Temple Magazine

Owls in the City

Temple’s Philadelphia Experience program enriches students by blending campus and city culture.

Story by Shannon McDonald, SCT ’09

Students in Kenneth Finkel’s Philadelphia Arts & Culture lecture sat in Tuttleman Hall on Main Campus, craning their necks to study images of a Palladian window, a centuries-old architectural element.

After class, on a pleasant fall Friday, a group of students examined the windows in person. It was a month into the fall 2009 semester and Finkel, TYL ’74, ’78, distinguished lecturer in the Department of American Studies, led his students on an excursion to Fairmount Park’s historic Mount Pleasant home, a 225-year-old building once owned by Benedict Arnold.

It is all part of Philadelphia Experience, a curriculum in Gen Ed—Temple’s general education program—that allows students to fulfill core university requirements while they explore Philadelphia’s neighborhoods and cultural programs.

Begun in fall 2008, Philadelphia Experience—nicknamed PEX—includes 40 classes that run the gamut of topics like arts, history, human behavior, literacy, diversity, science and U.S. and world societies. Of the 113 Gen Ed courses offered at Temple, nearly one third of them are part of PEX.

Building Better Understanding

“Our students really like Philadelphia; they’re attracted to it,” says Terry Halbert, director of Gen Ed. “We survey our students every year, and 92 percent say 'location in a large city' important reason for choosing Temple. Philadelphia is a magnet for Temple students.”

Alexandra Tiffany and Kevin Horn are among that 92 percent. Both juniors who are taking Philadelphia Arts & Culture, they opted to make the trip to Mount Pleasant to better understand what their professor has been teaching them.

“I’ve been living in Philly for two years, and I thought this would be a good way to learn about the city and be exposed to things I normally wouldn’t see,” says Tiffany, who is majoring in visual communication in the College of Liberal Arts. Given her love of architecture, the trip to Mount Pleasant was at the top of her list of things to see. “I love old estates,” she says. “You just don’t see [buildings like these] being built nowadays.”

Horn, an Asian studies major in the College of Liberal Arts, made the trip for similar reasons. “I’m interested in the class’s cultural aspect and applying things to my major,” says Horn, who also studies architecture and civil engineering as a hobby.

On their trip to Mount Pleasant, Tiffany and Horn were joined by eight other students. Some were from other PEX classes, and some had no affiliation to the program—they just wanted to tag along. Through the class, Finkel aims to help his students to understand the evolution of cultural expression. “There is no way to understand a place without experiencing it,” he says. “It’s one thing to know something; it’s another to understand it.”

students in lobby of Painted Bride

Philadelphia Dance Experience students attend a dance performance, followed by a questionand- answer session, at the Painted Bride Art Center in Old City. Photo courtesy Ryan Brandenberg.

student taking photo

Students taking Philadelphia Arts & Culture visit Mount Pleasant, a historical home in Fairmount Park. Photo courtesy Joseph V. Labolito.

Halbert has a similar philosophy. “Place-based learning is critical,” she states. “It’s really important for students to be active and involved in order to truly learn.”

The students’ classrooms also can provide students with new cultural perspectives. The Art of Listening encourages critical thinking about music and appreciation of classical, jazz, Broadway and world music. In fall 2009, Associate Professor of Music History Steven Kreinberg, EDU ’90, hosted in-class music demonstrations and scheduled multiple field trips to the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

Offering New Perspectives

According to Trends and Emerging Practices in General Education, a 2009 Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) survey, most general education programs in U.S. universities and colleges do not offer experiential learning, though most general education curricula are currently being re-examined. “I am proud to say there are no other [universities] doing what we are doing: combining a required curriculum with place-based experiential learning,” Halbert says. Unlike most of the schools surveyed by AAC&U, Temple students have access to parts of the city they might not discover on their own.

Some of the classes allow students to explore self-improvement. Mary Myers, chair of Temple’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture in the School of Environmental Design, team teaches Sustainable Design with K. Daryl Carrington, an adjunct professor. The purpose of the class, Myers says, is to “instill basic knowledge taught through design applications in order to improve the quality of life.”

The class’ projects include redesigning dorm rooms to better respond to the environment, something Myers says helps students “understand how buildings and landscaping can sustain the environment.” She credits Philadelphia’s resources for the ease of facilitating relationships among her students and the city. With guest speakers from the Philadelphia Water Department and visits to green buildings, Myers says students can “jump right in.” What’s more, they “can apply these things not only in Philadelphia, but anywhere,” she says.

Laura Katz Rizzo, MUS ’01, ’08, agrees. Rizzo teaches Philadelphia Dance Experience. Students in her class can apply what they learn to all of Philadelphia’s cultural offerings by honing their analytical abilities. In addition to performances throughout the semester, students have discussions with the performers they go to see.

Rizzo says students learn about more than dance in Philadelphia. Dance, she says, can represent the blend of cultural influences common in urban environments. And by getting out of the classroom, students learn how to navigate the city and how to behave in cultural environments—lessons that can be applied anywhere.

Now, incoming freshmen also receive the Philadelphia Experience Passport. The booklet offers discounts to nearly 40 participating organizations, and students can use the passport both for class trips and for their own cultural activities.

Beyond the concrete lessons of their excursions, Halbert notes the other things students can gain from PEX. “Basic critical thinking, communication skills and the ability to look at the ethical side of every problem—these things make us better. With what they take from Gen Ed, students will be better people, whether they become a parent, traveler, writer, employee or anything.”

Shannon McDonald, SCT ’09, earned a journalism degree from Temple. Her student reporting earned her Philadelphia City Paper’s Journalism and Media “Choice” award in 2009.

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