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Classroom culture clash

Dramatic scenarios help engineering faculty explore diversity issues

By Kathleen Scalise, Public Affairs
Posted April 26, 2000

Three male students excluded a Latina from a collaborative research project; an unsympathetic professor rebuffed a young undergraduate with a learning disability hoping to arrange extra time to take a test.

These and other scenarios, enacted by professional actors and trained campus employees, are the heart of a new diversity training workshop called Interactive Theater, piloted this month by the College of Engineering.

Its live performances depicting classroom culture clash are "a simple, non-threatening way to introduce and discuss gender, racial and disability issues that enter into a learning environment," said co-coordinator Carla Trujillo of the Center for Underrepresented Engineering Students.

Lura Dolas, a professional actor and a campus lecturer in dramatic art, wrote and directed the short plays. She trained campus staff and students as actors. One of several scenarios portrayed a Latina graduate student excluded from a group research project by her three male partners. Another showed a young undergraduate with a learning disability struggling to arrange extra test-taking time despite mild rebuffs from an unsympathetic professor.

Dorian Liepmann, associate professor in mechanical engineering, attended some of the sessions. He said

Faculty members frequently encounter such issues in their teaching and mentoring roles, and don't know what to do, said Dorian Lipemann, associate professor of mechanical engineering. The sessions captured the attention of the audience and offered solutions, he said.

"It does make you very uncomfortable," Liepmann noted. "You think about things in the past, and you realize you screwed up."

The workshops drew more than 60 engineering faculty members to a series of closed sessions, and 60 more participants from across campus to a demonstration version. After each scenario, they quizzed actors and actresses on their motivations and feelings. Instructed to stay in character, performers mostly succeeded, despite audience attempts to ask them frank questions about who they really were and whether they accurately portrayed Berkeley experiences in the scenes. The audience also explored alternative approaches to the situation.

Thomas Hutcheson, managing producer/director for the Office of Media Services, played the professor in two scenarios.

"In one I basically presented my lecture while looking at the board the whole time," he said. "My other character is not too good with women and isn't into helping with the interpersonal thing between students."

Hutcheson said the performances were meant to be believable and not too racist or sexist. The best thing that happened, he said, was fostering a way to talk freely and openly about sensitive issues with colleagues, "something we don't do much," he said.

Ocean engineering graduate student Mido Abousseyef played an engineering student who doubted women should be in the field.

"Personally, I disagreed with my character strongly, but I think he was representative of a lot of males in engineering," Abousseyef said. "Especially if you've got good grades, you can be very condescending."

Trujillo said faculty members who need help resolving diversity issues can turn to a wealth of resources on campus, including units that handle disability and diversity concerns, as well as sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Plans are under way to consider whether the campus should sponsor more Interactive Theater workshops.



April 26 - May 3, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 30)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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