Science in the Seams

Staging Science
Teaching, and learning from, the interdisciplinary class
Amy Cook, Mellon Fellow in Theater Studies

Vol. 10 No. 1
September 2007

Return to Contents

Science in the Seams
Computational and Life Sciences Initiative redefines disciplinary lines

High-performance computing at Emory

“Everybody understands or recognizes the combination of computational and life sciences as very promising. . . . Few people have been working in this combination of fields long enough to have established a leadership presence.”

“Rather than 'deconstructing' nature into its simplest parts . . . , the twenty-first century will likely be spent trying to understand, scientifically, the nature of complex interacting systems by “reconstructing” complexity.”

Staging Science
Teaching, and learning from, the interdisciplinary class

Thinking Outside the Pipeline
The impact of the unexpected in work-life issues

Creative Minds and "The Greatness Game"
A Response


For as long as I am able to teach, I will probably feel like a beginner. Like sex, there are few opportunities to study it, people rarely talk about it, no one wants to admit they aren’t good at it, and the evaluations at the end are rarely helpful. All of which helps to explain why writing this essay has made me feel so naked.

Yet I want to talk about the interdisciplinary courses that I have taught because they have been exciting, inspiring, and great learning experiences. It might not always look the way I imagine, but I believe in border crossing in the classroom. I want students to see connections where others haven’t; to re-evaluate categories, borders, and assumptions; and to increase their literacy in both science and literature so that they can see and question “drama/performance” and “science.” I have found two models for structuring interdisciplinary courses: one that is explicitly interdisciplinary and another that is project-based and ultimately interdisciplinary. If talking about them makes me uncomfortable, well . . . so be it.

In her book Geographies of Learning: Theory and Practice, Activism and Performance (Wesleyan UP 2001), on integrating performance into education, Jill Dolan notes, “Performance offers us a practice that lets us rehearse new social arrangements, in ways that require visceral investments of bodies, of time, of personal and cultural history.” Despite my own personal aversion to “warm ups” and my love of the lectern, I believe we think with our whole bodies. From my experience as a director, I know that just as some actors respond to talking, analyzing, and research, some students respond to lecture, discussion, and reading. Some actors and some students, however, find the character or the theory or the play only when they are on their feet. Incorporating performance into a class can be as simple as asking students to read a passage in front of the class or be as involved as a large group project. When discussing a play, it is almost impossible to unearth the nuances without putting voices in bodies; you may not notice who is not talking in a scene, for example, until you stage it. Days of discussion and investigation rarely yield as much clarity as when I ask students to prepare a performance in which they show the class “time” in the play. Even for classes in other disciplines, “staging” an idea can often do a lot to bring it to life. This is, in many ways, what lab work achieves in the sciences.

Drama in science and science in drama

At the University of California, San Diego, I designed and taught a seminar that examined how scientific epistemology and artistic methodology reflect and influence one another. The class read scientific theories of the last hundred years against the acting theories of the same period, together with plays of the last five years. This approach allowed students to see how certain prevailing models or metaphors can shape a conception of “truth” within a given period. Reading Antonio Damasio with David Mamet and chaos theory with Sanford Meisner’s acting theory of repetition, we used the science to enrich the possibilities of performance. This class put pressure on assumptions about acting, looked for new ways of thinking about character and performance, and explored the shifting ways science has made sense of the self, language, and the world. We read plays through different scientific lenses, finding new readings with each new perspective.
The diversity of perspectives gave students many different ways to approach the plays, and class discussions were always lively. The students performed scenes from the plays at the end of the term, directing them to highlight the scientific relevance. (While the class was successful overall, I ultimately felt that it would have been better with less material and more time for integration.)

For the theater and science course I am teaching this fall at Emory, I have assigned reading from scholars who are integrating a scientific perspective into their study of drama—work that was only just beginning to be done when I taught the course the first time—rather than having the students read the science to come up with their own integration. It will also be more historically contained: we will read Hamlet and Satisfying Skepticism, Ellen Spolsky’s book about epistemology in the arts and sciences of the Renaissance, and then Membranes: Metaphors of Invasion in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Science, and Politics by Emory Professor of English Laura Otis alongside Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Otis’s book explores a concern with borders and containment that continues through the Cold War, as we will see in Bruce McConachie’s book American Theatre in the Culture of the Cold War. In the final weeks we will read current research on memory, mirror neurons, and phantom limbs and ask how this might inform our reading of two important plays from the last few years. I am also shifting the performance focus this time, so that students will work on monologues from the plays over the course of the semester, exploring how the
readings might enrich their presentation without requiring that they “present” the science through the monologue. They will then prepare a brief lecture on the scientific theory that they found most illuminating in working on their monologue. I cannot wait to learn what works and
what doesn’t this time around.

The play’s the thing

If you want passionate discussions from undergraduates, cast them in a play. The pedagogical theory of Erasmus recommended that Renaissance students write orations from the perspective of different historical and fictional characters, and it encouraged imagination and comprehension. The first week of rehearsals for a play is often spent doing “table work”—thinking about the play without the body. When I was asked to direct the undergraduate production at UCSD I required that the cast take a class with me prior to the start of rehearsals. The play I selected was a comedy about Shakespeare and the disputed authorship of his plays, The Beard of Avon by Amy Freed, and I wanted the cast to read the referenced works by Shakespeare, The Queen Majesty’s Passage, Novum Organum, historical documents on social hierarchy, selections from various biographies of William Shakespeare, and arguments for and against Shakespeare’s authorship. Each week, students would present research on their character, so that we all knew more about, for example, Sir Francis Walsingham than I could ever have imagined. Moreover, discussions about Venus and Adonis or the Dark Lady Sonnets took on fiery importance once the cast became more familiar with the perspective of their characters.

Once we began working on the text, it became clear that we needed a method of unpacking the dense Shakespearean language. I had the students read Metaphors We Live By, a small introductory book on conceptual metaphor theory by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson and a chapter on the cognitive linguistics of jokes from Seana Coulson’s Frame Shifting. This opened up the language and comedy in a whole new way and exposed the students to a method of digging in language for meaning and comedy. We began tracking the use of the word “nothing” in the play, as a bawdy reference to female genitalia and as a counterfactual space defined by something. Students began breathing life into “dead” metaphors and catching, as one character puts it in the play, “the dread contagion of poetry.”

Despite the social superpowers bestowed on those graduates capable of tossing words like “pluripotent,” “fMRI,” and “heteronormative hegemony” into a conversation, this really is not the goal of an undergraduate education. I would like to think of my areas of study as the “medium” through which I teach undergraduate students the same thing everyone else across the campus is trying to teach them: to write, to think, to question, to argue, to solve. I often think about Einstein’s experience with theater: his “discovery” of relativity occurred not just because he asked what would happen if he traveled the speed of light but also because he attempted to stage it. While other daydreaming kids have thought such things, Einstein thought through the ramifications of such a fantasy and realized that science needed to expand its physics to make way for his play. Theater belongs at the crossroads of the academy because it necessitates an
embodiment and imagination to learning