Penn Reading Project to take student advice


The initiative will allow students, faculty and staff to submit book ideas




With the click of a button, you could round up dozens of speakers, events, and activities at Penn that span an entire academic year.

In an email sent to the Penn community on Tuesday, Penn announced that the Penn Reading Project will be taking a turn. Students, faculty and other Penn community members can now send in suggestions for books they’d like to see the incoming class read, along with a theme for the academic year based on the book that can be used to prompt discussions, courses, speakers, and other events across the schools.

The administration had already received between 30 and 40 suggestions since the announcement as of Wednesday.

Although the Penn Reading Project began in 1991, the selection of a theme year only began in 2007. In these past seven years, Penn first selected the theme and then chose the book for the Penn Reading Project that would help represent and explore the theme.

“Everybody I’ve talked to has been very happy with the intersection of the [Penn Reading Project] and the theme years,” said David Fox, director of New Student Orientation and Academic Initiatives. “But we also all recognized that once the theme year was chosen, the selection of the book was really limited.”

Rob Nelson, executive director of the Provost’s Office, said that now “some books that might otherwise not have been considered can rise to the top.”

The selection of the book and theme year is made by the Council of Undergraduate Deans, which works with the Provost’s Office. The Steering Committee - a group selected by the Provost’s office that contains experts on the year’s theme - reads and helps narrow down the list of possible books. The individuals involved in the selection process have received informal suggestions from the community in the past, Fox said, but the change allows for more community involvement.

These groups encourage the suggestions to be creative and different.

“I hope we get a lot of recommendations across a wide variety of topics and styles,” Vice Provost for Education Andrew Binns said in an email. “I look forward to being surprised! Creative thinking is encouraged here, and we’re excited to see what comes of it!”

In recent years, Fox said, the selection committee has defined “text” more broadly, which has led to the choosing of nonfiction, rather than fiction, books.

In 2009, when the theme year was Arts and the City, the chosen text was a painting of a culturally significant amphitheater in Philadelphia. Penn created a website with readings and lectures for students to learn more about the painting and to further explore its concepts. Mediums other than books, like films, could be selected in the future, Fox said, although it is likely that books are “always going to dominate the Penn Reading Project.”

Along with the creativity of the chosen text, the text “would still have to invite really interesting and integrative themes,” Nelson said, explaining that next school year’s selection is a good example.

The chosen book for next school year, the Year of Health, is called “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman, which tells the story of a Chinese immigrant in California who struggles with treatment for her medical problems because of a cultural misunderstanding.

“It’s a book that speaks to medicine, anthropology and sociology,” Nelson said. “It’s a book that can be looked at from many, many academic disciplines.”

Since the theme and book for the next academic year was already chosen before the administration changed the policy, the community suggestions will be for the following year -the graduating class of 2019 - and on.

Staff Writer Jenny Lu contributed reporting.

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