Exploring and Connecting Through the Penn Reading Project

When incoming freshman at the University of Pennsylvania are introduced to academic life through the Penn Reading Project this summer, the content of the material won’t be a book but a movie, “Citizen Kane.”

This will be the first time in the 26-year history of PRP that the material is a film. In 2009, the subject was Thomas Eakins’ painting “The Gross Clinic.”

Released in 1941, Orson Welles’ classic film explores the themes of power and media in a fictionalized biography of a character modeled after newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.

“It seemed apt for a presidential election year and apt at a time in which the world of journalism has changed so astonishingly,” said David Fox, director of the Penn Reading Project.

As part of New Student Orientation, the PRP acquaints new students with the intellectual and academic expectations of the University.

Through the Canvas coursework platform, students will be able to access and view the movie before arriving on campus in late August. During NSO, they will meet in small groups with faculty and senior academic administrators to discuss the film. Students will then be required to write essays on the movie.

Nayab Khan, a rising junior from New York City, found the PRP book she read as a freshman in 2014, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, meaningful and inspirational.

The book by Anne Fadiman tells the story of a young girl’s severe epilepsy and how her California family, Hmong refugees from Laos, struggled to navigate the United States health-care system because of language barriers and cultural beliefs. 

“When I was reading the book, it was the year after my older brother was diagnosed with epilepsy and the family in the book went through very similar struggles that my family went through,” says Khan. 

Khan’s parents, originally from Pakistan, struggled to communicate with doctors.

“My parents couldn’t understand the doctors and the doctors couldn’t understand my parents,” Khan says. 

Since the hospital didn’t have any translators, she and some of her siblings stepped in to translate for their parents. 

“Because of this book, I want to pursue a career in health care, specifically dentistry,” says Khan. “I really want to change the way health care is provided in the United States. I think there should be more cultural awareness of the patients that a doctor will see and a better understanding of the different beliefs that patients come with.”

The 2016-17 Penn Reading Project kicks off the “Year of Media,” with symposiums, interdisciplinary conferences, exhibits and performances that explore the topic throughout the academic year.  

“Media of all kinds, whether it’s recorded music, television, movies, are a remarkable force in students’ lives,” says Fox. “I think they’ll feel engaged in this.”

Other past Penn Reading Projects have included Langston Hughes’ The Big Sea, Adam Bradley’s Book of Rhymes and John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt

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