Author: Casey Ryan, C’95
As a member of the Class of 1995, I am part of the inaugural Penn Reading Project (PRP) class. During the summer of 1991, I received a book in mail from Penn and I put it aside to save as the reading for my flight to San Francisco for our “last family vacation” before I left for college. After settling into my seat for the transcontinental flight, I opened the envelope which revealed The Bacchae by Euripides.
This Greek tragedy, based on the mythological story of King Pentheus of Thebes and his mother Agauë, whom god Dionysus punished for their refusal to worship him, was to be our class’s first shared educational experience in college. This common experience did, in fact, resonate with us. We incorporated the Greek theme into our 15th reunion party.
Now in its 21st year, the PRP returned to its roots with Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley as this year’s book. Since 2007, The Penn Reading Project has been incorporated as part of the larger Academic Theme of the year. This initiative is sponsored by the Provost’s office to develop a series of year-long events around a theme chosen by faculty, staff and students. This year’s theme is the Year of Proof, which charges us to investigate how we know that what we know is true and discover our search for proof.
As a nice professional development exercise, we in Sweeten attended our own private PRP discussion group at lunch. Several of us on staff have read Doubt and eagerly talked about the play framed within the structure of the students’ PRP discussions which are facilitated by a faculty or staff member. Our own Lisa Vaccarelli, C’02, GED’10, Director, Alumni Education, Alumni Travel & Career Networking, moderated our talk – pushing us to address both absolute proof and the varying degrees of doubt with working in tandem can either distort or illuminate the truth.
Lisa provided us with some questions in advance:
• Did you like any of the characters in the play? If so, did your personal feelings for this character change in the course of the story? Why?
• Did you identify with any character in the film? If so, with whom and why? If not, why not?
• Father Flynn said, “The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion.” What do you think he meant by this? Do you agree with him?
• Sister Aloysius remarked to Sister James, “In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God.” What do you think she meant by this? Do you agree?
As well as creating questions on the fly:
• In reference to the opening sermon, how is doubt isolating? Unifying?
• Who are the moral guardian’s in our society?
• The subtitle for the play is “Doubt: A parable”. How is the play a parable?
The conversation was heated and passionate; it encouraged about twenty of us to analyze and articulate our own beliefs on the actions in the play. It was invigorating to have such an exchange among a group of well-read colleagues.
Hopefully, this little exercise in our office may inspire you to seek out the current and former PRP books to add to your reading list. Or, if you are a class, club, diversity alliance leader or alumni volunteer, feel free to work with us in Alumni Relations to vet the ideas of how you can host a small book club and discussion group event for your fellow alumni on your own.