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Judith Tanur: A Woman of Many Hats

1 September 2012 1,596 views No Comment
Jessie Biele



Judith Tanur

Judith Tanur has had an enriching career in statistics lasting five decades. She has inspired many students through her work as a teacher and mentor at Stony Brook University.

A member of the American Statistical Association since 1965, Tanur has worn many hats. She is a statistician, editor, adviser, and mentor who has made many contributions to the fields of statistics and education.

Tanur was born in New Jersey and raised in Great Neck, New York. A dedicated student, she says she is fortunate to have had a “really good high-school education.”

“In my third year of high school, I took trigonometry. My average dropped from 100 to 97,” she explained. “I never took 12th-grade math, which has haunted me all my life. I often think if I had been a boy, somebody would have said to me, ‘That’s silly, don’t drop it,’ but nobody said any such thing.”

After graduating from Great Neck High School in 1953, Tanur began her college education at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She describes her two years there as “amazing.”

Professional Highlights

Judy Tanur has earned many awards for her contributions to the field of statistics. She was elected a Fellow of the American Statistical Association in 1980. Following is a list of her awards and fellowships:

Arnold Constable Competitive Scholarship, 1953

Merle M. Hoover Award, Columbia, 1957

BS, Summa Cum Laude,1957

Phi Beta Kappa, elected in 1957

United States Public Health Service Predoctoral Fellowship, 1962–1963

Fellow, American Statistical Association, elected in 1980

Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science, elected in 1983

Member, International Statistical Institute, elected in 1987

ASA/NSF/BLS Senior Research Fellow, 1988–1989

President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, SUNY, Stony Brook, 1990

Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, SUNY, 1990

Kievel Lecturer, Humboldt State College, 1992

Distinguished Statistical Lecturer, The Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg, 1994

Founders Award, American Statistical Association, 1997

Innovators Award, American Association for Public Opinion Research, 2005

Dean’s Award for Graduate Student Mentoring, SUNY, Stony Brook, 2005

Geoffrey Marshall Mentoring Award, Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools, 2005–2006

“The classes were small, students had a large voice in curriculum, promotion, and tenure decisions for faculty,” Tanur recalled. “It was absolutely fascinating.”

Tanur began working at the Fels Research Institute during her freshman year at Antioch College through the school’s co-op program. “It was a requirement for people who had never held down a job to work part time on campus for the experience before they sent you off to some strange city to work full time,” she explained.

While she was working in the on-campus psychology lab as a statistical assistant in physiological psychology, she was actually doing statistical analysis. She wanted to learn more about statistics, but eventually decided to major in psychology when she transferred to Columbia University in 1955 after spending two years at Antioch. One of the reasons she transferred was to be closer to Michael Tanur, then a dental student at Penn, who she married in 1957.

“[Columbia] was exactly the opposite of Antioch,” she said. “Very large classes, most classes were evaluated by multiple-choice exams, and you rarely knew the names of your professors, let alone the names of your fellow students.”

In 1955, while still on a cooperative work period from Antioch, Tanur began working at Biometrics Research at New York State Psychiatric Institute in New York City, where she continued for 15 years as a statistical analyst. Tanur earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia University’s School of General Studies in 1957, summa cum laude. She started in the master’s program at Penn, but left when she became pregnant with her first child, Rachel. She spent some time following her husband across the country while he served in the military. During that time, she realized what she really enjoyed about psychology was statistics, analysis, and experiments. She decided to go back to graduate school to study statistics when she was able, but took math courses in the meantime to brush up on her skills. Once her husband settled down, she enrolled in the mathematical statistics program at Columbia University, where she earned her master’s degree in 1963.

That year, Tanur received a call that changed the course of her career. “I got a call from people who were publishing the International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences,” Tanur recalled. “They needed someone to be an assistant to Bill Kruskal, who was the statistics editor. They had called Columbia and asked if they had any recent master’s degree graduates.”

Tanur accepted the position of staff editor for statistics for the International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences.

“It was the most wonderful statistical education anyone could ever hope for,” she said. “My job was to read all those articles and comment on them. I don’t know the position I was in to comment on them, but I was in position to learn from them. So I learned from them.”

Tanur remembers her time working with Kruskal as “wonderful.” “He was a gentleman, and a gentle man, and very, very knowledgeable. He never made me feel unknowledgeable. He acted as if he respected my opinion and always was helpful as he could be to me.”

She recalls a story she told at his memorial service:

[Kruskal] smoked little, tiny cigars, and those days you could smoke in the workplace. He came into New York one time to visit the office and was standing in my cubicle, and he asked me if I minded if he smoked and I said, “No, I don’t mind at all, my husband smokes cigars, too.” And he said, “Yes, but that’s why you go out of the house to work.”

It was through Kruskal and her work at the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences that she landed a teaching position at Stony Brook University in 1968. She had edited an article about survey research by Hanan Selvin, who was then the chair of the sociology department at Stony Brook. Selvin hired her to teach statistics in the sociology department.

“Because I came up through a research track, it never occurred to me that people got higher degrees to teach,” Tanur explained. “It managed to escape my consciousness, and so I was not anxious to start teaching, but on the other hand, I didn’t want to say, ‘I’m not prepared to teach,’ so I tried to price myself out of the market, and I was unsuccessful. They kept meeting my demands, and so I came to Stony Brook to teach undergraduate statistics with just a master’s degree.”

Shortly after she arrived, Selvin suffered a heart attack and she was asked to teach his graduate statistics classes in addition to her undergraduate statistics courses. “I was thrown into that without having done any kind of teaching and the students suffered from that for a very long time,” Tanur said.

When Tanur started her doctorate coursework, she received a phone call from Fred Mosteller asking her if she would be interested in helping edit the book that became Statistics: A Guide to the Unknown. It was an offer she found difficult to turn down.

“I realized I was teaching full time, studying full time, and raising two kids, and the last thing I needed was another project,” Tanur said. “But this was Fred Mosteller, a great man, and I was not prepared to say no. So I told him to let me think about it and that I would call him back. Luckily, one of my senior colleagues was sitting in the room, heard this conversation, and said, ‘You really don’t have time to do this, you shouldn’t do this, but on the other hand, if they give you first authorship, then it really would be worth doing.’ It seemed to be ridiculous that Fred Mosteller should be doing something with Bill Kruskal and other big names and I should be first author when I was very, very junior. But it seemed to me like it was a good way of getting out of it. So, I called Fred back and I said I could do it if I could be first author and he said, ‘Sure,’ and I had another job.”

According to Tanur, the purpose of the book was to convince the general public that statistics was a beneficial skill for high-school students to learn and that it should be part of the curriculum. She has fond memories of collaborating with Mosteller.

“It was great fun working with Fred,” Tanur said. “He was always generous with credit. He would give you a gold star if he thought you did something very well. Once, I got something returned to me that was marked ‘Heroine of the Empire.’ I was very lucky to have been thrown in with lots and lots of good people I got to work with.”

It was from Mosteller that Tanur received the greatest piece of advice she had heard about mentoring. “The most important thing to do with any kind of mentoring, when someone submits something to you, they’re not going to listen to criticism until you give praise,” she reported him saying. “So however bad it is, you find something you can praise and praise it. You’ve got their attention, you’ve got their goodwill, and they will listen to whatever criticism you will offer.”

That advice has surely paid off. Tanur received the Geoffrey Marshall Mentoring Award in 2006 for her work in supporting graduate students.

Statistical education has changed a good deal in the last few decades since Tanur began teaching.

“When I first started teaching statistics, our department didn’t even have mechanical calculators; I had to teach students to use a slide rule if they were to make any calculations at all,” Tanur recalled. “Now that there are easy-to-use programs for statistical analysis, courses have become much more conceptual, stressing the principles of gathering data, using the computer to analyze them, and understanding how to interpret findings. I find that progress wonderful.”

Tanur has retired from teaching and lives in Montauk with her husband, who also is retired. She still keeps busy, though. She will be making her fifth trip to Vietnam this summer for a project under the auspices of the Social Science Research Council; she serves on the organization’s Vietnam Health Project’s International Advisory Committee. “I’ve discovered what it means to retire, at least for me. You don’t teach classes anymore, but pretty much do a lot of the same things except that nobody pays you,” she commented.

In her spare time, Tanur enjoys being outdoors. She lives a few blocks from the ocean and enjoys swimming, boating, and admiring the scenery and wildlife. She also enjoys entertaining visitors, especially her daughter, Marcia, and her two grandchildren. Tanur and her husband also spend time at their apartment in Manhattan, where they attend concerts and theater productions.

On a More Personal Note …
In 2008, Tanur edited a book of photographs by her daughter, Rachel. Commentaries on 50 of Rachel’s photos were solicited from social scientists around the world, which before appearing in book form, were part of a show called Visualizing Social Science at the National Science Foundation in 2006. Rachel passed away from cancer in 2002 at the age of 43. A memorial prize has been established in her memory.

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