Penn Freshman English Seminar Explores Philadelphia as Its Classroom

A 20-minute trolley ride and a world away, the woods of Bartram’s Garden became an outdoor classroom for a group of University of Pennsylvania students this fall.

The new freshman seminar “English 16: Arts and Nature,” taught by Rebecca Bushnell, investigates the many ways in which the arts have both represented and shaped the natural world.

Examining collections in Philadelphia and on Penn’s campus is a central mission of the undergraduate course.

“We should be taking advantage of the amazing cultural institutions we have on this campus and in Philadelphia, drawing on their resources and introducing our students to what those collections hold,” Bushnell said. “Connecting with those resources has long been part of my vision of a humanities education at Penn.”

The class has visited the University’s Morris Arboretum, and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, as well as Bartram’s, where they got an up-close look at acres of native plants and trees along the Schuylkill River. They will also explore the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Penn’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.

In a steady downpour on the first day of class, they toured Penn’s campus, visiting the Shakespeare Garden, Memorial Garden and Peace Garden.

“The rain was a good lesson about nature. It doesn’t always do what we want it to do,” said Bushnell. “We spend a lot of time talking about the things over which we do not have control.”

The course is an experiment for her, Bushnell said, created as a result of a conversation with Zachary Lesser, undergraduate chair of the English Department. Bushnell is the School of Arts and Sciences Board of Overseers Professor of English and has taught at Penn for 35 years. She has served as dean of Penn Arts & Sciences.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​“Professor Bushnell is an expert on the subject,” Lesser said, “having written a very influential book, Green Desire, on ideas of nature and specifically gardens in the Renaissance. I've been encouraging our faculty to get out of the classroom more, because Philadelphia has such an incredible range of cultural institutions and opportunities.”

As part of the field trip to Bartram’s, the class was studying the human relationship to the natural world through collecting and classification, as well as the early trade in plants.

John Bartram, a third-generation Quaker, bought 102 acres in 1728 and set out to gather the most varied collection of North American plants in the world. He was both a gardener and a plant trader. His counsel was sought by those near and far, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and his friend Benjamin Franklin. Now open to the public, the garden is a national historic landmark operated by a nonprofit association.

On the cloudy Tuesday in September, Bushnell passed out tokens to each of the six students for their first Philadelphia trolley ride, catching the No. 36 west to the garden’s location on 54th Street.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Once there, she and the students had a docent-led tour of the garden, led by welcome-center manager Aseel Rasheed, walking through groves of trees and fields of tall grasses, as well as along the river and the more-formal gardens of Bartram’s historic stone house.

“We actually get to see what we’re talking about in person and have someone who knows a lot explain to us, which I find pretty incredible,” said Kristine Lai, a student from State College, Pa.

The students soon saw that the Morris Arboretum and Bartram’s present very different approaches to gardens and collecting.

“I was expecting a more formal garden. Morris Arboretum was so meticulously planned out,” said Alice Goulding of South Bend, Ind.

“This class highlights how there are so many ways of looking at gardens, and nature and landscape,” said Anya Mushakevich, from Belarus. “I appreciate it a lot, coming from another country, that the class helps me to explore the United States. I wouldn’t have learned so much about all the places we visited otherwise.”

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​The course also includes several required readings, including A World of Gardens by Penn’s John Dixon Hunt, professor emeritus, who spoke to the class.

“It ties what we’re learning into the greater Philadelphia area and specifics,” said Mercedes Chávez of El Paso, Texas. “We talked about historical figures of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia and the gardens in Philadelphia.”

The students were tasked with writing about one aspect they saw at Bartram’s Garden or the Arboretum or a feature on Penn’s campus, researching its history and describing its use today.

“We are all engaged in taking multi-disciplinary perspective on all the different ways that human beings have both shaped the natural landscape and represented it in different forms,” Bushnell said. 

At the Academy of Natural Sciences the students examined original specimens collected by Lewis and Clark on their expedition to the West. They will study landscape painting at the art museum, considering how nature is represented in medieval and renaissance artworks. They will study 16th- through 19th-century books about plants, flowers and gardening at Penn’s Kislak Center.

The course will culminate in a research or creative project of the students’ choice, perhaps designing a garden or making a video.

“Over the course of a long career, I have learned that it is important to venture into new territories, try new things and continue to learn and grow as teachers and scholars,” said Bushnell, the author of several books, the latest being Tragic Time in Drama, Film and Videogames.

“It keeps us relevant to the students and their interests,” she said. “We can teach them important things from history and literary tradition and connect them to their present world.