Teaching Mathematics Using Primary Sources: Finding the Art in Charts from W.E.B. DuBois and Others

This post was written by Peter DeCraene, the 2020-21 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

Visual components in charts and graphs can add layers of communication to the numbers alone. As a painting or drawing may represent the artist’s reaction to an event or be an abstraction of how the artist views a subject, charts and graphs are also abstractions, but they typically illustrate quantities and relationships. If you are trying to communicate something about data, you might use some artistic techniques to support the information you are trying to convey. Since charts and drawings are both aspects of the visual arts, their use can overlap in interesting ways, and teachers can use the “art” in “chart” to engage students who might not otherwise find a welcome entry into the mathematics.

Assessed valuation of of all taxable property owned by Georgia Negroes.

For example, W.E.B. Du Bois created a series of graphs about the experiences of formerly enslaved people in Georgia for an exhibition. This chart is part of a collection of those graphs at the Library of Congress. Rather than show only the relevant numbers, Du Bois chose a more artistic way of representing the information. Engage students by asking: What do you notice about this image? What do the numbers indicate? What message do you think Du Bois was trying to convey to his audience? How might the data be represented to convey a different message?

A recent Picture This blog post included another of Du Bois’s graphs from the exhibition, and there are many other charts from the same collection.  Ask your students to look at several of the charts together, as the original audience would have done, and then ask: How does seeing multiple pieces together affect your feelings? How does the artwork of the pieces support the data presented?  What data from the students’ own community or from current events could be represented in charts like this?

A collection of charts can in themselves appear to be artwork. Look at these pages (81 & 82) from the Statistical Atlas created from the 1870 census information. At first glance I was reminded of a quilt. The individual charts don’t include any numbers, but they do contain plenty of information to interpret.

Church accomodations [sic] (1870), p. 81

Gainful occupations & attending school, p. 82

Allow students time to examine one of the pages and then ask them: What information can be determined by studying the different pieces? In what ways does this image show the similarities and differences between the states? Which states have the highest percentage of people without a church to attend? Which states have the highest percentage of people attending school?” How does the artist’s choice of colors affect your interpretation? How might different colors change that interpretation? Your students might research the current data about their state to create an updated quilt square.  Or, perhaps your students can each create a chart representing different aspects of themselves, to create a “quilt” for the class.

The Library’s collections offer many examples of interesting charts that combine data and art. Ask your students to enhance their charts and graphs in math class with some artistic flourishes to emphasize an aspect of the data, or ask students to create two different artistic charts for the same data so they convey different messages.

One Comment

  1. Gay Thistle
    December 10, 2020 at 3:34 pm

    This post is very useful to help spark interest in mathematical concepts from visual learners. There are so many ways to create and share graphs these days. So after analyzing these graphics students could be asked to make their own infographics with the data. This would demonstrate a deep engagement with the math concepts and might actually be fun ;). Thanks for sharing the sources and applications.

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