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Feigenbaum, Paul. Coalition between Math and Rhetoric. CE, Spring 2015. Posted 06/09/15.

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Feigenbaum, Paul. “Rhetoric, Mathematics, and the Pedagogies We Want: Empowering Youth Access to Twenty-First Century Literacies.” College English 72.5 (2015): 429-49. Print.

Paul Feigenbaum advocates for the development of a “Rhetoric Project” similar to and in conjunction with the “Algebra Project” created in the 1980s by civil-rights leader Robert Moses and described in Radical Equations, by Moses and Charles Cobb Jr. For Feigenbaum, composition and mathematics can productively partner because both are targets of the ongoing standardization movement, in which the practices of repetitive drill and subsequent high-stakes testing work to diminish the chance of college and career success for less-privileged students. According to Feigenbaum, the Algebra Project seeks to instill a sense of efficacy in underprivileged students by making visible the role of mathematics in everyday activities, making the math knowledge to analyze that role accessible, and showing how mathematical knowledge can strengthen communal struggles for social justice. Feigenbaum draws on Joanna Wolfe’s essay “Rhetorical Numbers: A Case for Quantitative Writing in the Composition Classroom” to further argue that mathematics are used rhetorically in civic life and policy-making and that an understanding of rhetoric can energize students’ ability to think critically about how mathematics are being deployed as well as how to use them to further progressive causes (430). An important focus in both the Algebra Project and Feigenbaum’s proposed Rhetoric Project is the shift from a view of education as a competitive, “market-driven” venue “in which everything depends on individual success and failure” to a view in which individual success and common welfare become interdependent, complementary goals (435).

Feigenbaum recounts the growth of the Algebra Project from a K-8 school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Moses established a program to teach his daughter and her classmates algebra during regular class hours even though the subject was not officially part of the curriculum. The AP grew to a national nonprofit that develops “Math Literacy Workers” who spread enthusiasm for math among younger students. The article provides examples of how the Algebra Project uses “experiential learning” to make math meaningful—for example, by generating equations to denote physical community locations. Similarly, facility with math allowed students in Baltimore to analyze a school district’s budget and exact fairer funding practices (437-38).

In Feigenbaum’s view, there are “clear areas of overlap” between such efforts and what rhetorical education can offer (438). Mathematical knowledge can combine with rhetorical knowledge, for example, to further understanding of how standardized tests are constructed and how they are used as vehicles for ideologically driven policy (438). Further, he argues in support of “logomechanics” (438; emphasis original), a curriculum espoused by Jenny Edbauer Rice that emphasizes multimodal communication in which students become increasingly proficient at managing and even designing “the means of production” (438) in order to exploit the burgeoning power of new rhetorical forms. Students with such facility, Rice contends, can take on the role of “potential inventors of actions and ideas, rather than the invented products” (Rice, qtd. in Feigenbaum 439; emphasis original). Feigenbaum compares logomechanics to a University of Illinois project, Writing with Video, that gives students the tools to produce multimodal messages. These expanded skills, which Feigenbaum argues would be enhanced by a coalition between mathematics curriculum and rhetorical education, encourage student collaboration as students and teachers jointly become both experts and learners. For advocates of these projects, students not only learn to see video and film as rhetorical; they also acquire the capabilities that allow them to become more effective rhetors in the multimodal public sphere (439-40).

Feigenbaum’s discussion of a Rhetoric Project pilot site in an underserved community points to the promise he sees in the venture and the challenges to be addressed. The project paired Florida International University graduate students who wanted to extend their learning in Feigenbaum’s “Community Writing” course with ongoing AP activities in Miami-Dade County public schools. Transportation issues required the Project to function as an extracurricular activity rather than as part of the regular class day; the need for participating students to remain after school required revision of the intended rhetorical curriculum from one in which theoretical concepts such as ethos, kairos, and exigency could be explicitly foregrounded into a curriculum of “theory-through-play” activities that would energize students after their long day (442). An example of “theory-through-play” is a board game modeled on an AP game, Flagways, designed by Moses. The AP game allows students to apply mathematical concepts to sports to engage students in a “culture of mathematical literacy” (Moses and Cobb, qtd. in Feigenbaum 443). The RP game, Circumstances: The Game of Rhetorical Situations, was invented by Feigenbaum and graduate-student collaborators; players used avatars to progress through school to career and beyond. Feigenbaum reports that the high-school participants enjoyed the game, although some planned components had to be curtailed for lack of time.

Funding and coordination problems deferred continuation of the pilot, but Feigenbaum hopes to re-establish it through a writing studies master’s degree at FIU, which will attract public-school language arts teachers. Feigenbaum hopes these teachers will strengthen the presence of the AP/RP collaboration across more area educational settings (445).

Efforts like the RP, Feigenbaum emphasizes, may not lead to a formal research agenda, but he endorses the view of Jeffrey Grabill that establishing relationships within communities in and of itself is a vital form of research, essential to the “community building” needed to empower local communities to resist the negative effects of standardization (444). Feigenbaum proposes that advocates for activities like the RP take seriously the need within public schools for tools to raise standardized test scores; he suggests that research projects growing out of the RP could address the ways in which the Project and other pedagogical endeavors like it can contribute to recognized measures of student success like high-school completion and college attendance (444). Ultimately, Feigenbaum sees in the Rhetoric Project an answer to calls from scholars like David Fleming and Wayne Booth for expanded rhetorical education, both in undergraduate and public school settings. He envisions the joint community-serving efforts of the Rhetoric and Algebra projects as enhancing “young people’s power to stand up for their interests against the harms wrought by standardization” (445).

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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