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Here and Over There: Penn, Philadelphia and the Middle East

  • Heather Sharkey - freshman seminar
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Here and Over There: Penn, Philadelphia and the Middle East

By Julianne Goodman.

Ever since middle school, my English teachers have instructed me to “show, not tell.” This technique allows the reader to interpret and experience the actions, emotions, and thoughts of the text, resulting in a more interesting and memorable work. Learning in higher education has defaulted to more of a “tell” approach with large lectures, extensive readings, writing assignments, and elaborate tests. This method, while effective in important respects, lacks an element of personal engagement with the subject matter. On the other hand, the innovative “show” method fosters object-based learning and discussion. I was pleasantly surprised to experience this “show” learning style with my freshman seminar taught by the esteemed Professor Heather Sharkey. As a class together, we embarked on ten excursions and hosted multiple guest lectures. This interactive and intimate learning experience fostered engagement and piqued our curiosity.

Each semester, Penn offers about thirty seminars with small class sizes and top professors for freshmen. The Art and Culture freshmen seminars are intended to introduce new students to the intellectual communities and extensive resources at Penn and in Philadelphia. My freshman seminar, NELC 133 — Here and Over There: Penn, Philadelphia, and the Middle East — studied firsthand the University’s historical engagement in the Middle and Near East through archives, manuscripts, rare books, and excavation artifacts. My class had only seven students, which created an environment that fostered discussion and allowed for ample individual attention from Professor Sharkey. Each of the students had diverse backgrounds and interests resulting in multidimensional insights. The class included students from Lebanon, San Francisco, Detroit, Austin, New York City, and Pennsylvania, who identified themselves as adherents of the Islamic, Judaic, and Christian religions. The students developed strong friendships and occasionally ate dinner together at local Middle Eastern restaurants.

In the seminar, we were able to fully immerse ourselves in the course material through the small class size, interrelated readings, and excursions. Student Anneka DeCaro describes that the “emphasis on creating an interactive environment that went beyond the typical classroom with exclusive visits to the archives and museum made the course very memorable.” The first class began with a discussion about the definitional construct of history and concluded with a visit to the Jordanian Column that was gifted to Philadelphia on its bicentennial in 1776, and is found in the engineering quadrangle today. One student further researched the history and treatment of the column for his final paper by contacting the Jordanian embassy and conducting archival research at the Penn Museum. The next class visit was to the University Archives with Mark Frazier Lloyd to discuss how Penn has evolved through the generations; in particular, the way Penn’s curriculum has changed to accommodate Biblical and religious studies and what used to be known as “Semitics.” This trip sparked questions about the writing and preservation of history and its impact on modern society. The first assignment of the course required students to conduct an oral history with an expert on a Near Eastern-related topic at Penn to reinforce the concept of conserving history.

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The next several meetings were at the Penn Museum, where we explored archival materials from Penn’s excavation in the Middle East and heard from Professor Richard Zettler, the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) Department Chair, about the realities of his recent excavations in Syria, central Iraq, and more recently, in Iraqi Kurdistan. During the subsequent trip to the Penn Museum, class members selected excavated museum items to view with the intention of writing the “biography” of an object. I wrote my object biography about the Silver Flute (“Flute 30-12-536” in the museum’s collection, dating from c. 2650 BCE), the first musical instrument of Mesopotamia, which was initially believed to be a drinking straw. Upon reading the original field notes and conducting investigative research, I gained a much deeper understanding of the ancient culture from which it came and an appreciation of archaeological excavation and conservation. Then we visited the museum's Tablet Room. There we learned from Dr. Philip Jones (Associate Curator and Keeper of Collections in the Babylonian section) about the ancient process of learning cuneiform writing and even were allowed to hold several of the tablets. The next class visit included a tour of the Penn Museum’s Near East storage area with its keeper, Katy Blanchard. Highlights included viewing Osman Hamdi Bey’s At the Mosque Door, hundreds of incantation bowls and cylinder seals, and a Betty Crocker cake mix box from the 1970s that held a baby human skull excavated from the Iron-Age site of Hasanlu in what is now Iran. Student Eugene Shekhtman reflects, “Dr. Sharkey did an incredible job of introducing us freshmen to the vast amount of resources that Penn offers.”

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From the Penn Museum, we observed Penn’s rare Near East collections at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies and Van Pelt Library’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Dr. Bruce Nielsen at the Katz Center shared objects from multiple religions and languages to highlight the overlap within Semitics; for instance, he showed a Muslim religious text that was written in Judeo-Arabic (using Hebrew letters to render Arabic language). At the Kislak Center, Dr. John Pollack showed us several rare manuscripts, including the Philomathean Society of Penn’s translation of the Rosetta Stone into English, published in 1858. At a later trip to Van Pelt Library, we met with David Giovacchini, the Middle East and Islamic Studies bibliographer, to discuss his collecting practices. He began by showing us a few objects of varying mediums and time periods and asking us to select the one that did not belong. This trick question was intended to challenge our idea of the composition of a collection and understand the magnitude of Near East studies as represented in the library.

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The final classes included guest lectures from two of NELC’s foremost professors, Roger Allen and Richard Zettler. Both discussed the modern Near East with a focus on the changing attitudes of the post-9/11 period. Discussions with leading experts allowed for a dialogue where the students were able to share their thoughts and ask questions. The students also presented their final papers, which required return trips to many of the previously visited collections to conduct archival research and administer oral histories with experts. Topics ranged from a biography on Katharine Woolley (one of the rare female archaeologists to work in the Middle East during the early twentieth century) to Penn’s role in revising international antiquity laws to the hi-tech analysis of a recently rediscovered 6,500-year-old skeleton from Ur in Penn’s collection. Student Anneka DeCaro studied the role of archeological illustrator Alfred Bendiner, who in addition to his job as an object illustrator drew caricatures of the men on his excavation for entertainment. As part of her final project, she drew caricatures of the entire class! 

This seminar provided a rich learning environment that integrated Near East studies with Penn’s collection. More importantly, it introduced the students to humanities research through Penn’s vast resources. Since taking the course, I have learned to look beyond research texts to engage in more active learning.

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Visit the class blog:

Edited by Kenna O'Rourke.

Julianne Goodman is a freshman in the College, where she is potentially pursuing a BA in Economics. On campus, she is involved with Fisher Hassenfeld House Council, Penn Sustainability Review, Impact magazine, and Penn’s Fed Challenge Team. Julianne enjoys running, traveling, and exploring Philly.