Penn’s 2015-16 Theme Year is Discovery with Penn Reading Project: The Big Sea

University of Pennsylvania Provost Vincent Price, Vice Provost for Education Andrew Binns, the Council of Undergraduate Deans and the Office of New Student Orientation and Academic Initiatives today announced that the 2015-16 academic theme will be the Year of Discovery and that The Big Sea by Langston Hughes will be the Penn Reading Project.

Penn’s academic theme Year of Discovery is devoted to exploring discovery across many areas of inquiry. Discoveries can be personal or more wide-ranging, the result of planned research toward an expected goal, or more spontaneous and serendipitous. Small discoveries occur every day; larger ones may take centuries. Discovery itself is a vital part of the human experience and of the collective processes of education and intellectual growth.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Penn Reading Project, which was created as an introduction for incoming freshman to academic life at the University.

On August 24, members of the freshmen class will gather in small groups with Penn faculty and senior academic administrators for a discussion of The Big Sea. Prior to the small group discussions, students will write an essay on the book and all PRP participants will also take part in a morning presentation on The Big Sea and its themes.

Published in 1940, when Hughes was 38 years old and already among America’s most celebrated poets, The Big Sea is a memoir, structured in short essays, of his early experiences and a chronicle of his self-realization and invention.  Hughes explores his early life, growing up in an African-American family in the Midwest. He later traveled extensively to Mexico, France and Africa where his sense of identity would be questioned, formed and redefined. Throughout the book, Hughes’ personal discoveries are set in broader contexts, including the extraordinary world of the Harlem Renaissance, in which he was one of the primary creative artists. 

“Langston Hughes is, of course, well-known as one of America’s greatest poets,” said David Fox, director of New Student Orientation and Academic Initiatives. “He’s perhaps less familiar as a memoirist. But The Big Sea is a brilliant work, poignant and full of stories that are at once personal and have a wide resonance in America’s history.”

Past Penn Reading Projects have included Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Adam Bradley’s Book of Rhymes, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Narrative of the Life of Frederic Douglass and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, as well as Thomas Eakins’ painting, The Gross Clinic. More information about the Penn Reading Project and its history can be found at

The academic theme years at Penn aim to provide a shared intellectual experience campus wide, with programming that is developed both centrally and in individual schools and centers. The University offers funding beginning in April to support theme year programs for the following year. Current students, faculty and staff are invited to design collaborative program opportunities across campus and the community. More information about applying for these grants can be found at






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