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November 17, 2009, Volume 56, No. 12

A Theme… And Its Limitless Variations

by David Fox, Director of Academic Initiatives

Ben Franklin

When I meet old friends, invariably they ask the same question: “How’s Penn?” Usually, I give the shorthand answer—“Penn’s fine!”—because the fuller version is so complex. Penn is 10,000 undergraduates, 10,000 graduate students, and 16,000 faculty and staff. It is four undergraduate schools and 12 graduate schools. How could I possibly do justice to our breadth and scope in a single answer?

Penn’s diversity is a celebrated strength. But one result of our diversity is that students tend to be specialized, and quickly think of themselves in terms of separate communities—by Schools, Departments, individual College Houses or extracurricular activities. When we plan New Student Orientation, I am always mindful that the entire freshmen class unites for Convocation—and the next time they will be together as a group is four years later at Commencement.

One intellectual experience all incoming undergrads share is the Penn Reading Project. Each year the book is different but the goal remains the same: everyone takes part in a project that is simultaneously uniform—and yet, because each group discussion will find its own course, altogether unique. 

PRP offers all freshmen a topic they can discuss together, and of course they have always been its primary constituents. Yet I’ve noted with pleasure that discussion leaders also love the opportunity to meet faculty colleagues in other Schools, and to participate in a project often far outside their disciplines. 

But PRP takes place in a single day, and the multifaceted questions that inevitably emerge deserve fuller exploration. Why couldn’t the spirit of shared inquiry continue?

It was this “Aha!” moment that led to the birth of the Provost’s Theme Year. Why not have PRP, primarily a freshmen event, serve as a launching pad for a full year of related programs that engage the entire Penn community?

When this was proposed, in early 2007, it was late in the game for full-scale planning—but too good an idea not to pursue. So in the spirit of learn-by-doing, we quickly created the Year of Food. (Andy Binns calls it the theme year’s “soft start,” while I think of it as our “test drive.”) Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma was selected as the PRP book. 

A lot of the Year of Food was improvised as we went along, with the College Houses playing a vital role in arranging undergraduate programs. Still, we got a few things right even at the beginning. A website publicized events happening all over campus, and each semester provided a list of courses with a food focus. A week after PRP, a busload of Penn undergrads and graduate students made a day trip to the Kennett Square Mushroom Festival.  (For the record, mushroom ice cream is delicious. Try it sometime.) On a more scholarly note, a “Thought for Food” series of lectures brought Penn faculty and local experts into the College Houses. Faculty Masters and College House Fellows enjoyed dinners with students at local restaurants, where conversation often focused on cuisine and culture. Closing out the year was a symposium on dairy farming offered by the School of Veterinary Medicine. Temple Grandin was the keynote speaker, and the large audience was a real cross-section of the Penn community.

With the Year of Evolution (2008), faculty were engaged from the start. Michael Weisberg (Philosophy) and Howard Goldfine (Medicine) led a planning committee, and the year’s events included “Surviving: The Body of Evidence,” a major exhibit at the Penn Museum, as well as symposia and lectures. Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish was the PRP text, and the music video we commissioned for the occasion in a moment of sheer whimsy turned out to be a genuine smash—nearly 39,000 hits on YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9h1tR42QYA.

This year’s Arts & the City theme is our most ambitious yet, and engages Penn’s arts centers as well as Departments. We are also using this opportunity to introduce Penn students to the amazing arts opportunities throughout Philadelphia. Our choice to use a painting—Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic—for the PRP text-of-choice garnered national press coverage. The related website, with supporting materials created in collaboration with Penn’s History of Art Department and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, helped students prepare for the discussions, and it will remain available as a community resource. We’re still in the first half of the year, but already have held a number of programs that spanned the Schools and Centers. In January, Penn will host playwright and actress Anna Deavere-Smith for a discussion of her work integrating theater and health care. The spring semester also brings a production of Tina Howe’s play, Museum, a joint venture between Theatre Arts and the Arthur Ross Gallery, supported by a theme year grant.

Each theme year has new dimensions, and there’s still greater potential ahead. Special courses, further collaborations within Penn and beyond, alumni involvement—these are a few of many areas where we can grow. Faculty and staff across the University are cordially invited to take part. There are many ways to participate, and I hope you’ll consider joining me as we move forward. I can be reached at dfox@upenn.edu.

As I look toward the Year of Water, I’m excited by the possibilities. Or maybe I can put it more simply—“Penn’s fine!”

Related: The Year of Water for Provost’s Theme Year 2010-2011; Arts & the City: A Bargain

Almanac - November 17, 2009, Volume 56, No. 12