Brian Jessup describes the Kelly Writers House

Brian Jessup (Engineering '99) describes the Kelly Writers House as a learning community

During a recent visit to the Los Angeles area, Professor Al Filreis discussed the achievements of the Kelly Writers House and its goals for the future. In that discussion, the achievements and activities of the Writers House were cast in the light of studies about learning environments. People learn best under the following conditions:

It's this last bit that interests me. Professor Filreis contended that the Writers House had achieved this goal by utilizing a beautiful home and educating in living room-like settings. While some success can certainly be attributed to the house, there are other important reasons why the Writers House has succeeded.

The mass process-like environment pervades the educational system of the United States and creates in its wake an adversarial environment. At a well-renowned university was heard, "This class is extremely difficult. If it is not required for your degree I encourage you to drop it." What was so difficult about this class? The information? Not likely. Given enough time, any student accepted to a selective school should be able to learn a given amount of material. No, instead the problem with this class was the drive for the university to maintain the schedule.

Certainly in this instance there was little encouragement to learn for the sake of knowledge.

So what? What's the big deal with an adversarial environment? Some might argue that to earn a degree there should be a bit of trial by fire. Competition encourages success, preaches our capitalist background. A good number of the greatest and most visible achievements could only have been accomplished in an air of competition. Would the US have gone to the moon without the USSR? Would the homerun record have been broken by Maris without Mantle? Or McGwire without Sosa?

Great things have been achieved through competition, but not in an adversarial atmosphere. As an athlete and a coach in the sport of swimming, I have had the opportunity to be exposed to national, international, and even Olympic champions. Through coaching, I've seen all levels of talent and success and have come to realize that these things are mutually exclusive. I've seen people with more talent than others flounder while others with less talent succeed. And the bulk of the successes I've seen come from environments of support. Talent seems to dictate your reach, environment your grasp.

The Kelly Writers House has gone beyond providing a mere homelike atmosphere in appearance and provided a homelike environment within themselves. It turns out that where you are is not nearly as important as who is with you, and the Writers House has the right people in spades.

The Kelly Writers House is an oasis of encouragement in an otherwise highly competitive and sometimes draining environment. As a student there, I experienced an unquestioned expectation that I would succeed, which allowed me to achieve whatever I was able to achieve.

And the Writers House offered a place to discover what there is to achieve. The programs there are far from the stock lessons found elsewhere on campus. The Writers House offers content, including speakers and guests, that are unique and diverse. It is another approach to forming a group of talented writers and professionals that is just as effective and many times more effective at creating creativity.

How do you measure success in education? By the retention of knowledge or by the creation of a desire to further knowledge? The process I described for my engineering education left me with solid retention and a disgust for the subject. The Writers House succeeded on both fronts.

The University of Pennsylvania is fortunate to have some of the most talented educators on campus in that house, creating a program of education that will serve students and the community indefinitely. The Writers House does not have a monopoly on quality educators; I found a few in the sciences and business, but it is hard not to recognize the broad achievements in spirit and learning going on there.

Brian Jessup
Eng '99