Al Primack celebrates pi year-round


Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Al Primack currently teaches rhetorical process and mass communication process classes at Pitt.

By Neena Hagen, Senior Staff Writer

In a darkened classroom at Copper Mountain College in Southern California, undergraduate student Al Primack stood at the front, fiddling with a computer mouse. After pulling up the first slide introducing his “pi cultural artifact speech,” he turned to face the class — more than 20 pairs of eyes gleamed back at him in the dim fluorescent lighting.

“3.14,” he said slowly and profoundly to the crowd. His classmates stared at him, puzzled.

But then, he blurted out 97 more digits — 15926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751058209749445923078164062862089986280348253421170679 — in a dizzying 15 seconds.

As he explained to the class in the minutes following, he’d opened his speech rattling off the first hundred digits of pi — an irrational mathematical constant, meaning the digits are infinite and never repeat. His classmates and teacher’s looks of bewilderment soon turned to admiration. And while Primack didn’t know it at the time, as a mere college student in 2010, reciting those digits would help jump-start his academic career in communication.

“My professor just really liked it. He told me to join the speech and debate team,” Primack said. “I knew [when I started the project] that I didn’t want to go the traditional route with religious artifacts … I wanted to come up with something different.”

Primack’s originality paid off — he won a local speech competition only months later, an accolade that helped land him a spot in Pitt’s doctoral communication program, where he’s studied and been a teaching assistant since 2016.

But Primack’s pi knowledge isn’t now an artifact of his early college days. Those long walks in the Southern California heat, messing around with the pi memorization app on his Palm Pixi smartphone, have kept all 100 digits burned into his mind since opening his cultural artifact speech eight years ago. And all his students get to see it firsthand — he recites 100 digits of pi on the first day of class every semester.

Pi itself doesn’t relate to anything he teaches in his rhetorical process and mass communication process classes. But it makes a statement about his memory, which he said is actually quite dismal when it comes to other things — something he wants his students to know.

“The second you walk out [of my classroom], I’ll probably forget your name. I may even forget your face. But 100 digits of pi? Right here,” he said, pointing to his head.

According to Brandon McDonald, who met Primack in their master’s program at Cal State Long Beach in 2014, Primack tries to keep his teaching entertaining. And reciting pi is only one of many ways he commands his students’ attention.

McDonald said he’s never had the good fortune of taking one of Primack’s classes, but in California he substituted for his friend’s recitation one class period, and students raved about Primack’s energy, spirit and teaching abilities for the full hour.

“I think communications is only as interesting as the instructor makes it,” McDonald said. “Al walks into the classroom and talks about the communications elements of Trap Queen by Fetty Wap.”

Primack said he tries to maintain a laid-back atmosphere in the classroom. He doesn’t want his students to be afraid of participating in class discussions.

“I don’t think the classroom should be a high-stress environment,” Primack said. “I like to have a lot of space for open and respectful conversation, especially on controversial issues.”

Primack said it’s the little things that contribute to that kind of atmosphere. He likes to stay on a first-name basis with all of his students and tries to get to know them one-on-one, instead of just lecturing from the front of the classroom.

But when the class discusses controversial topics like racial representation in media, for example, Primack feels it’s necessary to interject with his own experiences as a mixed-race — half Jewish, part European and indigenous — individual to break the ice and relieve the class’ anxiety surrounding the topic.

“Growing up … in Yucca Valley, California, there were problems with white power and white supremacy,” Primack said. “Just one example that pops into my head — my friend and I were playing music practicing for a show, and one of the band members took off his shirt to reveal a giant swastika on his chest.”

Witnessing these hateful incidents as a teenager, Primack wanted to prevent injustices from happening to kids in subsequent generations.

“Al is very intentional about the research he chooses to delve into, based on the impact it might have,” McDonald said.

Most of Primack’s research revolves around legal argument or interpretation, specifically involving children, who he said don’t have the power in society or the know-how to defend themselves in legal cases.

One of his first theses in 2017 argued against sending children to court for cases of cyberbullying. And his most recent thesis, published at the end of 2017, aimed to reinterpret child pornography laws to ensure teens at the age of consent weren’t registered as sex offenders for sending explicit photographs.

“There are many archaic aspects of current laws,” Primack said. “A lot of my work revolves around decriminalizing things that are common in teens.”

As a burgeoning expert on communication and legal studies, Primack also finds time to help his peers, like Hillary Ash, who’s in the same boat writing her dissertation. Ash sent out her first paper for publication last fall and had it rejected two months later. She said Primack not only affirmed that her paper was publishable, but sat down with her and reviewed every single comment.

“I regularly say, ‘He’s the best human,’” Ash said. “Al had taken the time to black out any comment that was not productive to revising the paper, the good comments and the bad and we problem-solved the biggest issues with the paper that the reviewers identified.”

Ash said she appreciates all that Primark has done for her professionally, but as his close friend she enjoys his friendly spirit and his genuine interest in people — not to mention his “incredible meatloaf.”

McDonald also likes to reminisce about their grad school days, including making midnight runs to Ralphs supermarket, stocking up pies on Pi Day to share among friends. McDonald said despite Primack’s busy schedule and numerous accolades, he still manages to spend quality time with his buddies, which McDonald said is almost as admirable.

“He’s made many impressive accomplishments, but [beyond] that he’s also just a great guy,” McDonald said. “I truly believe Al is gonna change the world.”