A year of ‘Connections’

penn humanities forum

Over the past 15 years, the World Wide Web has transformed human knowledge, research, communication and commerce. Consumers purchase goods at sites like Amazon.com and eBay.com, friends stay connected through sites like Facebook and MySpace, and scholars work collaboratively across long distances.

But Peter Conn, a professor of English at Penn and director of the Penn English Program in London, says similar examples of connectedness can be traced back at least 2,000 years.

“The Roman Empire was an example of a huge geographic area gradually being gathered together and connected by both the physical technology of roads and language, and bound together culturally,” he says.

“Connections” is the topic for the 2009-2010 Penn Humanities Forum (PHF) season. Like this past season’s “Change,” it will feature lectures, seminars and other public events throughout the fall and spring grouped around a wide-ranging topic that can be explored through a variety of disciplines.

Conn, the season’s topic director, says he proposed the idea “simply because it seemed to me that in one way or another, [“Connections”] is a theme that would permit very wide-ranging discussions of both contemporary and older social and political organizations, as well as cultural interactions.”

The goals of PHF topics are to reach into the past and present, and the upcoming season features speakers from Penn and around the world discussing historical and modern-day connectedness.

Michael Kearns, a professor of computer and information science at Penn, kicks off the season on Sept. 23 with a talk on “Social Networks.” Douglas Hofstadter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and distinguished professor of cognitive science at Indiana University, follows on Oct. 7 with a discussion of his book, “I am a Strange Loop.”

On Oct. 14, David Crystal, an honorary professor of linguistics at University of Wales, discusses “English as a World Language.” Later that month, on Oct. 28, Helen Epstein, author of “The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa,” lectures on “Pandemics.”

In the spring, Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at Penn and editor of The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, chats about Chinese imperial history as a way of talking about connections across the east.

Conn will give a talk of his own in February 2010 on “Forging Mass Audiences—The U.S. Best Seller.”

While most of the public events are lectures and seminars, the final event is a performance and concert—“When Music & Sweet Poetry Agree”—starring the actor Paul Hecht and soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek.

For more information about the Penn Humanities Forum’s 2009-2010 season, visit the web site at humanities.sas.upenn.edu.

Originally published on June 11, 2009