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2002: A Cyberspace Odyssey, by Caren Lissner

Physically they arrive on campus this month, but for 32 incoming freshmen their "Penn experience" started last January -- via the Internet.


It was one of the hottest soap operas of the summer -- and Penn alumni with e-mail accounts were invited to join in and affect the outcome. Three months ago, in June, the plot was this:
    - Ariel wanted to stick her head in a blender.
    - Chil had just returned from 10 days in Nepal and Thailand.
    - Omar was having an "emergency" at 4:56 a.m. because he didn't know whether to register for Econ 1 or Econ 2.
    The protagonists in the drama were 32 actual pre-freshmen who are starting their academic careers at Penn this month. They already have a unique advantage over their peers -- they're armed with advice (and witticisms) contributed over the summer via electronic mail by professors and sympathetic alumni.
    Dr. Al Filreis, professor of English, and Dr. James O'Donnell, professor of classics, came up with the notion last year of allowing high school seniors who'd been accepted to Penn early-decision to begin taking an electronic English course starting in January, a semester before they would ever load up the minivan to barrel toward College Green. Both men had experience with such electronic "courses": For the previous two years, Filreis had been running a poetry discussion for alumni called "Alumverse," which started as a free one-semester course in 1996 ["The Class From Hell," July 1996] but has continued as a chat network since then. O'Donnell, who also happens to serve as vice provost for Information Systems and Computing, had run a course for graduate students in 1994 on the life and works of St. Augustine. The pair thought it might be good to introduce pre-freshmen to collegiate thinking before they ever set foot in West Philly, and six months later, they decided to let alumni contribute as well.
    The experience has apparently benefited all participants. Filreis, O'Donnell, and select professors who "visited" the class got to converse with future students and learn their thoughts and anxieties. The class, of course, got a head start on academic thinking, on top-notch advising, and on meeting their peers. (Two students even found prom dates among their correspondents -- more on that later). And the alumni got to be reminded of that glorious stage of life between high school and college, and to share their wisdom and get some back.
    Now, Filreis and O'Donnell have to figure out what the next step is in this unprecedented program, especially as society (particularly Penn society) heads more and more toward incorporating electronic interaction into every segment of life. The program's founders must figure out how to implement it on a greater scale for more pre-freshmen, where else to take it, and how much might be too much.  

Subject: Oh, the irony Date: June 12, 1998 From: Ariel, C'02 It's really funny Š I got into Penn (clearly, the day that the admissions officers were, shall we say, "dabbling in psychedelics") and yet now I'm completely incapable of figuring out a logical schedule. I feel like a lost hamster.

    Such ham-stirrings were prevalent among the palindromic class of 2002 this summer, with many of them seconding Ariel's statement of a few days earlier that she wanted to "stick [her] head in a blender" due to the confusion. Discussion of which courses to take, which professors were bad or good, and whether to take large or small courses raged for a month, only to be replaced by a lively debate over what to bring to campus. But long before the crises, the anxiety, and the patter of tiny hamster feet, the program was an intellectual endeavor.
    Filreis and O'Donnell compiled a list of student participants this past December by taking the roster of 761 early-decision students and writing to the 560 who had listed e-mail addresses on their applications (a whopping 74 percent). A hundred sent back the required paragraph stating why they wanted to participate, and the professors chose the 32 best among them.
    There was only one required book for the course: A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel.
    "They all bought it and read it," Filreis says. "We talked about a couple of chapters, not all that satisfactorily, but it got us started on what is it like to read, what is the future of books. We had a medieval historian and a librarian who came in and talked about it. It hasn't been a course, per se, but more of a discussion-workshop on the nature of the intellectual life at the University."
    At the same time, the pre-freshmen got to know each other, with each being asked to submit two introductions: one as him/herself, another as someone else or even as an object. Ben from New Orleans said he was ³the television set when your father channel-surfs² (³people accuse me of being random Š [but sometimes] you actually find something out²). Michael from Massachusetts was a combination of Montgomery Burns (the boss on The Simpsons) and Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. Chandra of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, who wants to be veterinarian, cited Jane Goodall. Zack from California, a rabid classical music fan, chose Gustav Mahlerıs Symphony #7.
    The group submitted their reasons for choosing Penn, talked about the book, and composed essays on ³an intense reading experience.² Not to be one-sided, they also submitted essays on intense math experiences after Dr. Dennis DeTurck, Gı78, Grı80, professor of mathematics, visited them for a week.
    ³It was fun,² DeTurck says. ³I had a good time. I struck up some conversations with a few of the students. Some of them had had tragic experiences with math. One woman wrote about wanting to be on a math team and being told she wasnıt welcome. I was really depressed the day I read that one. They are a lively bunch. Theyıll talk about anything.²
    The students enjoyed it as well. ³The most recent [intense math experience],² wrote Chandra in her essay, ³was last week, when I was studying for a calculus test and suddenly understood integration of odd powers of sine and cosine. I love Œahaı moments.²
    As the semester wore on, the students discussed other things: how boring their hometowns were, valedictory addresses, and exams. Ariel met up with Zack while on a trip to California, and they toured Universal Studios together. Two other pairs of students attended their proms together. One student who did so, Chandra Hagan, Cı02, says, ³It all started when the class was having a discussion about housing, and I mentioned that I want to live in the German house. He wrote me a short e-mail in German and then we started corresponding. I asked him to the prom just as a friend and things progressed from there.² (This is known as an ³aha² moment.)
    The pair currently live 90 minutes apart‹a gap thatıll be bridged when they get to Penn. Howıs that for a social head start?
    After the proms, the studentsı grueling high-school careers quietly ended, and it was time to start preparing for college.
    Enter: the alumni.

Continued...
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