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CRLT Players offer lessons through theater

Members of the CRLT Players theater troupe, clockwise from top left: Iyobosa Ekhato, Ward Beauchamp, Ron Dreslinski, James Ingagiola, Omry Maoz and director Jeffrey Steiger. (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)


Five faculty members enter a room for their weekly departmental meeting. The purpose is to evaluate two candidates for a new faculty position. As the meeting progresses, Marlene, the only female faculty member, continuously is interrupted or shot down whenever she speaks. At the same time, a male faculty member is acknowledged and respected when he makes similar comments or agrees with what Marlene says. Frustration mounts as two brash male faculty members continuously interrupt and shoot down others in an effort to get their views heard, and nobody seems to notice. When an annoyed Marlene asks the men to stop interrupting as she speaks, the two men exchange an irritated look.

The interaction is make-believe but the scenario is real. Marlene’s plight is a sketch, performed by the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) Players, that represents situations female faculty face within their departments every day. It is part of the ADVANCE project on women in the sciences.

The CRLT Theater Program explores conflicts such as these that arise as a result a number of factors, including gender differences, disability and conflict in the classroom. The skits give the audience a chance to interact with the actors and to confront the topic in a way that cannot be done in a classroom setting. “These sketches” says Jeffrey Steiger, CRLT Theater Program director, “allow the audience to engage with research as a lived experience and practice changing the outcomes.”

A typical CRLT Theater Program workshop begins with a sketch portraying a classroom situation. At the end, audience members talk with the characters. They ask questions about the characters’ actions and suggest ways in which the characters could improve their behavior. The characters then re-enact the situation, incorporating the suggestions so the audience can see how the new situation works.

“As the audience members participate, they are helping to solve the problem at hand,” Steiger says. This in turn may help them resolve similar issues in the classroom setting.

The idea for the program began four years ago when the Sloan Foundation grant for Women in Science and Engineering allowed for the development of a sketch on gender in the classroom. Two years ago, when the grant expired, CRLT adopted the theater program and developed new sketches.

Constance Cook, CRLT director, says that the goal of the program is to “support faculty and graduate student instructors in efforts to improve teaching.” Although other universities have interactive theater programs for students, the CRLT Players perform primarily for instructors on topics dealing with learning and teaching.

The goal of each performance is to shape the experience and make it real for the participants. Feedback from participants in the program has been positive, Steiger says.

Faculty members have reported changing their syllabi and running their classrooms differently because of their increased awareness of the dynamics that exist in the classroom.

The sketch “(dis)Ability in the Classroom” is scheduled to be performed 7–8:30 p.m. Oct. 24 in the Michigan Room of the Michigan League, at the upcoming Investing in Abilities program.

For more information about the CRLT Players, call (734) 615-8309.

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