Brian Collopy | The Best of Penn

A Modest Proposal | We should be able to meet the best professors outside our majors

· September 18, 2012, 12:28 am

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Brian Collopy
A Modest Proposal

Penn is home to some of the most brilliant professors in the world. But if you are an undergraduate, chances are you will never come close to meeting most of them, even in areas that interest you most.

Consider College junior Jaimin Shah, who routinely takes seven classes, often at the graduate level. Shah in many ways exemplifies what Penn calls us to become.

But the demanding course of study that he has chosen means that Shah will not be able to take classes in philosophy or other areas outside his course of study. Missing out on some of the most compelling professors means that he is missing out on what Penn has to offer.

Though Shah is an extreme case, double majors, pre-professionalism and extra-curriculars make it impossible for many to take more than a couple of classes outside their chosen course of study. This makes their experience of Penn less than it can be.

While programs like “Take Your Professor to Lunch” allow students to get to know their current professors over a meal at the Inn at Penn, they leave a gap. There is not an easy way for students to informally encounter professors with whom they will not be able to take a class with.

Preceptorials — lectures that meet once or twice for no course credit — bring us closer to great faculty, but they are limited in number and by the formal classroom setting.

What are needed are opportunities for smaller, informal discussions with professors, in more areas than preceptorials can cover. And it doesn’t have to be difficult.

Every couple weeks, the Philomathean Society organizes tea with faculty. This is a proven model that can be expanded upon.

Last semester, I borrowed this idea and brought it to the Undergraduate Economics Society. Most professors, in my experience, are very willing to give an hour to a small group of interested undergraduates.

Professor Srilata Gangulee, who hosted a coffee chat for the Economics Society, believes the American universities lack a culture of small-scale, intimate discussions with faculty. The coffee chat reminded her of the “best part of going to a small college in Calcutta and in England,” she said.

So I propose starting an organization called “Best of Penn” to offer informal coffee chats with the best professors who are willing to spare an hour. Any student may nominate a professor and the group can host a discussion depending on the number of people interested. And if coffee chats are too much trouble, the professor could host a discussion in their office, an open office hour.

Whatever our majors, most of us would be interested to hear from one of Penn’s most talented professors about futuristic flying robots, the economics of drug-dealing, philosophy, literature, politics or the neuroscientific study of the criminally insane.

As long as Best of Penn makes every effort to respect the time of professors, students should have the opportunity to engage with faculty in any area, regardless of their chosen major. The only constraint should be what students are interested in learning, not the classes they are able to fit into their schedules.

There are so many professors at Penn that students have called the best professor they have ever had. But it’s impossible for most students to take classes with more than a handful of them.

In the History Department, for example, there is a professor whose lectures are commercially sold on DVD. Every week, students sit on the ground in Stiteler Hall to audit his class.

Whatever you are interested in, Penn has professors like this that Best of Penn could offer discussions with.

This program can also help underclassmen learn about a major, decide whether to take a class or ask professors about their research. And it is an opportunity to meet any professor outside of the classroom.

The promise of Penn is access to the most brilliant professors in the world, in most any area you could care to study. The paradox of Penn is that pre-professionalism and overachieving lead us to miss out. But by making it easier for students to encounter professors and interests they would never otherwise, we can make it easier to better take advantage of all Penn has to offer.

Brian Collopy, a College junior from Washington, D.C., is president of the Undergraduate Economics Society. Follow him brianc61. “A Modest Proposal” appears every other Tuesday. Email bestofpenngmail.com to get involved or to voice questions and concerns.

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