Pennoni’s Yearlong Symposium Takes a Closer Look at Community

The Pennoni Honors College's annual symposium is built around the theme of community.

Drexel University has played an integral role in the Philadelphia community for well over a century now, and as the University and its surrounding neighborhoods evolve, that connection is only growing stronger. During the coming academic year, the Pennoni Honors College will explore the dynamic relationships among people, places and institutions through a yearlong symposium built around the theme of community — a fitting topic for a university focused on being the most civically engaged in the country.

For the second year of her appointment as Pennoni’s visiting fellow, Julia Novak Colwell, PhD, will serve as co-instructor on each of the interdisciplinary courses that will contemplate the theme throughout the year — all of which are open to the entire University. The first, titled “Community Advocacy and Mobilization” and taught with Kristine Mulhorn, PhD, chair of the Health Administration Department in the College of Nursing and Health Professions, starts up this fall.

“The driving force [behind the symposium] is getting students to see that the University is an interconnected enterprise — not just among the disciplines within it, but that it’s addressing problems outside the University and there are relationships there,” said Kevin Egan, PhD, director of Pennoni’s Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry. “I think the community theme is going to help highlight that. There are experts and academics here who are working on community-based problems that have real purchase and impact in the surrounding area and in Philadelphia, and hopefully students will get to see that their work and the problems that they’re studying can also have those kinds of impacts down the road.”

Societal problems in search of innovative solutions aren’t owned by a single discipline, Egan said, and the symposium is intended to open students up to the necessity of working across fields to achieve goals. Paired together, a design expert from the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design and an engineer from the College of Engineering may be better positioned to solve a problem based on social science research than if they worked only with their own disciplines in mind.

“Hopefully it gives students some exposure to how people operate in those settings, or even just understanding the obstacles,” said Egan, who was the visiting fellow in 2008–09 when the symposium’s theme was democracy. “People will look at the same problem from a different angle — they’ll be using different kinds of language, different kinds of methods, and those are all pieces you’re going to have to continually negotiate.”

Prior to launching the 2017–18 symposium, Colwell will lead Drexel students in a course in Michigan beginning Sept. 10 on tribal water rights in the Great Lakes region. It will serve as the final chapter in last year’s symposium on the theme of water, and a bridge of sorts to the focus on community.

Following the fall course, Colwell will teach a course called “Unpacking the Flourishing Community” alongside Chapin Cimino, JD, an associate professor in the Kline School of Law. The class will look at aspects of community through the lenses of natural resource management and the law, and will delve into Aristotle’s concept of the ideal community. But the course won’t operate solely in the classroom.

“We’re hoping to work with Mantua and Powelton Village to see how these academic theories fit in on the ground,” said Colwell.

The spring offering, taught by Colwell with Daniel Dougherty, PhD, Pennoni’s associate dean and director of the Honors Program, will focus on the University as a community. The symposium won’t end there, though. At the end of the academic year, organizers are aiming to host a one-day conference that will act as a summation of the symposium. And throughout the year there will be guest speakers brought in to highlight different aspects of the community theme. Colwell suggested a class she’s currently teaching at Drexel on the geopolitics of water as an example of the way a varied group of guests can help broaden the reach of a course. For that class, she brought in a fracking activist, visiting academics and a senior attorney from the National Resources Defense Council, for example.

“Exposing students to all these possible career paths that are associated with these different high-level, overarching topics can give them a good sense that if they are interested in these topics, there are all sorts of ways they can go with that interest,” said Colwell.