Math professor Kal Nanes casually mentioned in class one day that if students Googled him, they might find an interesting result. Immediately after Communication freshman Emily Ember got home that night, she went about discovering his Internet secret.
Nanes did not have any sort of scandalous secret to share –- the most interesting result was the website for his former math-related a cappella group, The Klein Four.
“I just thought it was a pretty cool dimension to learn about your teacher,” Ember says. “Since you don’t spend too much time with your professor, it’s interesting to learn the things that they do outside of class.”
Nanes didn’t expect much from his math graduate student a cappella group on campus. He just wanted to joke about advanced math concepts for the department’s annual holiday talent show.
Now a professor here, Nanes is far removed from the group that broke up in 2007 when its leader graduated. Its legacy lives on, though, with YouTube hits, fan mail from around the world, about 600 copies sold of the group’s 2005 CD, Musical Fruitcake, and Klein Four cover bands. Nanes is surprised to find that his CD did not get passed around among re-gifting friends like a fruitcake (the inspiration for its title) and that the single “Finite Simple Group (of Order Two)” was a popular iTunes single.
He does not shy away from sharing his history in the group with students, since he looks back fondly on his days in “Mathematics Paradise.”
“It’s something that I tend to reveal near the end of the quarter once the kids get to know me,” he says. “I’ll do little quirky things in class.” He adds that he once offered to sing the class the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood theme song.
Owen Priest is another professor with a hidden musical side. The chemistry lecturer has been a part of the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus since moving here 11 years ago.
He has been taking a leave of absence while fulfilling duties as the assistant master and master of Slivka Residential College, but said he plans to jump back into singing in the group full-time in a few years. The chorus helped him get situated in a new city.
“When I first moved to Chicago, it was a really easy way to meet lots of people, because most of my time I spent on campus getting ready for classes or teaching classes,” Priest says.
Unlike Nanes, Priest says he does not tell his students about his interest in singing. That is not to say he would not have anything to brag about — the group sang the national anthem at Wrigley Field in 2003 at the game that pushed the Chicago Cubs into the playoffs. While not mentioning his experiences directly, he does casually allude to them during lessons in spectroscopy — a method for analyzing the light that reflects off a substance.
“I always try to make analogies between music theory and the type of chemistry I’m teaching,” he says, adding that he’ll tell the class to imagine a scientific concept as a violin string or a piano cord.
Nanes, for his part, enjoys his time in the musical spotlight in the classroom, but tries to remain humble. “I certainly wouldn’t think of myself as a rockstar or anything like that,” he says.