized he loved helping his classmates with math just as much as he loved the subject itself. “I recognized that it came more easily to me than to a lot of my friends,” he said. “And I wanted them to see what I saw and enjoy it the way that I did. Doing math and helping others with it have always just felt very natural to me.”
He went to college with that love for math burning bright, but hit a wall in his sophomore year. “I got bad advising,” he recalled. “I was told to take classes in an order that I shouldn’t have, so I was hit with some really tough courses that made me question if I should even be studying math.” Thankfully, he took a logic course in his senior year of college. It was the exact kind of math he had been waiting for and what inspired him to go to graduate school. He studied computability theory but his interest gradually evolved to how he could make students better math thinkers and himself a better teacher of mathematics. “It’s hard to learn and teach math,” Walker said. “That’s the kind of thing that I want to think more intently about as I go further in my career.”
He is especially passionate about undergraduate advising. “I think that some people in academia almost forget what it’s like to struggle in their subject, since it’s something they’ve been doing for their whole lives and it comes to them naturally,” Walker said. “I’ve always wanted to be the advisor and teacher who puts himself in the mindset of his students, who meets them where they’re at. That’s the challenge that I really love, because even though the material stays the same, every student is different.”
It was Walker’s last year of grad school and his advisor, a word-renowned researcher, was urging him to follow in her footsteps. But Walker himself was much more interested in teaching-focused roles. He wanted to come back to Boston for the start of his career, and he wanted to be in a department and a culture that cared about growing mathematicians as well as helping both graduate and undergraduate students advance. And he found all that at Harvard.
“A lot of schools can show their intentionality by creating roles focused on particular ideals,” Walker said. “It means a lot that Harvard has a dedicated preceptor role for experienced, established mathematicians who are also expert teachers and who care about crafting a course that tells a story, challenges students, is deep and enriching, and doesn’t just give students problems to memorize by rote.” He found himself surrounded by people who thought deeply about all elements of their teaching, from classroom management, to boardwork and use of handouts and examples. Walker knew he would grow as a teacher at Harvard, gaining new experiences. “I thought,I’m going to learn a lot from this place,” he said. “And I was absolutely right.”
This article is a part of the 2021-2022 Harvard Math Newsletter.