The Mathematics of Being Human

Blurry take on The Mathematics of Being Human.

Blurry take on The Mathematics of Being Human. From left to right: Chaz Atkinson, Manil Suri, Michele Osherow, and Savannah Jo Chamberlain.

I must admit, I was not really sure what to expect going into the mysteriously named “MAA Dramatic Presentation” on Sunday night. It was a hard choice, too, given that the movie about Yitang Zhang, Couting from Infinity (write up by Josh here),  was playing at the same time. But I was intrigued by the title and by the fact that it was cowritten by Manil Suri, a mathematician and novelist I had heard of before.

The play was a surprise, and it wasn’t until the Q&A session that I realized what the origin for the idea had been. Suri, a mathematics professor in the University of Maryland Baltimore County, mentioned that he and Michele Osherow, a professor in the English department, decided one year to team teach a course that related mathematics and the humanities. In October 2012, they wrote a three-part article for the Chronicle of Higher Ed describing the experience. Later, they were asked to give a talk about the content of the article for the conference, and they decided to write a one-hour play instead. That is the play I saw on Sunday night.

I thought they did a great job describing all of the steps of a course (that those of us who teach are very familiar with): conceiving the idea for an interdisciplinary course, planning the content, teaching the course, and the reflection that comes after. The tension between the math professor and the English professor was portrayed really well, although the amount of arguing in front of the students made me slightly uncomfortable as a person who avoids both conflict and showing vulnerability in front of students. The discomfort, by the way, is a good thing, it means that I was invested in the story. I also enjoyed that there was a lot of mathematical detail (e.g. the Monty Hall problem, Euclidean vs. non-Euclidean geometry, fractals, Zeno’s paradox, constructing the integers from the empty set) and literary detail (King Lear, poetry, OULIPO). Whatever their course was actually like, the balance of math and humanities was perfect. The addition of the two characters, one male and one female, to stand in for the whole classroom, was clever and effective. The climax, in which two students write an alternate King Lear incorporating all the math and other ideas they learned in the class, was brilliant, and a nice homage to Tom Stoppard, whose play Arcadia is also frequently mentioned.

I’m happy I stayed for the Q&A, since it gave me context for the play that I didn’t have otherwise. For example, at some point I was annoyed that the male professor was a mathematician and the English professor was female, thinking that it was reinforcing stereotypes. But now that I know that this was inspired by their own experiences, it makes perfect sense (and the students were switched around: the more humanistic student was the male, and the mathy student was the female).

They will be performing this play again at the Bridges conference in Baltimore, so if you’re planning on going you should try to see this play. Not only was it a fun and well-written play, but it actually gave me lots of ideas for what I can make my First Year Seminar students read next year.

The players: Chaz Atkinson, Manil Suri, Michele Osherow, Savannah Jo Chamberlain, and Julian Sass.

The players: Chaz Atkinson, Manil Suri, Michele Osherow, Savannah Jo Chamberlain, and Julian Sass.

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