Hear a lecture in 60 seconds

In the amount of time it takes to watch two television commercials or wait for the traffic light to turn green to cross Walnut Street, you could hear an entertaining and informative lecture from a School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) professor.

SAS’s 60-Second Lecture Series features faculty from many disciplines discussing a variety of thought-provoking topics, from “Chopin’s Minute Waltz” to “Water and Future Climate Change” and “Are Humans Still Evolving?” The lectures give parents, alumni and the extended Penn community a taste of academic life in about a minute.

Since professors can lecture for an hour or more in a typical class, the 60-second format challenges presenters to be creative. “I think the lectures function more like spoken word poetry,” says Priya Ratneshwar, who works in the School of Arts and Sciences’ External Affairs Office as a staff writer and editor for the website. “There’s a lot of information in there, but a lot of it is implied and makes the listener read between the lines. The listener has to really pay attention and fill in the gaps.” 

The lectures, hosted by Dennis DeTurck (pictured), professor and dean of the College, can be seen and heard live as they’re being presented on Locust Walk, or online. They are available on the SAS website, www.sas.upenn.edu/home/news/sixtysec_lectures_archive.html; iTunesU, the free access service for educational audio and video content; Facebook, www.facebook.com/60SecondLectures; and YouTube, www.youtube.com/user/univpennartsandsci. In May of 2011, “60-Second Lectures” was the most-viewed program on iTunesU.

While short in duration, the impact of the micro-lectures can be powerful. DeTurck caused a firestorm with his 2004 lecture, “Down With Fractions,” when he called on educators to discontinue teaching fractions to elementary school students. Many educators weighed in on DeTurck’s proposal, and his lecture was even the topic of a USA Today article. His lecture is still one of the most viewed on the 60-Second Lectures’ website.

The lecturers present the talks standing at a conventional podium, but their delivery can be anything but. Some have brought along props or used music to make the talk memorable. When Sociology Professor David Grazian talked about the difference between the blues and jazz, he played a saxophone to demonstrate the two styles of music. For Professor Paul Hendrickson’s lecture, “Why Fly-Fishing is a Zen Experience,” he showed off his fishing gear. 

Created in 1999 by the then-director of Summer Sessions Valerie Ross, the lecture series was originally offered in the summer to create buzz on campus during Locust Walk’s quieter months. “What I tried to create was the breaking down of walls, of barriers and differences between all of us,” she says. “Professors would show up and heckle other professors. They would have their watches on and they’d start shouting at them if they went over one minute.”

The idea is you’re just walking, and it’s like [finding] a random act of knowledge."

The series is now offered four Wednesdays in the Fall and four Wednesdays in the Spring. The Fall session kicked off on Sept. 14, and continues on Sept. 16 with a special Constitution Day lecture, “Why Share Power?” by Brendan O’Leary, professor of political science. The full Fall schedule is available at www.sas.upenn.edu/home/news/sixtysec_lectures.html. The lecture series has also spawned the “60-Second Slam,” a faculty and student poetry slam held in May during Alumni Weekend.

The lectures begin promptly at 11:55 a.m. at Stiteler Plaza at 37th Street and Locust Walk. “They’re offered at 11:55 to catch people, to catch students as they’re walking to and fro, after class or before class, right before lunch,” says Ratneshwar, who manages the lectures archive online. “So, the idea is you’re just walking, and it’s like [finding] a random act of knowledge.”

60-Second Lectures