SIAM News Blog

Play Takes Aim at the “Two Cultures” Divide

By Katherine Socha

PLAY REVIEW: The Mathematics of Being Human. Written and performed by Michele Osherow and Manil Suri, directed by Alan Kreizenbeck, and featuring performances of Chaz Atkinson and Savannah Jo Chamberlain, November 4, 2014.

A rigid, lock-on-truth mathematics professor and a poetic, metaphor-loving English professor are forced by their university to team-teach an interdisciplinary freshman course. What could possibly go wrong?

Inspired by a true story, Professor Mike Pearson (the character is not related to MAA Executive Director Michael Pearson) and Professor Naomi Kessler battle their way through the development of a syllabus and choice of texts. In the course of the play and the class, they survive fierce arguments over whose subject has “precision,” use metaphor to understand mathematical and literary ideas, and by turns terrify, bore, and inspire the students who take their class. The eponymous course, “The Mathematics of Being Human,” takes the starring role in this play written by Michele Osherow (an associate professor of English, University of Maryland Baltimore County, and dramaturg at the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC) and Manil Suri (a professor of mathematics and statistics at UMBC and best-selling novelist). I was lucky enough to get a seat at a performance held at UMBC, along with apparently a dozen or more of the students who had taken the real-life freshman humanities seminar that inspired this play. Judging by their appreciative laughter at pivotal plot points, I think that much of the performance rang true to their experience as humanities students suckered into a mathematics class.

The play explored major themes in often humorous ways—communicating to people outside one’s own discipline, juxtaposing humanities and mathematics as approaches to understanding the same world, getting into (and out of) one’s own way, and transcending ego (the confident insularity of the mathematician character) and transcending fear (the slightly math-phobic vulnerability of the humanities character).

Wonderful selections of mathematics connections in literature and art highlight the rich opportunities for the cross-cultural battles led by these sharply defined faculty characters. Shakespeare’s King Lear and Howard Moss’s poem “Particular Beauties” appear, along with more stereotypical works, such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare,” all discussed with energy and self-deprecating humor. The play’s Mike Pearson came across to me as the rigid and prejudiced embodiment of some of the worst stereotypes of mathematicians to be found in popular culture—in fact, it seemed a bit heavy-handed to set up such a straw man (however funny) for the sake of showing growth and transcending the disciplinary silo. The play’s Naomi Kessler came across as defensive, resigned, and slightly insecure, as well as hilariously “literary,” while serving as the wry, common-person foil for her colleague’s flights into stratospheric mathematics.

Student performers Chaz Atkinson and Savannah Jo Chamberlain (foreground) “take over when their professors have battled themselves to an impasse.” Manil Suri and Michele Osterow, the professors, play themselves and are also the playwrights.

In real life, Osherow and Suri first taught the course in the fall of 2011. As Osherow reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education,*

“I held a June 2011 orientation for the 13 incoming freshmen chosen for our Humanities Scholars program. They would take the seminar in the fall. When I revealed the title and focus of the seminar, I noted their horror. ‘Don’t worry,’ I told them. ‘You can’t find this more frightening than I do.’ And it was true. Ever since the word problems my father forced on us at dinner, I’ve always been terrified of math.” 

While working on the 2009 Folger Theatre production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, Osherow invited Suri to join her as the play's mathematical consultant.  Through their work on the richly mathematical Arcadia, Osherow overcame her fear of mathematics and developed the productive collaboration with Suri that led to their team-teaching and their work writing their own play.

I freely acknowledge that I am not the target audience for this play: I am familiar with cross-disciplinary studies and have worked with many liberal arts mathematics faculty who respect and appreciate the humanities. (See, for example, the online Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, housed at the Claremont Center for the Mathematical Sciences.) Some of us from this multidisciplinary community can even be a bit jaded about seemingly tired Humanities versus Mathematics dichotomies played up for dramatic effect. However, in the end, my skepticism about a show that promised to play up this constructed divide was unnecessary, and I learned some connections between literature and mathematics that were new to me. For example, the characters spend a good amount of time discussing the idea of “nothing” as explored in King Lear. As pointed out in the play notes, “scholars have commented on Shakespeare’s extended musing on ‘nothing’ in the play, connecting it with the mathematics of zero and nihilist movements in the sixteenth century.” Further discussion of the mathematical exploration of Lear can be found in Osherow and Suri’s Chronicle series. In this series, the interested reader will learn Suri’s solution to a classroom discussion that wandered far from mathematics: offer up to the students “a mathematical version of King Lear’s division problem to compensate.” That is, ask the class to trisect the angle.

The post-performance talkback session brought out many additional intriguing details, including students’ reactions to taking the course. While they were clearly self-selected, the students at the performance seemed very positive about their freshman experience, perhaps surprisingly so because it was an experience they did not choose for themselves. We also learned that Osherow and Suri had very different responses to their original student course evaluations; Osherow considered them among the harshest she’d seen, but Suri thought they were better than expected as his classroom experiments often were “punished” on student evaluations.

Osherow and Suri’s comments in the Chronicle reinforced many of the ideas discussed during the play’s talkback session.  I learned a lot from these columns, which highlighted some of the challenges involved in teaching the course that inspired the play. Oddly, these great pieces appear online as “Do-Your-Job-Better” Columns.  In Part 2 of the series, Osherow writes,

“I think the students liked those days when Manil and I went at it. I liked those moments, too, because I not only had to confront another perspective head on but also had to challenge my own. I loved seeing the baffled expressions of the students while their instructors disagreed; the things we were asking them to consider were perplexing and appropriate.” 

Suri writes of challenges of a different nature:

“I found it difficult to sit still as meticulous mathematical principles were divested of their integrity in the service of poetic cleverness. Mathematics is so poorly understood as it is, by poets and readers alike. To further confuse its meaning in swirls of willful metaphor seemed a dubious pursuit. (I suppose I must have come off as a grumpy party-pooper—probably still do.)” 

No exploration of the great Humanities–Mathematics divide would be complete without at least a mention of C.P. Snow’s famous “Two Cultures” lecture and essay  and the subsequent and continuing popular fascination with whether one is a “science person” or a “humanities person.”  In the Chronicle, Suri suggests that one of the course themes was indeed “the two cultures” and describes his initial enthusiasm for the humanities against the sciences battle as an exciting way to launch the course. The challenge of communicating across the two cultures and learning to respect the insights and expertise of colleagues across the divide forms the backdrop of this thoughtful and witty play.

I found the play by turns funny, annoying, fascinating, educational, and at all steps highly engaging; the high quality of the work is exactly what one would expect from a collaboration between two such distinguished and successful professionals. In this review, as often in universities, the professors have garnered all the attention. But the role of the students, both in the play and in real life, is critical to the development of both professors’ ideas. Through all sections of the play (helpfully captioned at the back of the stage—for instance, 1. General Teaching Requirements; 7. King of Nothing), conversations and arguments between the two students help the audience reflect on and understand the literary and scientific ideas discussed, challenged, or even rejected by the professors. In the play, the students take over when the professors have battled themselves to an impasse—and their efforts lead to the play’s denouement. 

At the audience talkback, Suri said he wanted to create a “cultural profile” for mathematics, to bring people together at night, after work, on weekends to appreciate and engage with mathematics much as they do when they come together to appreciate and engage with art in galleries, or with poetry and literature in book readings.  Performances of this play seem like a great step toward that goal.

*“Mathematics and What It Means to Be Human,” a three-part series, framed as a dialog between Osherow and Suri about their team-teaching experience; Part 1.

“The Mathematics of Being Human” will be performed at Bridges Baltimore 2015: The Conference on Mathematics, Music, Art, Architecture, Culture, which will be held at The University of Baltimore, July 29–August 1, 2015.  The performance, the featured Public Event, is scheduled for The Wright Theater, July 29 at 8:00PM.

As another part of his efforts to encourage people to engage with mathematics, Manil Suri recently accepted an invitation from The New York Times to become a contributing opinion writer. His first piece, about Pi Day, appeared in print on March 14, 2015, titled “Don’t Expect Math to Make Sense.” (Titles, he learned, are not shared with the author in advance.) He expects to contribute several more articles on mathematical topics in coming months.

Katherine Socha teaches mathematics at Park School of Baltimore.

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