Collectivity, Communication and Collaboration
Ethnography of the Kelly Writers House


Charles Fourier and Robert Owen, early utopian socialist theorists believed that essential social organization should be based on small local collective communities rather than on the large Centralist State. In such a collective community, the dynamic is one of cooperation rather than competition and there exists an implicit rejection of class struggle. Under certain circumstances even today, a group of people can come together and create a community without a strict structural hierarchy. The leaders of this grouping build up the community from a foundation of cooperation. The group is small and only involves willing participants, and thus a class of 'lesser' people does not exist. There will be people who are more or less active, but everyone has agreed to do what he or she can.

The Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania is just such a cooperative institution. At the Writers House cooperation means more than just working together. The people who belong to and work at the Writers House delve into the functional side of cooperation, almost as Owens projected its usage, as quoted in the OED, Co-operation of the whole community for all economic purposesÖ. In practice, the principle [is] carried out in production, when a body of workmen corporately own the capital by which their concern is carried on, and thus unite within themselves the interests of capital and labour, of employer and employed; and in distribution, when an association of purchasers contributes the capital of a store by which they are supplied with goods, and thus combine in themselves the interests of trader and customers.

Cooperation thus broadly specified, my explanation warrants a correction of terms. While the underlying ideology is fundamentally the same, to bring Owens' functional definition into the truest context of the Writers House I propose this revision: "cooperation of the whole community for all artistic purposesÖ. In practice, the principle [is] carried out in production, when a body of writers abstractly own the words by which their concern is communicated, and thus unite within themselves the interests of the artistic product and its labour, of writer and reader; and in distribution, when an associated audience contributes the capital of an endowment by which Fellows are supplied with trade tools, and thus combine themselves with the rest of the community through the practical interests of writers and word-lovers, artists and art-lovers." My revised definition constructs a fair base from which naturally grow the values of collectivity, communication, and collaboration while avoiding Owens' communist undertones; though in an economy of words there can be no monopoly and everyone works according to her capacity, and receives according to her wants.

The Writers House is similar to a few other campus organizations, especially the Women's Center, because while it is open to the diverse public, its programs and classes attract a certain type of person. Likewise, the practical business aspects of the House require a certain type of person to be a liaison between the house and the public. In delving into the identity of this "type of person" through his or her expressions of enthusiasm and interest in the life of the House, I hope to come to a better understanding of the Writers House as a specific cultural arena.

I. Method

I began my observation unannounced. By paying attention to the mass email, "This Week at the Kelly Writers House" I learned about the various programs and goings-on each week and was able to select a few (of different types which I will further define later) to attend. The events that I went to were: "From Manuscript to Book: the Author, the Agent, and the Editor," a "reading by poets Michael Magee and Louis Cabri," and a "Planning Committee Meeting and Gathering." I watched for patterns in program structure trying to discover the mechanism that allows the Writers House to run smoothly. While at these events I found myself drawn in to the culture of the Writers House because what I surmised as its motives seemed congruent with many of my own. However, my personal interest in the Kelly Writers House did not, I feel, hinder my objective participant observation. In fact, it made my ethnographic investigation twofold: by examining the values of an exterior culture I was examining my own. After observing the professional and personal dynamics of the programs, I set up two formal interviews, each 40 minutes in length, first with the Acting Director, and then with the Program Coordinator. These interviews involved my questioning them about the day to day mechanics and then trying to get them to narrow in on the most important details. I was not surprised, given the omnipresent value of community, to find that both the Acting Director and the Program Coordinator spoke of each other and of one another's job with words of respect that were not too oft repeated to ring genuine. In fact according to the Acting Director, much the communication between the two is whittled down to smiles, nods, shrugs, and thought fragments. As should be true of a cohesive community, it seems my two informants have come to a silent understanding of one another's values and motivations.

II. Who is Involved

From my observation at these various events it was hard to distinguish who was in charge. However, there are two full time employees at the Writers House, the Director, Teresa, and the Program Coordinator, Tom, and one part time administrative assistant. Working voluntarily with these two are the faculty director Al, and the resident intern, Hannah. A number of work study students fill small and important roles at the Writers House, and are in charge of: web-page design, the library, maintenance of the calendar, development and alumni relations, sound, database managing, archives, research and postering, Live at the Writers House and the Listserve. Finally the 90-member Planning Committee, or "Hub" as it's called collaborates with these others (all of whom are included in the circle of the Hub) to propose programs, events, and art exhibitions, and to analyze past events.

III. Description of Setting

The Writers House fills a 13-room house at 3805 Locust Walk. To enter the house one must pass through a waste high iron gate that swings creaking-ly open onto a small walkway. On either side of the path ivy grows from the ground. There are a few stairs up to the doorway, and a handicap entrance on the east side of the building. Immediately inside the door is a flight of stairs to the second floor of the House. The first floor has three main rooms, a kitchen a restroom, and the Director's office. The largest of these rooms is called the "Arts CafÈ" and this is where the majority of the programs are conducted. It's a softly lit room with a bay window that looks out past the ivy-covered ground to the foot of Generational Walk and the 1920 Commons. Heading south from the arts cafÈ to the back of the House one passes through the common room, which is decorated with exhibitions of visual art from emerging artists. Next is the dining room, mostly filled by a long oval table around which the Planning Committee meets to share pizza. Lunches for visiting writers also are hosted here. Behind this room is the kitchen. From this kitchen there is both access to the basement and to the second floor (by way of a steep and narrow staircase). From the kitchen a small hallway leads further back to the Director's office. Going up the front stairway to the second floor there are three rooms immediately visible. On the left is a large bathroom with a bathtub, next to it is a classroom, and directly ahead will be the computer lab or the "Hub room ." Turning right and descending a few stairs on will find a door on the left-hand side that opens into the business office. In here is the Program Coordinators desk, as well as the administrative assistant's. Continuing towards the back of the house on will pass the aforementioned narrow staircase into another small common area. This common area is used for Writing Advising. Another narrow hallway follows off of which is another bathroom, and at the very back of the house, over the directors office is a small couch filled room used for classes. I did not see the third floor of the house, but this is where the resident intern lives.

IV. Social Identities of Informants

Informant 1: Teresa Leo, Acting Director for the Kelly Writers House

On being acting director of the Writers House Teresa says,

Besides guiding the house along, I also do the budgetÖ and development work, dealing with alumni, alumni relations, parents, prospective studentsÖAnd then there's the Hub, the planning committee which is very critical thing, right now there are 90 members, it's a volunteer groupÖ. These people guide the house, it's people who want to take part in programs, start a series, bring a visiting writerÖ. Anyone who wants to get involved in making the house what it is can on a volunteer basis. I noted from her description that the Hub is a helpful and fundamental unit at the Writers House, and asked her to discuss how new Hub members are recruited:

There are a lot of listserves that go out. Anyone that comes in the door signs the guest book. Once they come to one program and the sign the guest book then we have a means of reaching out to them again and put them on our distribution listÖthey get a weekly mailing for the events and some people prefer the paper calendar so we mail that to their homes. Or they find us on the web because we have the website. And word of mouth too.

Once someone is on the Hub, I wondered, is there a way for him or her to progress to levels of more intense participation at the Writers House? Teresa explains what it means to be on the Hub, and the degrees to which a Hub member can be active in the Writers House community:

It's a collective community. We have had freshman who have come in with all guns blazing and said, 'you know what I have a really great idea.' And they did that thing. Aaron Levy who graduated a couple years ago, has been doing programs since the beginning, and now that he's graduated he's here still doing programming, he has a series called, "Theorizing In Particular " and I believe they are up to their 50th program. And they do partnerships with various departments.

So if there is no way for Hub members to progress up a ladder, then there must be no chain of command at the Writers House, another reflection of socialist tendencies. Teresa explains,

The hierarchy only exists in that you need, like any other arts organization, and it is a business too, someone to manage the book. So you need the director, someone who will create a balance of programs. You don't want to have all one thing. Because the message is, we're open to many different things. We do about 150 different programs every semester. And everything is free here too, we don't charge for any of the events, there's no money coming in that way.

Now that the greater picture of the how the Writers House functions as a cultural mechanism is a little bit more clear, it's important to look at the minute aspects, that small parts of Teresa's job that keep the House a vibrant, interesting place to work. Teresa says,

There is never a typical day at the Writers House, never ever ever. Sometimes when I go to bed at night I replay in my head things that happened and they sound absolutely crazy sometimes! You may come in in the morning and get a phone call from the National Italian American foundationÖ they do a series here called the Gay Talese Lecture Series, and they would like to know if you've contacted their speaker Camille Paglia yetÖ. Then you get off the phone and go down to the living room and see that Dorothy Allison is thereÖ[people want to collaborate with us because] we offer them this low key environment. The Women's Studies booked her and asked if we wanted to have a lunch with Dorothy Allison, who wouldn't say yes to that! 20 people around the table, able to interact with the writer who's now going to go to the big room you where you'll be one of many, where here you're one of 20. And I felt she made some direct contact with people. And then there's a lot of email, people asking how they can get involved. At that point I have to close the door and do budgetary stuff or development work, return phone calls. Today I found that part of our roof was in the yardÖand I had to make sure Facilities would come and put the shingles back up. It's everything from Plant Management to real crunching of numbers to going out there and enjoying an art receptionÖSo the day is long but it's very rich and exciting. We all [Teresa, Al, and Tom] are entry points for various people.

Analysis: From picking out key phrases in Teresa's description of the Writers House and her role therein I surmise that she views her role as director as necessary to the maintenance not only of an abstract daily order, but also to the maintenance of a feeling of community. Instead of the type of unquestioned authority a director at a business firm would have, Teresa's force is a guiding one; she is both advisor and participant, knowledgeable and accessible.

Informant 2: Thomas Devaney, Program Coordinator for the Kelly Writers House

Tom had equally as hard a time as Teresa when trying to pin down what a typical day at the Writers House is for him. There are a few key parts to his job that differ from Teresa's, namely work with the Hublets on accepting or rejecting proposals. He describes how the rejection process fit into a day and why proposals are rejected:

Today, last night we had three programs here, I have to start with last night because last night bleeds into todayÖI emailed people who involved in all of these events last night and this morningÖ. I wrote a letter to send out [since] I'm in charge of the Hublet proposals committee and we take all proposals, so I sent letters of rejection out this morning. [Rejection happens because] we don't have the audience for it, we don't have space in the calendar, 75% of the programs we do here are collaborations with other departments or groups, so if someone says 'I want to read here' we'll usually do it in collaboration with a department Ö. [We collaborate] because we don't have a lot of money, for the life of the house, the house is built on a collaborative model it started from collaboration and it works best as a collaboration.

Collaborating with different departments means different crowds will attend every event, but Toms begins to define who these people are and why they come to the programs they come to:

Because of the large writ openness of the house there is a multiplicity of programs that are impossible to pigeonhole. It's so heterogeneous that there's no good way to understand it except that some things you're going to like and some things you're not going to like. Every program is different. At "Is There a Poetry Scene if Philadelphia" there were a lot of people who organize events and are interested in that kind of thing. Those who came to the art opening were people from the GSFAÖpeople who want to have a show here, people who just wanted to eat the food, family and friends of the artist. [Of course we have regulars] people who come for certain readings, people who like certain types of writersÖ. Almost everybody in that room [at the Mike Magee and Louis Cabri reading] had some sort of long standing relationship with the House, and Louis has organized "Philly Talks " so yeah I felt that there are pockets of people with pockets of interest.

As with Teresa, I asked Tom about the minute aspects of his job that make it worth-while for him personally, about how he maneuvers as Program Coordinator within the bounds of (or unbounded) values of the Kelly Writers House. He says:

[My vision] is that I set the tone to make sure that people feel welcomed, to make sure that a positive tone makes things feel good, that the programs happen without any turbulence. I don't see my own values in conflict with the house at all that's why I wanted to work hereÖ[the House] is doing good work, I wanted to be involved with it. My commitment to the House as Program Coordinator is to try to make the programs as good as they can be. And try to push for quality as I understand it, and from my own background what I know, I'm a writer, I'm a reader, I've written books reviews, I've taught college English and Political Science, I've been involved with non-profits, I have a lot of experience and back ground. Ö[I write] Essays and poetryÖ I have a book of prose I'm working onÖ I just finished another book of poemsÖI've only been working here three months so I've been wanting to put myself into the House like 200%ÖThis job is an extension of my work as a writer.

Analyses: The most significant thing Tom said about his role at the Writers House is that his "job is and extension of [his] work as a writer. It means that he sees writing as more than just the physical act of composition. It is also the act of dialogue that Teresa emphasizes later in a discussion of values. The house is a forum for this dialogue, and Tom's role is clearly to ensure that the dialogue is as diverse in content as its participants are diverse in background. It is important that his valued be congruent with those of the Writers House because his is a full time, unending position, unlike Teresa's, which will only last the year.

V. Data from Which to Develop Cultural Themes:

Included are a taxonomy of positions, programs, and publications at the Kelly Writers House. In the Programs Taxonomy, some events fall into more than one category, but not into more than two. It is important to view each of these events separately in the light of each category into which it falls.

Writers House planning Committee "Hub"

Work Study Students

Programs at the Writers House:

Book Groups






Publications at the Kelly Writers House:

Student Run:

Hub Run:

VI. Cultural Themes:

In The Ethnographic Interview James Spradely defines cultural themes as, "any cognitive principle, tacit or explicit, recurrent in a number of domains and serving as a relationship among subsystems of cultural meaning (p. 186)." His definition stems from the definition of "theme" he quotes from Opler on the previous page, "a postulate or position, declared or implied, and usually controlling behavior or stimulating activity, which is tacitly approved or openly promoted in a society." Taking these two working definitions into account I drew upon my interviews with the informants, and well as the taxonomic lists in Part V to develop and understanding of a few main cultural themes at the Writers House.

1) Collaboration: Teresa says that the Writers House "collaborate[s] with any department you can imagine here [at Penn]. Some of our regulars are Women's Studies, the Greenfield Intercultural Center, Afro-American studies, The Middle East Center, The Center for Italian Studies, the Graduate School of Fine Arts, CGS, everyone who does some kind of arts programming eventually finds us and find interesting ways to collaborate with us. The Graduate School said, 'why don't we have a poets and painters seriesÖ' There's so many ways to extend the concept of a Writers HouseÖ. Let's say there's someone that we'd very much like to bring but none of us alone has the resources to bring that person so we all come together and we can make it happen. It's easier with publicity too because everyone can go to their own constituents and get the word outÖ. [Collaborations are symbolic because] besides being open to different possibilities there are some things that we'd never be able to not doÖ the ideology is to be inclusive and to find creative ways to make things happen and to really address the needs of our community. Art is a powerful thing."

2)Values of Collectivity: Teresa again begins by explaining, "we [the Writers House] are open to the larger public of Philadelphia, we want to be a space that does innovative programmingÖtrying to be on the technological cutting edge, we also want to be a space where people feel like they can come and have and important dialogueÖ Writing often times can bring about a dialogue between people who would never have talked in the first place so that's the kind of mission that that this House can aspire to, that I think we do actually live up toÖand incredible bridging of communities. Some of the greatest conversations happen in the kitchen, it's amazingÖ the kind of ideological wrestling that we do and we want people to feel comfortable when they come in, they can have a cup of coffee, sit on the couch and read a book. That's the ideal situation."

3) Communication: Teresa clarifies: "[Tom and I] both share offices, there is no "private space" so we have a verbal short hand, a cryptic language, we have to move quickly from thing to thing and we have to shift gears a lot, there's so much juggling that goes on that you don't really have time to really sit down and go through things and we're both the kind of people that can react quickly if need beÖ. Communications have to be pretty precise and to the point." Tom agrees with Teresa and adds that the type of language used to communicate at the Writers House reflects the Writers House's values. "We have a language that is welcoming, it's openÖone of the things is the "Hub" we call it the hub because it's a central meeting place. So that word reinforces this place as a hub of activity. The hublets are sort of like the House of Representatives, the arms and legs and appendages of the hub."


I began this ethnography by briefly discussing socialist theory and rejection of class struggle. In conclusion I find this model not altogether appropriate to the Writers House because, though members of the Hub, the staff, and collaborators all truly work within a communal vision bounded by the cultural themes of collaboration, collectivity, and communication, my informants demonstrated a disciplined but not inflexible authority within the house. Teresa and Tom's authority is upheld by the supporting body of Hub members, and thus represent the active members of the community. Thus, while not the purely socialist environment I had expected at the beginning of my investigations, the Writers House is no more anything else. In fact, the Writers House sets its own precedent for communal collaboration in that through that Hub meetings, any complaint may lead to compromise. Despite the House's public emphasis on "collective community" the Hub demonstrates elements of ageless democracy which understanding is the basis of social control at the House. As I wrote in my introduction, the culture of the Kelly Writers House attracts a certain type of person, and the liaison between the House and the Public is the paradigm for that "type of person." I stated that understanding who this "type of person" will lead to a better understanding of the Writers House as a specific cultural arena. I hope that through the course of reading my contextualized and transcribed interviews with Teresa and especially Tom (who seemed to foresee himself as playing more of a role in the House's future) my audience was able to draw a mental image of who might attend the various collaborative events. Without typifying personalities, I can in one word describe those who love and support the Kelly Writers House: artists. Books and essays and poems and stories have been written about what it means to be an artist, and therefore a complete understanding of the "type of person" who uses and loves the Kelly Writers House is still elusive. One must attend a program of interest to feel the tug of its culture. In hopes of further motivating my audience to visit the Writers House I will share my own understanding; for, as I stated in the Part I., my project became twofold: by examining the values of an exterior culture I was examining my own.

The Kelly Writers House provides a forum for discussion, and discussion leads to self-discovery. In discussing shared words and visuals with equally interested parties, whether opinions commingle or clash, one learns a little more about oneself. The Kelly Writers House provides a forum for self-discovery. If that self-discovery is shared with equally self-exploratory parties, whether from similar or different backgrounds, one builds a stronger bond to the place and people who support ones growth. If one grows-even slightly-in an aesthetic harmonious environment, one will have a heightened sense of the universal presence of art. Ideally the Kelly Writers House helps paves a young artist's path out the allegorical cave. This is my understanding of the purpose of such a "collective community" in the heart of a University campus.