It happens every fall: At some point during the Labor Day weekend's cheerful chaos of move-in, Penn freshmen sit down in small groups and talk about a book they've all read.
The book is one chosen by a faculty committee in the spring and sent to all of the freshemen's homes over the summer. In preparation for the students' arrival, over a hundred faculty from all parts of the University read the same book and meet to talk about it among themselves, often gaining new insights as their separate disciplines suggest new questions and correlations about even the most familiar work.
It's the Penn Reading Project, now in its eighth year as a rite of passage that starts Penn students off with a common intellectual experience and introduces each newcomer to at least one faculty member before classes start. Throughout the year, there are related experiences-sometimes movies or plays stemming from book, sometimes lectures by living authors or scholars of the work at hand. The whole campus is encouraged to read along and attend, says Dr. Christopher Dennis, the director of Academic Programs in Residence where the Project is coordinated.
The book for 1997 is Lincoln at Gettysburg, the Pulitzer Prize-winner by Garry Wills: some 300 pages written about those deceptively simple 272 words that in his subtitle Wills calls The Words That Remade America. Two major follow-ups are already planned for March:
On the afternoon of March 17, author Garry Wills, the former Henry R. Luce Professor of American Culture at Northwestern University, gives a lecture in the SAS Dean's Forum.
The next afternoon, March 18, the Music Department presents Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, with President Judith Rodin narrating as Ricardo Averback conducts the University Wind Ensemble. Details of these, and of Lincoln items on the Penn Video Network, are to be announced. For those who want catch up with the reading, the book is available in soft cover (Touchtone/Simon & Schuster, $12).
No two Projects are ever alike, as each year's program takes its cues from the work at hand. But this year's Penn Reading Project program had one innovation that its participants say they want to repeat: Of the 141 sessions held on Sunday before Labor Day, nine were in the University City homes of faculty or of staff who hosted faculty-led discussions.
Six faculty members who met students in their own homes were Lynn Lees (History), Jeffrey Fear (History), Walter Licht (History), Michele Richman (Romance Languages), Peter Dodson (Vet School), and John Hunt (Landscape Architecture). Van Pelt Library's Roberta Doughterty was host to a session by Peter Conn (English); Hannah Poole, business administrator in History, invited Joe Farrell (Classical Studies); and Janet Givens Ackerman of SEAS alumni relations and development provided the setting for Alice Kelley (English).
In their Victorian neighborhood, near some Civil War historical sites, faculty and staff hosts gave the students cookies and sodas or iced tea in their parlors or shady back yards, and found that topics beside the book tended to come up. "We also talked about the diversity of my neighbors," said Dr. Dodson. "We talked about the history of Clark Park, next to which I live, as Satterlee field hospital-and also Woodland Cemetery. My group was more than half international, so the discussion could not presume many things that one might take for granted. In some respects that made it more difficult, but in other respects it was an invitation to spell out some fundamentals that are worth reminding ourselves of."
Dr. Conn's session ended in a neighborhood walk with the hostess. "I did a very informal tour of nearby blocks," recalls Ms. Dougherty, "taking them up Springfield Avenue to 48th Street, past the Warrington Community Garden, up 48th again to Baltimore, past the "restaurant row" in the 4700 block (where I was delighted to hear one student exclaim, 'I came here the other night!'), down 47th past the Carrot Cake Man and then down Cedar... 43rd and Spruce, pointing out restaurants and shops along the way. I said goodbye to them at 43rd and Locust after pointing out Koch's and the Campus Epicurean. My original thought had been to try to show them places tied to the history they had just read about, like the Gettysburg stone in Clark Park, and telling them about the Satterlee field hospital that used to be in that location, the Woodlands Cemetery and all that; but I decided perhaps they could learn about those things another day, and that a student's first consideration might just be where to get something delicious and inexpensive to eat."
Dr. Lees, who is one of the leaders of PFSNI (Penn Faculty and Staff for Neighborhood Issues) says it is a success worth expanding upon, since increased student-faculty interaction was one of the reasons many faculty moved to University City: "Bringing more freshmen into West Philly next year should be a PFSNI project." Added Dr. Licht, associate dean of SAS and another PFSNI leader, "I had a terrific time with my group and I believe the discussion was enhanced by the personal atmosphere of my living room. The students were definitely appreciative."
Another first for this year's project was to hold a session in the Greenfield Intercultural Center, where Farah Griffin (English) led the discussion."I believe that the faculty partnership in the project was greater than in any of our previous years," said VPUL Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum.