Faculty Spotlight: Math Professor, Textbook Author Michael Sullivan Explains His Unexpected Career Path

Michael Sullivan of Lemont didn’t plan to follow his father’s footsteps and become both a math professor and a textbook author, but fate had other plans.

Michael Sullivan

“It’s kind of a funny story and somewhat accidental that I became a math college professor,” Sullivan said, adding that he originally intended to become an actuary, but when he took an internship his senior year of college at DePaul, he realized he didn’t enjoy the work.

“After realizing that it wasn’t what I wanted, I decided to go to grad school and was offered an assistantship in the economics department. When I graduated, I tried looking for a job, but it was hard to find one during the 1991 recession. I had no intentions of teaching, even though both my parents are professors,” Sullivan said. “Then I was approached by the chair of the social sciences department at Moraine Valley Community College – where I originally began my education – and I was asked to start teaching econ classes there. I did this part time, and then I started teaching courses at a variety of schools – Roosevelt, Oakton, all around.”

Sullivan even wound up filling in for his older sister, who was a high school math teacher at Queen of Peace High School at the time, when she went on maternity leave. As he was teaching at all these different schools, he earned another masters degree, this time in statistics. In 1999, he was offered a job with the Joliet Junior College Math Department. He’s been working there ever since.

Today, he’s not only a well-accomplished professor, but he’s also the proud author of several textbooks. His published textbooks include subjects ranging from pre-calculus, college algebra and statistics. In fact, when he first started working at JJC, the Math Department was already using a pre-calculus book he and his father co-authored.

“My father has been writing textbooks since 1967, and he still does to this day. I grew up around that as a part of my life, watching him work with a stack of pages on the dining room table,” Sullivan said. “When I finished my masters in stats, graphing technology started to make its way into the college level math curriculum. I was pretty well versed in this type of technology being used. My father and I were driving down to a math conference together, and that’s when he asked me to help him on his pre-calculus series. That’s how I started writing textbooks.”

In addition to Sullivan’s parents and older sister, Sullivan’s younger sister is also a teacher, and his brother works in the publishing industry, selling math and other educational products.

As a textbook author, Sullivan said part of his job includes making revisions on older versions of his books. Choosing to write the textbooks was easy – he felt there was a need in the marketplace for each of the subjects he’s written about. Writing and revising them is a little more difficult, but he said working at JJC has definitely helped to improve his books.

“By teaching while writing and revising, I get a really good sense for how the product is playing out and so I get a lot of my ideas from things I do in the classroom and the feedback I get from JJC students,” Sullivan said. “The students are an invaluable resource.”

Sullivan said he’s pretty straightforward with his students. He lays out the rules on the first day of class and tells them what his expectations are. In order to succeed in his class, all a student needs to do is put in the effort. Sullivan added that it’s important to him to be available to his students when they need him – he makes a point to be available via e-mail consistently and on the weekends.

Even though he is the one teaching, working at JJC has been an exceptional learning experience for Sullivan. Not only has he learned to develop his math courses as new technology has transformed the field, but he’s also come to realize that his students are changing, too.

“Students are changing and they have a different expectation when they enter the classroom,” Sullivan said. “They want to get some entertainment and value through the course. Students today can be a challenge to instructors because they want to see the benefits of the course.”

Overall, Sullivan is happy he’s working at JJC and truly believes this is where he is meant to be.

“If I wasn’t here I’m not sure I would be doing a lot of the things I’m doing today,” he said. “JJC helped me to become a statistics author. Being at JJC opened up opportunities for me to learn how to teach online classes. But overall, being around JJC and the support that I’ve received from students, faculty and staff, has allowed me to do all the things I’ve done. There’s no doubt that JJC has had a huge impact on my life in a positive way.”

For more information about the Math Department, visit www.jjc.edu/mathematics or call 815-280-6861.

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