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).

Fig 1: The Unit Circle

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.

One of the first sketches the group created, and one they considered their most successful, was a piece the group referred to as the "Poetry Slam," a sketch based on a contest in which a number of the group members take a suggestion from the audience and then incorporate it into an improvised poem which is delivered orally and then evaluated by the audience using a complex scoring system. Developed by Brian, the scoring system and other key portions of the sketch rely heavily on his familiarity with mathematical discourse. In the video clip at left, Brian's character (the announcer for the contest) explains this scoring system to the audience in his opening monologue with the help of one of the other cast members. [Please press the Start button to begin the video]

According to Brian, the idea for this scoring system laden with specialized mathematical discourse originated during one of the group's lengthy and freewheeling invention sessions:

I was at the center of it, spouting math lingo and generating most of the jokes that convinced us it would be a funny idea. I mean, I'm gonna crack math jokes if we're just hanging around. Me and Josh came up with it, and I was like, "Hey, this is how we ought to do it." There's three symbols, negative infinity, zero, and pi. Negative infinity is the worst rating, zero is the absence of value, and pi is something good.

In addition, Brian's opening monologue was not the only place where these mathematical tools animated the sketch. In his role as the announcer, Brian also employed them readily as he calculated the score of each poem and offered a few humorous quips about each participant's performance. As Brian stated:

Even my comments after each poem have got nerdy math jokes in them. Like when someone scores a two pi, like in trigonometry, in the unit circle where 180 degrees is pi, 360 is two pi, and so on. So when someone scores a two pi in the "Poetry Slam," as the announcer I'm like, "Hey, a full rotation of the unit circle, two pi by Jim Gainer." I crack those kind of jokes. I improvise those comments…. I always make some sort of joke about the math that people are rating things with, because it just comes naturally to me.

From start to finish, then, the "Poetry Slam" sketch is shot through with the specialized discourse of advanced mathematics. According to Brian, this facet of the sketch gave it a great deal of "flavor" which made it appealing to BDEC's audiences.


In addition to his sketch comedy, Brian was also involved in writing content for a role-playing game he and some friends (many of them members of BDEC) were developing and hoping to market. The game, which they named Jumpers, is based on the premise that on October 29, 2001 some unknown phenomenon caused one third of Earth's population to be transported through space and time. Those individuals are constantly "jumping," or being transported to different times and locations, where they encounter situations which they must resolve before relocating to yet another time and place.

One of Brian's many roles in creating content for the game was developing a system of magic that players could use during game play. Eager to come up with a system that players would not have encountered in their experiences with other role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, Brian came up with the idea to create a system of magic based on mathematics. Discussing the system he generated, Brian stated:

Typical magic in your D and D [Dungeons and Dragons] and other conventional role playing games is [divided into] evocation; summoning; invocation, which is like chanting, spells, rituals; enchantment; illusion; and that kind of thing. I wanted to divide math up into sections like that. So I went to the U of I's math department web site and just looked at the different departments they had, like the number theory department, the algebra department, the analysis department, the geometry department and I just started picking ones to make different schools of magic out of. Like [pointing to a recent draft of the document in which he outlined the various types of mathematically-based magic he created. See the excerpt about "Number Theorists" below] here's a description of magicians who might use number theory: a description of school and the people who might participate in that school, here's some spells that might be common in the school, here's kind of like the general style of the magic, like a lot of dimension manipulation. It's a real layman's approach to this kind of thing.

After drafting several different variations on this system of sub-categories, Brian eventually generated a fairly polished document outlining what he came to call "Mathemagic." Below, I include an excerpt from the ten-page document Brian created to elaborate this system. This excerpt is drawn from the section in which Brian describes the group of "mathemagicians" he calls "Number Theorists":

Mathemagicians that take Number Theory as their main focus are referred to simply as Number Theorists. They are not as graceful as Algebraics and they make use of magical effects that are considerably more subtle and rarely suited for combative purposes....They come off as the classicists of the Mathemagics gamut, extolling Euclid, Gauss, and Fermat as early pioneers and prophets of the magical power of Mathematics. They are also the most personable and interpersonally inclined of the Mathemagicians because they find it benefits their discipline for them to collaborate and create. If any discipline of Mathemagics were to have a cabal or ritualistic cult, it would be a cult of Number Theorists. Number Theorists can be found effortlessly encoding and decoding inconceivably complex messages or creating robotic golems and energy field generators through applying their talents to the chip and circuit.

In addition to serving as a scoring system for the Poetry Slam, then, Brian's mathematical discourse was also re-tooled to function as a system of magic for the Jumpers game. It is important here to note the remediation (Bolter & Grusin, 1999) that accompanies such repurposing. Along the trajectory we’ve followed here, Brian’s mathematical discourse has been woven into the text and talk of his mathematics classes; entextualized, spoken, embodied, and performed in BDEC’s “Poetry Slam” sketch; and then woven again into the texts and action of the Jumpers game.


Far from being isolated islands, Brian's math classes, sketch comedy, and gaming are so interwoven that it is impossible to talk about one activity without bringing up the others. From the announcer's scripted explanation of the scoring system, to the formulas written on the cards used as visual props, to the improvised mathematical quips he delivered as the sketch unfolded, the "Poetry Slam" sketch is riddled with the discourse from Brian's upper-division mathematics courses. The various tools he used to solve problems in calculus and other classes are the very ones he employed to rank poems and entertain the audience. The same is true of the Jumpers material, where specialized mathematical discourse was employed to construct a system of magic for the game. Whereas current perspectives might map the literate activity of math class, sketch comedy, and role-playing games into autonomous rhetorical situations that are radically removed from one another, Brian understands them as being intimately linked together. Further, this interanimation is not unidirectional: the use of mathematical tools in the "Poetry Slam" sketch and in gaming activities also informs the activity of Brian's math classes. Responding to a question I asked concerning the relationship between his use of math in the sketch with BDEC and Jumpers and the work he does for his math classes, Brian stated:

It jogs my memory on older classes, and it makes me more fluent with the mathematics in case I one day teach it. It does now and then afford me a chance to rethink my understanding and iron out any wrinkles there might be. I think if anything my math-based comedy at BDEC shows is the biggest help. I really push myself on what I know off the top of my head, not just what I can regurgitate out of my notes. But all told, I think using my math knowledge mostly functions as another look at the material. And, the more times you see it, the more you know it.

Rather than moving through distinct literate activities each in turn, Brian is constantly engaged in what Engestrom, Engestrom, and Vahaaho (1999) refer to as "knotworking," the ongoing work of "tying, untying, and retying otherwise separate threads of activity" (p. 346). From this perspective, there is no writing that is just learning math, just performing a comedy sketch, just creating content for a game. Likewise, there is no instance in which Brian is only a mathematics student, only a comedian, only a gamer, only a math teacher. Each of these identities certainly invokes its own particular micro-world. And yet, despite their diversity, all are relevant to any particular one, even if some are foregrounded or backgrounded at particular times. In light of Dias et al.'s claim that "we write where we are" (p. 223), I would argue that we write who we are—literate selves forged from the full range of our literate activities.

If the canons of classical rhetoric offer a synchronic snapshot of actors and artifacts anchored in particular homogeneous settings, CHAT points to the diachronic trajectories of remediations across diverse rhetorical contexts and a range of media, and thus to the profound heterogeneity of material-social worlds. Understanding rhetorical action in this way involves framing our research and bounding our sites in ways that acknowledge the rich Latourian network of remediations that weave the rhetorical then and there into the here and now, the multiple selves persons bring to bear on their rhetorical engagements, and the full range of tools and media from which they draw.

In terms of our teaching, CHAT prominently foregrounds that writing, whether for college or any other purpose, isn’t so much about learning new practices in a new context as it is about continually negotiating networks of multiple practices, artifacts, and identities; about reading different currents of literate activity and understanding how they are and might be related; and then working with, against, and across those streams. A pedagogy informed by such a perspective demands that we attend to the rich experiences persons have with writing and reading in settings other than school and to how, whether, and to what extent the trajectories of those practices shape and are permitted to shape our students’ engagement in school literacy tasks. It prompts us, in other words, to explore more fully how we can all learn to recognize, acknowledge, and promote the productive weaving together of the full range of students’ literate engagements, to more fully live up to Dewey’s (1938) dictum that educators must “utilize the surroundings, physical and social, that exist so as to extract from them all that they have to contribute to building up experiences that are worthwhile” (p. 40).


Kevin Roozen
Auburn University