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What We Talk About When We’re Not Talking About Engineering

Kristin Boudreau describes how a play by a student has fostered a vitally inclusive space at a predominately engineering college.

July 28, 2017
 
This Year's The Showcase Cast and Crew at Worcester Polytechnic Institute
 

“Nobody chooses to be gay,” says Cheryl to her boyfriend in Ann Palmer’s 1987 short play, Why Did You Tell Me?  

The boyfriend, Jack, seeks Cheryl’s consolation after his roommate and best friend comes out to him. Jack has not taken the revelation well. He is hurt, enraged and disgusted.

The play is remarkable in several ways. It was written by an undergraduate at a predominantly engineering college and performed there in 1987. C.P. Snow’s lamentable divide between the humanities and science has, if anything, intensified since his lecture on “Two Cultures” in 1959. Today, many people still believe that the humanities have little to say to engineers and scientists, nor any place in a global economy.

But at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, an original short play festival called New Voices has been running continuously since 1983. Each year, students submit original short plays, which are selected in a blind review process and produced in WPI’s small theatre by a student cast and production team. Ann Palmer’s play was performed in the fifth year of New Voices, and students recently performed it again in The Showcase, a retrospective of student-authored LGBTQ+ themed plays.

From the very beginning, these original plays featured difficult themes of sexual identity and orientation. As Erin A. Cech and Thomas J. Waidzunas point out, engineering culture is not generally a welcoming place for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students or for open discussions about non-normative sexuality. Engineering schools are characterized by heteronormativity, the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm and that any other sexuality either doesn’t or shouldn’t exist. This assumption, often unstated, saturates the environment with damaging results for LGBT students.

Heteronormative culture, Cech and Waidzunas report, “pressures many LGB[T] engineering students into both academic and social isolation.” To persist in college, they must either keep their private lives secret or face the emotional challenge of being LGBT in an environment that does not welcome them -- a burden not shared by straight students. This additional “emotional work,” Cech and Waidzunas have found, forces LGBT students to “daily negotiate public knowledge of their personal lives in ways that their heterosexual peers do not.”

In particular, Cech and Waidzunas observe that the technical/social divide within engineering culture -- which dismisses the “personal” as irrelevant to the technical orientation of engineering --  “may marginalize LGB students and lead them to feel as though discussions of their particular circumstances are silenced.”

These are the conditions that Cech and Waidzunas observed in 2011; one can only imagine the scene in 1987, six years before President Bill Clinton’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. And yet, the staging of Ann Palmer’s Why Did You Tell Me? in 1987 invited audiences to explore these questions for themselves and as a community. In the second scene of the play, Cheryl tries to convince her boyfriend that his friend, Dave, was brave to confide in him about being gay:

“Don’t you think he knew how you’d react?” she asks him. “All those times you guys made fun of homosexuals and gagged and showed your disgust, Dave was there.

“Don’t you think it was hard for him to just stand there and listen while you cut down the way he had to live? Don’t you think it was hard for him to throw in the occasional insult so you guys wouldn’t get suspicious?

In asking Jack to imagine what life has been like for his closeted friend, Cheryl invokes without naming (because the term had not yet been coined) the concept of heteronormativity, or what Adrienne Rich in 1980 called “compulsory heterosexuality.” What burdens do closeted gays carry in a culture that assumes that everyone is straight?

When Cheryl asks her boyfriend to imagine what it has been like for his roommate to accept his sexual identity in an inhospitable environment, she is asking her audience to do the same:

“Just do it. Think about it. You try to hide the feelings, because you don’t want to believe it, but you can’t. All of your friends are talking about girls and you wish that you could, too. Falling in love is supposed to be the most wonderful feeling there is, but if you do it, you just feel like you’re doing something wrong. Or that everybody else will think you’re doing something wrong.”

Susan Vick, the theatre professor who inaugurated New Voices and still oversees the festival 35 years later, remembers “sitting in the audience on opening night and kind of holding my breath  -- but the actors, staff and audience just got it and applauded with gusto as they do when they really like a piece.”

The author, Ann Palmer Anderson, also vividly remembers the play, which she wrote as an exploration of her own feelings:

“I was a junior and had met this guy at a party. We met up again for a date a couple of weeks later. We didn’t go anywhere though. He said he was too upset to be fun that night because his best friend had just come out to him by hitting on him…. So essentially he was Jack and I was Cheryl. I tried to be sympathetic and help him see his friend’s side, but we didn’t know each other very well and his reaction was so negative and visceral. I never saw him again after that night.

“I just had to get my feelings down about it and the play was the result. I was proud of “Why Did You Tell Me?” while it was being performed because the actors and director accomplished what I wanted: a dialog about homosexuality and coming out with all sides represented and compassion winning out. But the aftermath was even more amazing. I had so many people seek me out. People I didn’t know -- they would ask me if I was Ann Palmer and then shake my hand or just say “Thank You.” It was extremely humbling because I wasn’t trying to be some sort of crusader, I just had a story to tell.”

When these plays were performed in April, a sold-out crowd received them warmly. When we queried the audience in an online, anonymous post-show survey, the 80 respondents described the role of WPI’s drama program in fostering an inclusive space. One respondent noted that “the experience of working very closely with others for a shared goal fosters closeness and trust” among performance groups, while another focused on the audience experience of “thinking about [sexuality] in a small, personal space, without judgment.”

As the national dialogue over education and public funding continues to pit the humanities and arts against STEM fields, we ought to take note of powerful examples like Ann Palmer, a successful engineering student whose experiences with humanistic study helped her to understand her place in the world, articulate her values, and open a conversation on the campus about fairness, empathy and social change. Claims that the arts and humanities don’t advance our national interests or prepare the nation’s workforce are both wrong and beside the point -- which is that human beings, the workforce, and civil society desperately need people who understand both cognitive domains.

Bio

Kristin Boudreau is Paris Fletcher Distinguished Professor of Humanities and chair of the department of humanities and arts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

 

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