Archive | September, 2012

Penn State in Chicago!

28 Sep

I just blew in from the Windy City where we had a very successful Research on the Road event with the good folks from the Greater Chicago Chapter of our Alumni Association.

Here I am (middle) with Jodi Feldheim, Chicago chapter president, on my left, and  Becky Cikoch, the chapter’s communications and social media chair, on my right.

Research on the Road is the University’s new speaker series that brings Penn State faculty to alumni chapters around the country for lively conversations on a wide assortment of research topics. And lively it was! We were so fortunate to have Jerry Zolten, “roots music” historian and associate professor of communication arts and sciences, as our speaker, and to have more than fifty enthusiastic Penn State alumni and friends in attendance at one of Chicago’s most famous blues clubs, Buddy Guy’s Legends.

Before the talk there was time for mingling and networking, with refreshments and fond Penn State memories shared.

Then the talk began and Jerry Zolten took us all on a memorable exploration of Chicago’s celebrated sound: the blues. Through his vast knowledge, anecdotes and humor—and through audio and video recordings, including some rare footage—Jerry traced for us the diverse roots and evolution of the blues as the music traveled up the Mississippi from the rural south to its new urban home in the Windy City.

Jerry Zolten describing Charlie Patton’s role in early Delta Blues. He played the song “Spoonful” as an example of this era.

Toes were tapping and hands were drumming the tables as we listened to clips from Chicago blues, legends such as Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and Howlin’ Wolf, as well as the club’s namesake impressario Buddy Guy.

After the talk, people lingered to chat some more, meet Jerry and ask some follow-up questions, and some stayed to hear some live blues on the stage downstairs.

Thanks to a terrific group of Penn Staters (with special thanks to Jodi, Becky and Bob) it was a blue and white—or shall I say, blues and white—event to remember!

Stay tuned as Research on the Road heads to Santa Monica in late October, when Penn State’s renowned Beatles scholar Ken Womack will lead our Los Angeles area alumni on a magical mystery tour, with insights into the musical innovations of The Beatles during this 50th anniversary celebration of the band’s first single. Anyone remember what that single was?!


Happy anniversary Ag College of Pennsylvania!

4 Sep

A colleague reminded me the other day that 2012 is a milestone year in Penn State’s history: 150 years ago, the Farmers’ High School—the name under which the University was incorporated in 1855—became the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania.

Two more name changes lay in the future. The ACP became the Pennsylvania State College in 1874, which in turn became The Pennsylvania State University in 1953.

So what’s the big deal about the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania? And what does it have to do with research? (This is a research blog, after all.)

Take a look at the ACP’s seal – jam-packed with two dozen or so objects that suggest many areas of higher learning, including a test tube and a microscope and probably a few other items (that I can’t identify) used at that time in scientific research. (See all of Penn State’s official seals here.)

The ACP seal would be a nightmare in today’s world of sophisticated “branding.” But in 1862, its graphic elements reflected the blend of teaching and research activities that founding President Evan Pugh envisioned for Penn State. Pugh himself was a brilliant chemist who won international recognition for his experiments on the use of nitrogen by plants.

The name and seal of the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania were intended to strengthen the institution’s case to become Pennsylvania’s land-grant endowment. By early 1862, the High School’s Board of Trustees recognized that Congress would soon enact legislation establishing a nationwide system of land-grant colleges. Representative Justin Morrill’s bill called for each state legislature to designate one or more institutions as land-grant colleges. In exchange for offering instruction in scientific agriculture and in engineering, these colleges would receive an endowment created by sales of federal land. (Go here for more particulars.)

The Farmers’ High School had been established as a college of scientific agriculture, and in fact awarded the nation’s first baccalaureate degrees in that subject in 1861. Its founders had chosen the name “high school” for fear that farmers would be prejudiced against enrolling their sons in a “college,” which were widely perceived as places where boys typically partook of drinking and card playing, and otherwise developed evil habits.

But with the passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Act, the Trustees reversed their thinking. The “High School” moniker could weaken their claim that their institution was of baccalaureate-level quality. Numerous other colleges laid claim to Pennsylvania’s land-grant endowment; the competition was fierce. Supporters of the new ACP had to use every weapon in their arsenal.

They succeeded. On April 1, 1863, Pennsylvania designated what we know as Penn State as the Commonwealth’s sole land-grant college, and it has been thus ever since. The land-grant designation bestowed on Penn State its historic mission of teaching, research, and public service.

Also in 1863, the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania awarded its first graduate degrees—two masters of scientific agriculture. But that’s another story—and another anniversary. Watch for more about the 150th anniversary of graduate education at Penn State during the 2012-13 academic year.

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