Algebra Proves a Literary Point
It felt like a risky move, mixing math calculations into an English assignment. “There was definitely some fear that it could go terribly wrong,” says Aknazar Janibek ’20.
The writing prompt in Janibek’s AP Language and Composition class last year was to compare Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, both award-winning books on discrimination and race. Janibek decided that a pair of algebraic equations would express his thoughts most clearly.
He started with the idea that both books had the same purpose: to make white Americans acknowledge the existence of institutional racism. That was his X variable. The rhetorical devices that each writer used in their respective book became his Y variables — Y1 (Rankine) and Y2 (Coates). This allowed him to assign the books different values. So the question he posed in his essay was: Which is greater, X+Y1 or X+Y2?
Janibek’s classmates thought his plan was strange. His teacher, John Corrigan, advised him to trust his instincts. Corrigan says, “One of the things I always tell students is, ‘Make the prompt your own. What’s the paper only you can write?’”
After exploring the different narrative voices in the two books, the different word choices and imagery, and the way text was placed on the pages of each book, Janibek concluded that X+Y1>X+Y2. In other words, he preferred Citizen. But more importantly, he appreciated that the assignment didn’t require a single definitive answer. “It was a question we could pursue our own way,” he says.
He also sees a bigger picture — “that a person doesn’t have to be just good at math or just a writer or just a science person. You can always translate your skills into different subjects.”
Photo: Chattman Photography