Math, the "Poetry Slam," and Mathemagicians: Tracing Trajectories of Practice and Person

From Isocrates’ (2001) emphasis on “the fitness for the occasion” (p. 73) to Aristotle’s (trans. 1954) efforts to locate particular discourses in particular settings (i.e., the deliberative speech of the Assembly, the forensic speech of the courts), classical rhetoric routinely situated invention in a particular rhetorical situation. Extending ancient theorists’ attention to the situational nature of rhetorical activity, Bitzer (1968) anchored invention even more tightly in specific contexts. “So controlling is situation,” argued Bitzer, “that we should consider it the very ground of rhetorical activity” (p. 5).

Despite theoretical efforts to broaden notions of invention (Burke, 1945; Jamieson, 1975), classical rhetoric's emphasis on an immediate and tightly bounded context continues to shape how writing is understood and imagined. Its influence is especially visible in our disposition toward viewing literate activity as anchored in and limited to particular activities and bounding invention according to privileged institutional borders (Prior, 1998; Prior & Shipka, 2003; Smit, 2004). In their recent study of writing in upper-division undergraduate courses and matched workplace settings, for example, Patrick Dias, Aviva Freedman, Peter Medway, and Anthony Pare (1999) argue that these literate activities are "worlds apart" (p. 222). "We write where we are," the authors state; "Location, it appears, is (almost) everything" (p. 223).

Drawing from data collected during a longitudinal ethnographic study of the school and non-school writing done by Brian Skaj, a former undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, this webtext seeks to challenge that perspective. I focus here on selected portions from three of Brian's rhetorical engagements: his classes as a mathematics education major, a comedy sketch he wrote and performed, and material for a role-playing game he developed. Using material gleaned from texts, interviews, and observations, I offer a brief vignette of each of these activities below.

The Discourse of Advanced Mathematics

As a math education major,
Brian's talk and the cascade of inscriptions he produced as he participated in
courses such as *Topics in Geometry, Linear Transformations, Matrices,
*and *Elementary Real Analysis *overflowed with the specialized
discourse of advanced mathematics. The lengthy formulas, proofs, sketches, and
explanations that animated his class discussions and filled his notebooks were
densely textured with the symbols and concepts from the theoretical and applied
branches of mathematics he was studying, from more familiar symbols such as pi
to less familiar ones such as the unit circle (see Figure 1 below).

Brian's fluency and comfort with this specialized mathematical discourse was readily apparent as we talked about the math courses he was taking and the contents of his notebooks for those classes. When I asked for an explanation of the "unit circle," for example, Brian responded:

The unit circle is a tool to help understand the behavior of trig functions, like sine, cosine, tangent, and so on. It's a different version of another tool for this purpose as well: graphing the functions themselves and memorizing their shapes and the x, y-intercepts. We basically always had a choice of which tool to use. I always preferred the unit circle because I found it more elegant. When trig functions came up and I needed a quick reference, I was like "Hey, what's the value of tan(x) when x=pi?"

These "tools," as Brian referred to them, were particularly suited to solving equations, calculating angles, analyzing functions, and so on. His ability to act with them was central to his success in his courses and his long-term goal of becoming a math teacher.

Welcome to the 'Poetry Slam'

Brian's participation in Big Dog Eat Child (BDEC), a group of friends that wrote and performed original sketch comedy in a variety of venues in the Chicago area, involved him in literate activity of another sort. Geared toward a college-aged audience, the group's sketches explored a variety of topics and genres, including political satire, cultural critique, and some improvisational comedy. While the cast members' formal attire, dark pants, pressed white shirts, and black ties suggested a stately, orderly performance, BDEC's shows tended more toward the chaotic. These performances, which consisted of one fast-paced sketch after another with little or no break in the action and often with two or three sketches going on simultaneously, required steady cycles of invention, drafting, revising, staging, and polishing.