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Penn Students Explore City in Creative ‘Writing Philadelphia’ Course

Louisa Shepard | lshepard@upenn.edu | 215-573-8151
Friday, January 26, 2018
Bloch, Julia Writing Philadelphia Course 2018 1

The "Writing Philadelphia" course taught by Penn English Professor Julia Bloch challenged the students to use the city as their creative inspiration. Photo Eric Sucar

Literally taking to the streets of Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania students found inspiration in parks, museums, subways and street corners for their “Writing Philadelphia” class assignments. 

New last semester, the course was designed to engage students with the city as readers, thinkers and writers, said Julia Bloch, director of Penn’s Creative Writing Program in the School of Arts and Sciences. The resulting creative works reflect their personal encounters.

“Rooting a syllabus in a place allows you to study so much more than the place,” said Bloch. “The literature, history, architecture, politics, culture, visual arts, physical geography -- the students are in that place and write about both the history and their direct experience.”

Some of the 11 students in the class were locals, but regardless of their hometowns each had an intense interest Philadelphia, Bloch said.

Bloch, Julia Writing Philadelphia Course 2018 2

The 11 students in the "Writing Philadelphia" English Course usually met at Van-Pelt Dietrich Library, but the final class was held at the Kelly Writers House. Photo Eric Sucar


“I wasn’t totally expecting how passionate they felt about this city,” she said.

A senior majoring in science, technology, and society, senior James Prell grew up in Philly.

“I loved the course because it challenged me to write in ways that I haven't had to otherwise in my years here at Penn,” Prell said. “I think the fact that the class gave me an opportunity to engage with my hometown creatively was a big part of my enjoyment as well. This course helped me develop an even deeper understanding and appreciation of the city.”

Several new courses in the English Department use Philadelphia “both as inspiration and as the object of critical analysis,” said Zachary Lesser, undergraduate chair. “It’s a great experience for students.”

“Writing Philadelphia” also fits into a new critical-creative hybrid rubric that blurs the traditional boundaries between the study of literature, critical writing and creative writing, he said.

“Literature is literature, and writing is writing, and we are offering more courses that decline to draw a strong line between the two approaches,” Lesser said.

Since the course fulfilled a history-of-literature requirement, it started with Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and included poetry by Walt Whitman, fiction by Edgar Allan Poe and the sociological study by W.E.B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro.

Works by contemporary authors were equally important, including long-form journalism, memoir and poetry by authors including M.K. Asante, Sonia Sanchez, Susan Landers and Yolanda Wisher, who employ a sense of place in their writing. Wisher and Landers were guest speakers in class, and students had dinner with Asante.

Bloch, Julia Writing Philadelphia Course 2018 4

Professor Julia Bloch is the director of the Creative Writing Program. Photo Eric Sucar

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​“Including living writers, meeting and talking with them, was a very important element of the class,” Bloch said. “Contemporary writers like Asante, Landers, Wisher or Jena Osman write about the 18th and 19th centuries, so they helped us create connections across the syllabus.”

Junior Katherine Kvellestad, an English and Philosophy major from Calgary, Canada, who transferred to Penn last year, said her “impression of the course was that it had elements of a choose-your-own-adventure while also on a larger, guided adventure. The readings were captivating and engaged with the subject of Philadelphia from various accounts and angles.”

The course required visits to the Monument Lab exhibit of outdoor installations in the city, and the Speech/Acts exhibition at Penn’s Institute for Contemporary Art. The class wrote about work by artist Sharon Hayes, a Penn School of Design associate professor of fine arts, whose sculpture was included in the Monument Lab project.

“What happens when you notice a monument, when you stop and ask questions?” Bloch said. “What does it mean when we all walk past the Ben Franklin statue on Locust Walk, after reading his work, responses to his work, criticisms of his work? We formulated some serious critiques of Franklin.”

Weekly class meetings were on the sixth floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, where the students could access original documents in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.

“It was tremendously exciting to look at the first poem Benjamin Franklin printed, the only known copy of that poem,” Bloch said. “In the autobiography he describes printing Samuel Keimer’s ‘Elegy on the Death of Aquila Rose,’ which makes it very exciting to read about and then encounter the original broadside.” 

Bloch, Julia Writing Philadelphia Course 2018 3

Students engaged in theme-based writing projects in class, and read their works aloud before a comment period. Photo Eric Sucar

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​For an archival project, Kvellestad worked on an edition of William Still's Underground Railroad records.

“It's a unique experience to interact with all the history that we discuss in class and to delve into just what a material object can mean when we're talking about these larger themes of place and identity," she said.

​​​​​​​Lauren Drake is a sophomore in the School of Engineering and Applied Science from Pittsburgh, with plans to double-major in English. “I think that anchoring the course in a city allowed us to actively engage with its history,” she said. “I definitely learned a lot about Philadelphia history, particularly its history of racism, violence and injustice.

“It also forced us to look closely at the city we live in,” she said. “We were able to go for a walk to see what we were reading about. We wrote out the structures existing in our day-to-day lives.” 

Drake’s poem, “She Came; Alls Well” focused on the challenges of navigating the city streets.

Broad Street ain’t broad enough

For handicapped folks

More than half the time​​​​​​​

Gotta span AT&T to

Fern Rock Transportation Center

At a pace that exceeds

Human legs and wheels

Bloch, Julia Writing Philadelphia Course 2018 6

Photo by Eric Sucar

​​​​​​​Maps figured prominently in one segment of the class, helping the students produce some of their work.

​​​​​​​As inspiration, they studied a poem by Yolanda Wisher from her book Notes from a Slave Ship. Each section of poem is based in a section of Philadelphia, the titles specific points like City Hall or Broad Street Line.

Bloch spread out a stack of Philadelphia maps on the large classroom table: “modern, AAA, touristy and plastic-y, historical, hand-drawn, one from W.E.B. Du Bois, a map from 1797, another from 1681, a 2012 map showing all public school closures, a SEPTA map.”

The students then chose three maps from the pile.

“I told students: hold them in your hands, choose a spot on each map and write a section of a poem for each spot,” she said. “Some spots were familiar, others unfamiliar. And even if you know a spot on a map very well, it is open to imaginative possibility.”

​​​​​​​The results were varied: some students wrote straightforward narratives, others a fictional tale.

“Taken together they show an amazing range of imaginative situations in Philadelphia that are rooted in actual detail,” Bloch said. “It was extraordinary.”

Arthur, Maya 2017.jpg

Senior Maya Arthur visited Kaitlin Pomerantz’s "On the Threshold" (Salvaged Stoops, Philadelphia) in the citywide Monument Lab project for inspiration.


The poem “i’ll see you tomorrow” by Maya Arthur, a senior English major from Maryland, describes physical and personal space.

I try to tell everyone I know that

the African American Museum on 7th

lies next to the Federal Detention

Center and when i wait in the cold,

i sit on a bench, edged into

both complexes

Prell’s poem, “It’s Right Off of Germantown Ave by GFS,” was an examination of his hometown.

That’s Home.

Where I invite my friends, see family


But look at a map from 1797,

            the house wasn’t built yet

  Look at a map from 1854

              the foundations were set, but the place is a stranger.

On the bus, I pass through Bristol Township.

Or at least I would, but I missed it by a century or so, I’m driving down Olney Ave.

            I call it Germantown but my map calls in Logan.

Kvellestad’s final project was a creative portfolio that wove together the ideas of place and home.

“As a rogue Canadian living in Pennsylvania, the class has given me a lot to think about and made me more aware of how ‘place’ is informed and developed for the individual through our own histories, as well as the history of the place itself,” she said. 

Kvellestad’s poem “Legend” was based on her experience on a SEPTA train ride, ending with:

30th street station



BUT STill not far enough

to be home

Ill catch ya

on the flip side, Philly.

Bloch, Julia Writing Philadelphia Course 2018 5


Penn Engineering Research Gives Optical Switches the ‘Contrast’ of Electronic Transistors

Evan Lerner | elerner@seas.upenn.edu | 215-573-6604
Friday, January 26, 2018

Figure A shows a diagram of the the Agarwal research group’s “nanobelt.”

Current computer systems represent bits of information — the 1’s and 0’s of binary code — with electricity. Circuit elements, such as transistors, operate on these electric signals, producing outputs that are dependent on their inputs.

​​​​​​​As fast and powerful as computers have become, Ritesh Agarwal, professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, knows they could be more powerful. The field of photonic computing aims to achieve that goal by using light as the medium.

Ritesh Agarwal

Ritesh Agarwal

Agarwal’s research on photonic computing has been focused on finding the right combination and physical configuration of materials that can amplify and mix light waves in ways that are analogous to electronic computer components.

​​​​​​​In a paper published in Nature Communicationshe and his colleagues have taken an important step: precisely controlling the mixing of optical signals via tailored electric fields, and obtaining outputs with a near perfect contrast and extremely large on/off ratios. Those properties are key to the creation of a working optical transistor.

“Currently, to compute ‘5+7,’ we need to send an electrical signal for ‘5’ and an electrical signal for ‘7,’ and the transistor does the mixing to produce an electrical signal for ‘12,’” Agarwal said. “One of the hurdles in doing this with light is that materials that are able to mix optical signals also tend to have very strong background signals as well. That background signal would drastically reduce the contrast and on/off ratios leading to errors in the output.”

With background signals washing out the intended output, necessarily computational qualities for optical transistors, such as their on/off ratio, modulation strength and signal mixing contrast have all been extremely poor. Electric transistors have high standards for these qualities to prevent errors.

The search for materials that can serve in optical transistors is complicated by additional property requirements. Only “nonlinear” materials are capable of this kind of optical signal mixing.

To address this issue, Agarwal’s research group started by finding a system which has no background signal to start: a nanoscale “belt” made out of cadmium sulfide. Then, by applying an electrical field across the nanobelt, Agarwal and his colleagues were able to introduce optical nonlinearities to the system that enable a signal mixing output that was otherwise zero.

“Our system turns on from zero to extremely large values, and hence has perfect contrast, as well as large modulation and on/off ratios,” Agarwal said. “Therefore, for the first time, we have an optical device with output that truly resembles an electronic transistor.”

With one of the key components coming into focus, the next steps toward a photonic computer will involve integrating them with optical interconnects, modulators, and detectors in order to demonstrate actual computation.

Agarwal Lab members Ming-Liang Ren, Jacob S. Berger, Wenjing Liu and Gerui Liu all contributed to the research.

This research was supported by the US Army Research Office through grants W911NF-11- 1–0024 and W911NF-12-R-0012–03, and the National Science Foundation through a Materials Research Science and Engineering Center seed grant, award number DMR11–20901. Nanofabrication and electron microscopy characterization was carried out at Penn’s Singh Center for Nanotechnology.

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