Bill Kinney: Math professor, video producer, YouTube influencer

He has 1,800 videos, including one with half a million monetized views, but that was never the intent. His goal was—and still is—to equip and inspire Bethel students through his teaching, whether in the classroom or online.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08, GS’16, content specialist

April 19, 2024 | Noon

Professor of Mathematics Bill Kinney teaching at Bethel University

Professor of Mathematics Bill Kinney ’90 remembers that early on in his career, it was his dream to teach at a place like Bethel.

As he studied on campus in the late 1980s, he fell in love with the study of pure math at the college level—and quickly ruled out becoming a middle or high school teacher. He just wanted to work with numbers, use them to better understand Creation, and inspire like-minded students to do the same. 

After graduating from Bethel, he sought out graduate school, studying mathematics at the University of Minnesota. Then he did a brief stint filling in for a professor’s sabbatical leave at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. While there, he got a call from Bethel’s then-department chair and his former instructor, Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Emeritus Eric Gossett. 

“Hey, we have a need for someone to teach introductory courses. Do you know anybody?” Gossett asked. Even though Gossett had made the position sound a little less-than-enthralling, Kinney said he was interested if he could also teach advanced courses. He filled out an application, and the rest is history.

Twenty-eight years later, he’s taught a large number of courses in the Department of Math and Computer Science, and still loves the congeniality of the faculty and the faith-infused, one-on-one approach he gets to take to his teaching and research. 

“My colleagues and I share materials, we encourage each other and stick together—even through tough times,” Kinney says. “And interacting with students here is good, even the ones who don’t particularly like math. Some students don’t realize how incredibly gifted God has made them. They’re shy about it, even. It’s fun when you encounter those types of students and can help them see the gifts that God has given them.” 

He loves the times he gets to speak into the career trajectory and opportunities in front of a student who’s particularly interested in pursuing math as a career. In fact, it was the unique way Bethel faculty get to know and support students that led to a turning point in Kinney’s career about a decade ago. 

A student came down with an illness that would cause her to miss several weeks of class. But, she asked, would he still be able to help her finish the semester somehow? At a larger school, that would have been out of the question. But at Bethel, faculty routinely go out of their way to give extra support when students need it.

On a whim, he asked someone to come to his class and record the lecture on video. He uploaded it to a channel he had created on YouTube a few years before but had never used for course-related content. He shared the link with his sick student, and didn’t think much of it. Then other students started requesting the online content, which helped to fill in gaps when they misunderstood a concept or needed a refresher on what was covered in class. As Kinney finished out the semester and kept posting the lectures, the online audience kept growing. 

Eleven years later, Kinney has over 1,800 math videos posted on his YouTube channel, Bill Kinney Math. He has about 30,000 subscribers, including a core group of 50-100 regular viewers and commenters, mostly in the math field. One video from 2021 has half a million views. He originally posted it as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on a shared, awkward experience of many graduate math students: realizing they’re in a class that’s way, way over their head. 

As a numbers guy, Kinney loves to study the analytics behind his trending videos, and credits the virality of his video, “The Hardest Math Class in the World,” to Google getting the algorithm just right and placing it in front of the eyes of graduate students, professors, and professionals in the math field. His videos are oriented toward a niche market, to be sure, but his audiences can uniquely relate. And when they get vocal in the comments, sharing their own “hardest class” stories and responding to others, it keeps the video trending.

Kinney explains that after 11 years of creating video content, posting to YouTube has become a normal part of his day. He posts fresh videos four or five times per week, with lectures up within an hour or so of class ending. He’s experimented with eye-catching thumbnail photos, search engine-friendly video descriptions, and other ways to increase followers in a climate where there’s ever-increasing “competition for eyeballs,” he says. He’s also begun to treat YouTube as a creative outlet where he can express his passion for math. When he gets particularly excited about a breakthrough in an equation, he’ll create a video about it. And he’s not shy about infusing his faith into his posts.

“I really love a topic called complex analysis. I think it’s the most beautiful subject in math. It’s full of amazing visuals, for one thing. It’ll give you insight into what’s going on, and it’s full of completely surprising–even shocking, you might say–content. It blows your mind when you get into it enough.”

— Professor of Mathematics Bill Kinney ’90
Professor of Mathematics Bill Kinney teaching at Bethel University

Shock and awe aside, there are some practical benefits to being a math influencer. When the pandemic put a pause on in-person classes in 2020, Kinney was far ahead of the game when the faculty was asked to start creating online content for students learning remotely. And when Kinney’s daughter gets married out-of-state this spring, it’ll be no big deal to move his classes online. The YouTube platform offers flexibility and a supply of complex mathematical concepts to Bethel students every week. So they’ll just head online and spend some time learning with Kinney’s online audience, while he spends time with his family. 

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