#TBT: The Finite Guy

On a Monday or Thursday evening in the late 90’s, professor Steve McKinley stood in front of a whiteboard and beside an overhead occupied by a bucketful of brains.

“Hello, everybody, and welcome to the premiere episode of ‘The Finite Show.’ I am your host, Steve McKinley, and we’re coming to you live,” with a clap of his hands, “yes, live from Studio 195 in sunny, downtown, stark weather North Dakota.”

Then, referring to the bucket of brains, McKinley snaps a tight and yellow, rubber glove on his right hand and leads viewers through the anatomy of the human brain.

“I’d like to show you this man’s brain. I’ve had it in my fridge for a few years now, so it’s getting a little old,” McKinley said. “Now, if you look over here, we see a well-developed region. Unfortunately, that’s not the finite lobe. That’s what we call the south park lobe. That is the part of the brain that is devoted entirely to watching the show ‘South Park.’”

“This little portion over here, as you can see, is what we actually call the finite lobe of the brain,” McKinley said. “And this piece of the brain, right there,” with a poke, “is devoted entirely to studying finite math.” 

“The Finite Show” premiered in 1998 and aired at 9 p.m. every Monday and Thursday evening on campus cable channel 32. McKinley credits professor Dan Maki for the initial idea of the project, as Maki had previously attempted to create a live math help show that didn’t survive for reasons, McKinley describes as, “unrelated to the quality of help being offered.”

Years later, when the Lilly Foundation Retention Grant was up for grabs, Ray Smith, associate vice provost in the office of academic affairs, and professor Linda McKinley proposed a reimagining of Maki’s student call-in show in hopes of decreasing the rising retention rates of Indiana University’s finite mathematics course (M118). Linda, knowing her husband would fancy the idea of leading a Bill Nye-esque math show, recommended McKinley as the show’s potential host.

Although he credits lecturer Andrew “A-Dab” Dabrowski as his wingman and patient call-in manager as well as principal analyst of IU’s multimedia Steve Egyhazi as the editor and producer, McKinley claims most of the ideas implemented into “The Finite Show” as his own, which he added, “I see this more as an admission of guilt than as a proclamation of achievement.”

Although retention rates did significantly improve, funding for “The Finite Show” was only enough to broadcast the show for three consecutive years. McKinley and the rest of the project’s crew had to purchase many of the show’s beloved props, which included odds and ends like socks and cardboard figures of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, on their own.

“It’s not like I could go to the department and ask for some money to buy some Spice Girls dolls after all,” McKinley said.

Although the show was somewhat short-lived, McKinley became a campus celebrity and, now, a campus legend. Today, 16 years after its premiere, IU undergraduates still retreat to the resource as they brave and barely conquer M118. And, despite his iconic status, many students are unaware that McKinley still teaches at IU, let alone whom the man behind the legendary label, “Finite Guy” really is.

Born and raised in Anderson, Ind., McKinley grew up as a devoted IU sports fan making his decision to attend IU as an undergraduate an easy one. And although he describes his former student life as less-than-motivated, McKinley spent 14 years at IU and earned four degrees. Then, with a strong scholarly background in mathematics, psychology and cognitive science, McKinley “lucked into [his] current position” as senior lecturer. McKinley has since decorated his instruction record with more than 10 different courses in mathematics and psychology and, of course, the star-studded project “The Finite Show.”

After being appointed as the Finite Guy and host of the show, McKinley would spend three to four days to prepare each episode, which mostly consisted of a search for props. Since the show aired at 9 p.m., McKinley and the rest of the crew arrived an hour in advance to rehearse the introduction of the episode.

“Once the camera came on, we just rolled with whatever questions we were asked,” McKinley said. “One of the most interesting aspects of the show on air was the fact that we didn’t have a ‘five-second delay,’ so student could call up and spew out any sort of verbal atrocities you can imagine. And they sometimes did.”

McKinley jumped at the chance with an “oh, I know this one!” to express his creative views of what “The Finite Show” would look like if it were ever to make a comeback.

“[E]veryone would have flying cars and we wouldn’t need food anymore,” McKinley imagined. “The country would probably be run by a professional wrestler and we’ll be watering all our plants with a sports drink called Brawndo because plants love electrolytes. It’s going to be a blast, really.”

After his imagination ran its course for a moment, McKinley noted a future show would depend on who would be involved.

Today, McKinley enjoys spending time mostly outdoors with his wife, dogs and friends.

“I’m a big-time dog lover and I’m an outdoor junkie,” McKinely said as he rattled off some of his favorite Bloomington hobbies, such as mountain biking, rock climbing and kayaking.

In addition to other courses, McKinley still teaches finite mathematics at IU; however, he hasn’t participated in any other major projects since “The Finite Show.”

“I think I’ve reached the point in life where I can safely say my two favorite things are breathing and walking,” McKinley said.

In the premiere episode of “The Finite Show,” McKinley lists procrastination, critical thinking and attending class as the three crucial keys to success in M118. Today, as math exams haunt IU undergraduates with a daunting alphabet soup of D’s, F’s and W’s, McKinley offered another piece of advice to students.

“[G]et a good night of sleep the night before the exam,” McKinley said. “Cramming for a math test is like cramming for a morning physical fitness test by staying up all night doing push-ups.”