I consider it a great piece of luck that Trey Popp, the Gazette’s senior editor, and Walter Licht, the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History Emeritus, happened to run into each other in West Philadelphia back in the spring. Their encounter led to this issue’s cover feature, “(Re)Introduction to US History,” which is a kind of story we don’t do often enough, even though what it describes is central to what can make going to college such a memorable and transformative experience—a deep dive into what happens in a particular course.
In this case, the course was History 011: “Deciphering America,” an entry level class in the department that was developed and is co-taught by Licht and Kathleen Brown, the David Boies Professor of History. Shortly before he and Trey met, Licht had led his final class in the course—and at Penn—before retiring, and he told Trey that teaching it had been “the most rewarding” experience of his long career.
The class is designed to be the antithesis of the introductory survey lecture course that flourished a few decades ago—the article includes shoutouts to two notable practitioners of the genre at Penn, Alexander Riasanovsky and Richard Beeman—but that was rendered mostly redundant by the proliferation of AP history courses in high schools, as well as increasingly problematic as more thematic scholarly approaches and contested perspectives made it harder to sustain an overarching historical narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.
Drawing on a range of primary sources—from newspaper clippings to product ads to a finely made handsaw from Philadelphia’s industrial heyday and music videos from MTV’s—the class calls on students to interpret whatever they’re looking at without preconceptions and then see how their views change once the week’s prompt is put in context via lectures and readings. With any and every historical fact instantly available on the internet, the goal of an introductory course becomes less about imparting information and more about teaching students “how to think historically,” as Brown put it, and to be able to ask questions about “how the past is being reconstructed or used.”
Besides hearing from the two professors, Trey also talked with some students in the class, who attested to its eye-opening impact. One called the experience of realizing how much information and how many perspectives could be discovered from studying a single artifact “mind-blowing.” Another approvingly compared the class’s methodology to being given a set of tools and having to build a house. “Most of the time they teach you how to build a house and you have to reconstruct it on a test.”
Aly Murray C’16 talked with assistant editor Nicole Perry about the joy that comes with that spark of insight among the high schoolers working with her company, UPchieve, which provides free tutoring and college counseling for low-income students: “One of the best moments in a tutoring session is when something clicks for the student you’re helping. It’s literally the message that is just a long string of O’s and a long string of H’s.” Murray—who started UPchieve after an educational journey that took her from community college to Penn and a job with J.P. Morgan, and who hopes to make its services available to some 8 million low-income students by 2030—is one of three alumni entrepreneurs in education who are profiled in “Opening Doors.”
As well as a new school year, fall also marks the start of a new football season. NFL fans in Cleveland are looking forward to this year’s with a rare sense of anticipation, thanks to Kevin Stefanski C’04, who led the Browns to their first postseason win in a quarter century and was named NFL Coach of the Year in 2020. Associate editor Dave Zeitlin C’03 profiles him in “The Cleveland Comeback” (which, it turns out, owes a fair amount to Penn’s famed “spirit coach,” Coach Lake). He also checks in on some Penn alumni who have managed, against the odds, to carve out playing careers in the NFL in an accompanying story, “The Glory and the Grind.”
As the University returns to full in-person operations for the fall semester, some major administrative changes are in the works. In July, Penn President Amy Gutmann was nominated to be the US ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany, and so may be leaving College Hall sometime before her planned departure next summer, depending on when the Senate confirms her. There’s also a new chair of the board of trustees, Scott L. Bok C’81 W’81 L’84; while former chair David L. Cohen L’81 Hon’21 has been nominated to be ambassador to Canada. Read more in Gazetteer, where you can also see a striking view of Penn’s New College House as it awaited its first residents, who moved in in August.
—John Prendergast C’80