Penn Alumni Volunteer for Homework

Grads join students in reading "Between the World and Me" for the 2017 Winter Reading Project

Thursday, February 9, 2017

By Susan Ahlborn

Although it does involve a reading assignment over winter break, Penn’s Winter Reading Project (WRP) is not the usual homework. It’s strictly voluntary, and the English department’s student-run Undergraduate Advisory Board chooses the book and gives out free copies in December. Shortly after they return to campus in January, students and faculty get together for a literary evening.  

“Our goal is very simple: to give people good books and facilitate interesting discussions around them,” says Zachary Lesser, professor and undergraduate chair in the Department of English. “We give away the books to all comers, and everyone is welcome at our event. This is one of the things I love about the WRP.” 

When the student board chose Ta-Nehisi Coates’ bestseller Between the World and Me as the 2017 book, the WRP’s organizing faculty quickly realized it was a selection that would interest alumni as well, says English professor Emily Steiner. Written as a letter to Coates’ 14-year-old son, the book explores the concept of race in America and the profound effect that concept has had on black lives. It won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  

“Coates's book seems to resonate with so many audiences because of its lyrical prose and urgent political content,” says Associate Professor of English Salamishah Tillet, who participated in both the on-campus and the on-line discussions. “I think our conversations really had an impact … especially when we talked about the power of Coates's two-part argument: that race is an violent invention, fantasy, or "dream" built into the founding of the nation; and that African American citizens, their bodies and rights, are consistently under surveillance, siege, and threat. By shaping this as a letter to his son, Coates enables his multiracial American audience to overhear a conversation about his hopes and fears about how this American dilemma will impair his and our future.” 

As associate chair of the English Department, Steiner has been working with Alyssa D’Alconzo, director of alumni education, alumni travel, and career networking for Penn Alumni Relations, to create programming that brings together English department alumni and students. They decided to open the WRP to all Penn alumni via an online discussion on January 11.  

Nearly 200 alumni registered, some commenting that the book had been on their reading list and they were eager to discuss it with members of the Penn community. The discussion was led by Tillet and Nancy Bentley, the Donald T. Regan Professor of English, along with Imani Davis, C’20.  

“Having an undergraduate student discussant was fantastic,” says D’Alconzo. “Not only did it give alumni the opportunity to engage with a current student and hear about her experience studying the book in one of her classes, but her insights and thoughts about the work undeniably elevated the discussion.” One alumnus wrote after the event, “It was a great book choice and I appreciated a discussion around a publication so important to our world right now.” 

Given the success of the Winter Reading Project, the English department is partnering with the Center for Africana Studies and its director Camille Charles, Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor in the Social Sciences and professor sociology, Africana studies, and education, to launch the Penn Alumni Reading Club series. Each month, a faculty member will discuss a book that he or she has written or is teaching in class. The discussion will happen on-campus and online simultaneously; the first session is February 28, 2017 with George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology Dorothy Roberts leading a discussion of her book, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century. Alumni can learn more here.  

Planning is also underway to bring Penn alumni in London together with students there for the Penn-in-London theater programs. “These joint programs are beneficial both intellectually and professionally,” says Steiner. “The alumni are enthusiastic, and it helps our undergraduates answer the question “What is the link between and English major and getting a job?”