While seniors and grad students are preparing to embark into the world, just a few short months from now, 2,400 incoming freshmen will begin their lives as Penn students. David Fox is here to help them get off on the right foot.
Fox runs Penn’s New Student Orientation program (to be held Sept. 1 through 6) as well as the Penn Reading Project, where incoming freshmen gather in small groups—led by faculty and senior staff—and discuss a common book sent to them over the summer. For last year’s selection—Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, “The Tipping Point,” which explores the trajectory of fads—students were asked to think about examples of trends and how they might relate to their own lives.
Fox says most incoming freshmen do read the books and engage in the lively discussions, even though grades aren’t handed out for their efforts. This year, the freshmen will read and discuss a special edition (published by Penn Press) of Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, chosen to coincide with Franklin’s tercentenary celebration. Fox, who is also assistant director for academic services, says the PRP discussions are meant to remind students that Penn is, at its core, an intellectual place. “This was conceived as a place where in a quiet, uncharged environment—a non-hierarchical environment—students and faculty could meet together to talk about ideas,” he says. “[Orientation] is a very overwhelming time. But I think it’s wonderful, because if you get it right and you put the stamp on people in that first week, you get them off on the right road.”
Q. How did you choose the book?
A. This book was a slightly different process than usual. … Every year, the provost convenes the committee, which is faculty, Penn students and academic staff, representing a number of places, and the four undergraduate schools. It’s actually one of the most fun things about working on PRP, but it’s a tremendous amount of reading. There is a very long list and then, at the end of every year, there’s generally about 50 books that we narrow down from that list. Then generally it goes to 25 to 10 to eight and then ultimately, to a recommendation that the committee makes to the provost. Now this year, there was a kind of variant on that. As you can imagine, the Franklin autobiography is a book that’s come up over and over again. The tercentenary makes it obvious.
Q. What do you look for in a book?
A. The ideal PRP book to me represents many interests. There’s something about this book that can grab people who are interested in science, literature and history and lets people plug into it from different angles. It is not specifically a literary program. But we do want the book to be beautifully written. We look for it to come from various worlds. We’ve used fiction and nonfiction, a contemporary book, a historical book. We’ve gone for Greek tragedy and last year’s book, which was “The Tipping Point,” was just a year old or so when we picked it. We try to represent diverse cultures, male and female authors. To me, a good book is one that kindles a discussion quickly among a group. In some ways, I think PRP is more like a book group than a class. It’s not a graded assignment, and it’s not a piece that’s analyzed throughout the course of a week or two weeks or a whole semester. So, we look for something that grabs people right away and promotes good discussion.
Q. What have been some of the standouts?
A. Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” is the first one that comes to mind. It’s about landscape architecture, gardening, literature, English life of a particular time. It’s a kind of mystery. There’s no end to the different ways to look at it. And it’s a play, which is good because I think shorter things tend to work better. We had the great advantage of having Tom Stoppard come as a supporting event, so that was an outstanding one. I heard very good things about “Tipping Point” discussions, because I think that conceptually, what it’s about—why do trends come, what makes them happen, what makes them stop—is something that everybody can think about. “Metamorphosis” was also a really terrific choice. There’s something so fascinating about that novella.
Q. Are there authors or books you’d like to have as the PRP?
A. Well, I think at some point we’ll have to grapple with Shakespeare. Beyond that, I think it will be interesting to try to do poetry. I think when you talk about poetry, people see it as a particular challenge. Remember, the way this works is a significant majority of the discussion leaders are not experts in this field. But one of these days, I hope we’ll figure out how to do it.
Q. Anything special about Orientation this year?
A. One thing we’ve added which I hope can be a yearly feature is a big gala—a welcome to the students at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There aren’t that many buildings in the city that are suitable for about 3,000 people, but that’s one, and I think that’s just a smashing way to get to know the city. One of the more recent developments is the proseminars, which are short courses offered by faculty and graduate students and a number of other distinguished Penn people. Like the Penn Reading Project, it’s a chance in a small group to get to know other students and a distinguished Penn person. … It covers the broadest possible spectrum, from starting your own business to getting into medical school to, last year, a seminar on why The Beatles are important. We have been very fortunate to have a dedicated group of faculty and academic staff people who have contributed their time. I think I can say, on the basis of surveys and anecdotal evidence, the people who do it really enjoy it immensely.
If you’re interested in leading a proseminar, contact David Fox at 251-573-5636 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published on May 12, 2005