Molly Tun, a recipient of the Graduate School's 2014-15 Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellowship, researches the relationship between math and culture (called “ethnomathematics”) in her dissertation research, "Articulations of Colonial Counting: Literary and Numeric Discourse in Early Modern Andean Accounts."
Tun's research recovers indigenous Andean math practices that were silenced by 16th-century colonial intervention. Contrary to historians' claims, she says, Andean cultures used "color-coded, three-dimensional, numerical knot records called quipu (see image at left) for hundreds of years prior to the arrival of the Spaniards and their printing press.” The quipu was a way for the Incas, an ancient civilization located in modern-day Peru, to keep track of important information.
"Drawing from Spanish-language arithmetic texts and indigenous knot-records, I argue that the moralizing, mathematical rhetoric of colonial discourse obscures and euphemizes these particular math practices," Tun says. "Conversely, the quipu that persisted throughout the colonial period endorse an alternative counting method and social organization."
Tun’s analysis could change how the agency of indigenous people is recognized and historicized.
“Molly’s current research belongs to a generation of creative and analytical gifted young minds in the field of Latin American Studies, Human Rights and Literary Discourse studies, “ says Tun’s adviser, Professor Luis A. Ramos-Garcia. “I believe that Molly’s research is bound to generate—sooner rather than later—an entirely new area of studies based in the dynamic conception of multiple social truths, emulating the gray areas where human knowledge and individuals exchange the traits of their cultures even when they are right in the middle of catastrophic social struggles.”
As a teacher and researcher for both Spanish and math departments, Tun recognizes that interdisciplinary support is needed for interdisciplinary work. The IDF award will allow Tun to carry out her research and make further connections between different disciplines, centers, professors and students, she says.
"Truly engaging across the disciplines is a commitment that requires extra investment," says Tun. "I am excited to take advantage of the opportunity extended to me in order to bring together literary, cultural and mathematical analysis—an innovative and important project otherwise unattainable."
A Minnesota native, Tun did her undergraduate work at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, where she majored in math and Spanish. She gained a global perspective through study abroad experiences in Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, El Salvador, India and Bosnia.
Seeking to promote a global approach to mathematics that took alternative world views into account, Tun became an advocate for ethnomathematics, a Latin American-based movement that considers the cultural basis of math practices and critically examines the role of math in society and the classroom.
“Molly’s research is cutting-edge and her past graduate course work and dedication have earned her not only a good place among her peers and professors, but also at several Peruvian universities and think-tank organizations,” says Ramos-Garcia.
This summer, Tun will travel to Peru to continue her dissertation research and ethnomathematics initiatives. With the Peruvian coordinator of the Latinamerican Network of Ethnomathematics, Miguel Díaz, Tun will offer workshops on Inca mathematics and work with other educators and the Peruvian Ministry of Education to incorporate similar ethnomathematics topics into the classroom and K-12 curriculum. Her postcolonial framework calls for research methods that are informed by local cultures. "Only by working with periphery cultures can the silencing process of coloniality be challenged," she says.
- Lyra Fontaine