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.