By Susan Lonkevich
Illustration by Jane Sanders
Janelle Brodsky, C/EAS'99, a Penn senior from California, first
heard about a program called the undergraduate preceptorials, her initial
thought was, "Who the heck is going to sign up for a non-credit class?"
Curiosity about the student-organized, faculty-led short courses eventually
got the best of her, and in late October the math and systems-engineering
major found herself standing waist deep in the bracing waters of the Atlantic
Ocean as she learned from Dr. George Thomas, Gr'75, better known
as a lecturer in historic preservation and urban studies, how to surf
cast. By the time the group headed back from the shore to Thomas's Philadelphia
home to cook up bluefish for dinner, Brodsky hadn't caught anything. But
she had met some new people, seen another part of the East Coast, and
discovered that Penn's faculty have lives, too.
"It was fascinating in its own way," she says,
"because here was this man who was sharing his hobby with us. I originally
just assumed that he was some kind of microbiologist or marine-studies
professor, but he's not, and this is just a personal interest of his.
Sometimes students forget our professors are people with families and
hobbies because they only see them in one isolated setting."
Preceptorials, which are free short courses offered
by faculty and staff on a range of topics, were designed to change that
and give students the opportunity to get to know the professor behind
the podium as well as promote learning -- not for a grade, but for its
own sake. Since the program's creation by the Student Committee on Undergraduate
Education (SCUE) three years ago, it has grown from obscurity to popularity,
with sessions now in such high demand that the registrar's office must
handle registration. Hundreds of students were turned away from this spring's
17 offerings. Two of the most popular ones, a preceptorial with Dr. Judith
Rodin, CW'66, president of the University, on the current problems
of public discourse, and one entitled, "I Want a New Drug,"
led by Dr. P. Roy Vagelos, C'50, chair of the Trustees of the University
and the former chair of Merck & Co., Inc., required a paragraph statement
from students about why they wanted to enroll. Admission to the other
preceptorials has been granted at random.
It all began in the spring of 1996. Recalls former SCUE
chair Rachael Goldfarb, C'99, who was a freshman at the time, the
group had discussed ways in which it could "further the intellectual
environment here at Penn. We had considered a number of different approaches,"
she says, "but the one which seemed to have the best shot at surviving
the institutional traumas of starting a program was this preceptorial
SCUE preceptorials open up for students and faculty whole new areas of
intellectual interest, which permit almost any individual in the undergraduate
student body to pursue a mentoring relationship with a member of the faculty,"
says Mark Frazier Lloyd, director of the University Archives and Records
Center, who led a preceptorial last semester entitled "Penn in the
1960s: Why Weren't We Like Berkeley?" During three gatherings held
at Kelly Writers House, Lloyd initially took students further back in
time than the 1960s to put the decade into historical context, then led
discussions about why Penn's campus witnessed less social protest than
at some other universities. (One possible reason was the conservative
influence of the large Wharton School population.)
In the beginning there were just six preceptorials,
with 60 seats, and to be guaranteed a spot in one, all a student had to
do was sign up. As the word got passed around on campus, however, demand
increased. There were some 3,000 requests for the 260 seats available
in this spring's preceptorials, Goldfarb says. "They've really
become sort of a monster of intellectual engagement."
Interest has blossomed among the faculty, as well. "In
the beginning it was difficult," Goldfarb recalls, "because
first of all, it was hard to articulate what it was that we were trying
to achieve: 'We want you to teach this class, but it's not really a class,
and we don't really want you to teach, we want you to lead discussions,
and nobody's going to get any credit for it.' But we got some excited
people involved from the beginning, which set a tone of validation for
us." Among them were George Thomas, a frequent preceptorial participant,
who gave a walking tour of Philadelphia to highlight the city's role in
the American Revolution, and Dr. Al Filreis, professor of English, who
led a course on modern and contemporary American poetry.
"This [past] semester we actually had professors
approach us and say they were really interested in doing this. Now that
we've become really popular," Goldfarb says, "we've had no problems
asking professors [to lead preceptorials]. It's like they're the anointed
ones. We pick people who we think are really extraordinary individuals
on this campus."
"I think SCUE deserves an enormous amount of congratulations,"
says Dr. Alan Mann, a professor of anthropology who last fall led a preceptorial
with the attention-getting title of, "If We Are What We Eat, Then
Why Aren't Cows Green?" (see box). "This is an incredibly complicated
program to develop and to get a lot of my colleagues to do this without
compensation is a major thing."
David Fox, a lecturer in theater arts who also serves
as associate director for academic services in the Office of College Houses
and Academic Services, taught his first preceptorial, on opera, last semester.
"It's the kind of thing that reinvigorates your interest in teaching,"
he observes, "And the money -- or the lack of money -- is frankly
the last thing you think about when you do it."
The range of past and future preceptorial topics appears
to have no limit. Last semester, one history lecturer, Suzanne Tapper,
shared her love of jazz with students by taking them out to Philadelphia
clubs, while Dr. Peter Conn, The Andrea Mitchell Professor of English,
invited writers Buzz Bissinger, C'76, Diane McKinney-Whetstone,
CW'75, and Diana Cavallo to discuss their craft. Previous preceptorials
have focused on the popularity of best-selling authors like Stephen King,
why we feel guilty after eating chocolate, society's fascination with
the physically bizarre via a trip to Philadelphia's Mütter Museum, and
the mysteries of sleep.
The topics are sometimes faculty- inspired, and other
times the result of student brainstorming. To give one example, Goldfarb
says, "Somebody said they'd really like to learn about the Italian
Mafia, so we scoured the campus for a professor whom we thought would
be appropriate." (Dr. Armando Maggi, assistant professor of Romance
languages, will be leading the preceptorial this spring). On the other
hand, she adds, "You just walk up to Tom Childers and say, 'What
would you like to teach? Because you could lead any [course] and the world
would come.'" (Dr. Childers, a professor of history, is leading a
preceptorial about Normandy, a timely topic in light of the current popular
obsession with World War II.)
SCUE doesn't want monetary need to prevent students
from participating in the preceptorials, so everything required for the
courses, from transportation to reading materials to opera tickets, is
provided free of charge. SCUE does its part to keep costs down, but Goldfarb
would like to see alumni financial support for the program, and for it
one day to be endowed.
In many ways the preceptorial idea is an obvious extension
of other activities the organization has been involved in since its founding
by students as an "independent academic think-tank" in 1965.
Over the years SCUE has written numerous position papers in response to
academic issues at the University, established a lounge in the Faculty
Club where students can take professors out to lunch using their meal
plans, and introduced a "speaking across the University" initiative
to help students improve their communication and presentation skills.
Because the preceptorials are but one program among many that SCUE wants
to support, its leaders have decided to train a separate student group
to coordinate them and build upon their current success, starting with
next semester. The changeover will be gradual, explains Aaron Fidler,
W'00, SCUE's new chair. "Our main concern," says Goldfarb,
"is that this remain institutionalized."
Institutionalized, but still free in form. What's key
about the preceptorials, after all, is that students help shape the direction
of the courses. A preceptorial offered by Dr. Stephen Dunning, professor
and chair of religious studies, for instance, was meant to explore the
Book of Genesis, but wound up evolving into a free-flowing discussion
on religious identity. Dunning says he didn't have a problem with that
turn of events. "They had a genuine interest in learning about each
other," he says. "I sort of thought we would talk mostly about
evolution and creation, but this was fine. In many ways it's of more interest
to me than the issues surrounding theories of evolution and creation,
which are interesting enough."
Indeed, the brief and casual nature of the preceptorials
presents challenges, as well as opportunities. Fox, for instance, had
just two half-day sessions to introduce a group of enthusiastic students
to opera -- a subject that really can't be taught in so short a period.
"This was for me an intriguing problem to conceptualize: What were
the kinds of things they needed to know that would enhance their going
to one particular performance and might be a way of organizing their thoughts
about any future listening they do?" In the end he was pleased with
students' responses to the preceptorial, which included attending a performance
of La Bohème -- so pleased that he plans to teach another preceptorial
this semester on Frank Sinatra as a cultural icon. Fox also says he was
impressed that students took as much time as they did out of their busy
study schedules to engage in learning about something that they received
no credit for; he likened their enthusiasm to that which he sees in adult
But there may be a limit to what some students are willing
to do in their free time. Mark Lloyd, the University's archivist, urged
students who signed up for his preceptorial on Penn in the 1960s to do
their own research between meetings, using primary resources within the
archives; he found attendance drop as a result. "Perhaps the Achilles
heel of the preceptorial concept is that it's pitched by SCUE as part-entertainment,"
he suggests, "and as soon as the faculty leader explains that he
or she will require work from the students, the number of participants
Participants in preceptorials also lack the luxury of
spending an entire semester getting to know each other. Mann, as a senior
faculty member, says he finds that it typically takes some time before
undergraduates are comfortable enough with him to participate fully in
class. Because of this, he thinks he may take a different approach to
the next preceptorial he leads, starting out with some snacks and just
spending the first hour getting to know the group. "At the end,"
he recalls, "when we were having pizza together and chatting, they
were asking me about all kinds of things. When undergraduates begin to
ask you what you do outside of class, then you know you've made an important
March/April Contents | Gazette
Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania
Gazette Last modified 2/12/99