Rhetorical Numbers: A Workshop with Dr. Joanna Wolfe

Across public and social media, there is a tendency to treat quantitative evidence as facts that are above argument. Most students, indeed most people, tend to say things like “numbers speak for themselves” when instead they should ask, “what are these numbers being used to say and how?”

The University of Texas recently hosted a lecture and workshop with Dr. Joanna Wolfe, Professor and Director of the Global Communications Center and at Carnegie-Mellon University. A graduate of UT’s Department of English and former Assistant Director of the DWRL (then the Computer Research & Writing Lab), Dr. Wolfe returned home to discuss “Rhetorical Numbers: Quantitative Argument Across the Curriculum” and provide guidance for incorporating quantitative argumentation into classroom instruction.

Pedagogical techniques described by Dr. Wolfe had two goals: to teach students to compose arguments with numbers and to teach students to critically analyze number arguments made by others. Her workshop focused on questions about scale, context, labels, and design—key factors shaping how viewers “make sense” of quantitative presentations such as charts, graphs, and statistics–and how these factors can be manipulated to generate specific conclusions. These questions are applicable far outside rhetoric classrooms, benefitting students across disciplines by allowing them to more thoughtfully engage with both academic and worldly information sources and knowledge claims.

This workshop included several adaptable classroom activities for instructors who want to teach these concepts but feel apprehensive about their ability to explain “numbers,” including asking students to collect a small amount of data (such as how often men vs. women speak in class) to create an argument. Dr. Wolfe concluded with a discussion of ethical applications of quantitative argument as well as a call for rhetorical education that includes verbal and mathematical literacies to examine how numbers are used in the service of persuasion towards public, political, and personal ends.

Dr. Wolfe’s presentations were sponsored by the University of Texas’ Center for Skills and Experience Flags, the Department of Rhetoric and Writing, Learning Commons at PCL, and the University Writing Center.


Download Dr. Wolfe’s slides (direct link to PDF)

All materials have been shared with the agreement of Dr. Joanna Wolfe. Please use them freely.

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