A scavenger hunt through augmented reality. A “donut crawl” through the stages of evolution. A panel on vaccine denial.
These events, and dozens of others, comprised the 2018 Penn Teach–In—the first held at the University since 1969. The term teach–in is closely associated with the activism and discourse of the 1960s; these educational forums sprouted up at universities across the country, beginning with a discussion of the Vietnam War draft at the University of Michigan in 1965.
The resonance of the 1960s in March’s Teach-In was not an accident, according to Santosh Venkatesh, a professor of electrical systems engineering and the head of Penn’s Faculty Senate.
“There’s a palpable sense of change in the air,” he said, and “it’s mirrored outside in social unrest, in a feeling of unease. How can we handle the most dramatic changes in human condition?” He added that changes are also roiling the academy, in “burgeoning new courses of study” that intersect with broad societal challenges—and anxieties.
Penn faculty, Venkatesh said, felt an opportunity to address the broader “political turmoil,” “technological turmoil,” and “economic turmoil” in ways designed to resonate more widely than in individual classrooms.
The Faculty Senate, which represents Penn’s full–time faculty members, has been planning the Teach–In for about a year and a half. The primary challenge was incorporating each of Penn’s 12 schools and working with a team of over 130 people from across the University, including students and staff, to design 32 events held in 16 different venues across campus over a five–day stretch. The goal was to convene the entire University but also to engage with members of the Philadelphia community and beyond.
Several events revolved around social justice issues, from a panel on the science, policy, and politics of firearm violence to another on sexual harassment. Technology was also a major theme, particularly the role of artificial intelligence in society. At a panel that nearly packed a conference room in the Singh Center for Nanotechnology, audience members expressed anxieties about self-driving cars and the impact of AI on the economy. Audience participation was a major focus of each session.
A nor’easter on March 21 forced the cancellation or postponement of that day’s programming, but when the snow was cleared the show went on.
Venkatesh said that the present moment feels “like an inflection point in time, where we can decide to go one way or another. And we felt, as an institution a year ago, that in the academy we could not afford to sit idly by in the ivory tower.”—Dani Blum C’18