A simple life

Dr. Martin Jones teaches a statistics class at the College of Charleston. Jones was selected by Princeton Review as one of the top 300 professors in the nation.

Last year, someone broke into the Cannon Street home of Martin Jones, but it wasn't a big deal to the popular College of Charleston math professor.

“The guy, I assume it was a guy, smashed the door down, turned on a light, looked around — there was no TV, no stereo, no computer, there was nothing of value to him — so he just left,” recalls Jones, noting that he was just grateful his cats didn't escape.

“When the cops came, they talked about taking fingerprints and asked me what was taken. But he (the officer) looked around the house, saw that I had nothing, crossed out ‘burglary' on the police report and wrote ‘vandalism,' and left. That was it.”

Simplicity, including eschewing the conventions of marriage and parenthood, is a key component to Jones' life, which seems to be all about experiences, not possessions.

He doesn't have a cellphone and hasn't owned a car since 1997. His ultimate goal is to sell his house and fit all of his possessions into a duffel bag.

The 53-year-old is driven, accomplished and has goals. Besides being a scholar, Jones is a world traveler, musician, athlete, voracious reader, environmentalist and budding gardener who is an ardent vegan, fluent in Spanish, and studies Russian and Chinese.

Alison Smith, a senior instructor in the college's French, Francophone and Italian studies department, describes Jones as a “modern-day Renaissance man” with an “ice-breaking sense of humor.”

“Although Martin's field is mathematics, he has a vast array of knowledge and interests that would make the most accomplished teacher and scholar envious,” she says, particularly noting his proficiency in Spanish and Russian.

“He is knowledgeable about areas as diverse as Latin American literature, climate change, jazz music, professional basketball and tennis, and vegan cooking. His skill as a statistician has often led to a happy meeting of these diverse interests, as in work he has done for environmental groups in El Salvador and Panama.”

His experiences and interests pay off in the classroom, as noted earlier this month when the Princeton Review named Jones as one of the top 300 professors in the United States.

The process for the selection started with the Review partnering with RateMyProfessors.com to identify about 42,000 professors. The publication vetted the list down to 1,000 professors using its own surveys. Then the editors made the final selections, including another College of Charleston professor, Spanish instructor Devon Hanahan.

Jones, who has taught at the college since 1989, describes the honor as “a little bit embarrassing.”

“I'm really happy to be recognized, but I feel like I don't do anything special. I feel like I'm at a university with a lot of outstanding professors in different areas. In my own department, we have so many talented people, and I'm embarrassed to get the attention,” says Jones.

But one of Jones' past students, Ryan Parker, thinks the honor is well-deserved.

“Martin has such a great teaching style because he seems to always put himself in the students' shoes when thinking about how and what material he will cover in a compelling way that will keep each student's attention,” says Parker, now working on his doctorate in statistics at North Carolina State University.

“I have had courses where at the end I haven't felt like I gained much that I can put into action, but that was never the case with him. He just always seems to know how to communicate new and challenging concepts, and when there are any issues with understanding, he always finds a way to reframe the topic in a way that can be understood by everyone.”

When Jones arrived in 1989, he says, statistics was still in its infancy and not many were teaching it.

“Statistics has changed so much since the advent of powerful personal computing. Now statistics is so much fun. There are so many incredible models you can build and so many neat things you can do now. We're really building our program now.”

Jones also thinks the future is bright for students, noting that careers in statistics are going up because “everyone's collecting data, but no one knows what to do with it.”

Jones grew up in Harrisburg, Pa., the middle child of a conservative father and liberal mother.

His father worked in state government positions, including the secretary of commerce, and was the head of the environment resources department during the Three Mile Island meltdown crisis in 1979. He also was an avid birdwatcher who logged 3,000 species of birds during his lifetime.

His mother was a “progressive hippie (who) was way ahead of her time on the environmental stuff.”

“My parents were as different as night and day. My dad was very right wing and conservative. My mother was very left wing. We had some interesting political discussions,” recalls Jones of his late parents “We (Jones and his siblings) sided with our mom. My dad used to call us bed-wetting liberals.”

Still the influence of his birder father and hippie mother set him on the course that Jones chose early in life.

Taking birding trips with his father in Latin America not only made him care about the environment and protecting animals, but also to learn to speak Spanish fluently.

“Real quickly I realized I needed to learn the language down here or else I'm going to be in trouble. I didn't want to go into a restaurant and expect someone to speak the language for me,” says Jones, who has taught in Venezuela, Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico.

Next year, though, he plans to go a different route, teaching a course in China. He is squeezing in learning Chinese whenever he can, even listening to lessons at the gym.

Raised by parents who appreciated the Earth's bounty, it's no wonder that Jones carried that forward. But it was his experience at Warren Wilson College, a four-year work college in North Carolina, that led him to become a vegetarian, and later a vegan.

“I didn't realize after a whole semester of working with cows and pigs that I was going to be killing them. It was part of the job, and I was terrified of the supervisor,” says Jones.

The experiences at Warren Wilson heightened Jones' awareness of the suffering caused by slaughtering.

“I did that for four years, despite the fact I knew all the pigs by name. When you work with them and then kill them, you feel like you betrayed someone,” says Jones, adding that he didn't want to have any part of eating meat.

Jones betrayed his own sensibilities once by getting married in his early 30s — a marriage that lasted five years..

“It was the worst thing for me,” says Jones, quickly adding that he and his ex-wife remain good friends but just had different goals.

“She and I were looking at two different pictures of the world,” he says.

“I wanted to put everything I had in a duffel bag and travel around the world on a shoestring. She wanted a big house, picket fence and three cars. We talked about it beforehand, and I said I don't think I want kids. ... She was hoping I would grow out of that and become an adult, but it wasn't happening.”