Posted September 30, 2012

Virtual passport is students' online ticket to Philadelphia arts and culture

Temple students now have a virtual key to Philadelphia’s rich arts and cultural scene. The popular PEX passport, formerly a booklet of coupons with a printing of 12,000 that offered students free and discount admission to the city’s cultural venues, has gone virtual and is now available to all Temple undergraduates.

Going online and expanding to all undergraduates was the natural progression for the Philadelphia Experience (PEX) passport program, said Istvan L. Varkonyi, Temple’s director of General Education. Launched four years ago as part of the GenEd program, PEX passport’s goal has always been to help students connect with Philadelphia and its incredible cultural diversity.

Once students register for their virtual passport, they can explore and take advantage of the offerings online, from $5 tickets to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), to free admission to the Germantown Historic Sites, to a free ticket for a film at International House — more than 50 venues in all.

Students can attend on their own and also as part of GenEd class assignments. Everyone taking "Evolution and Extinctions,” taught by Allison Tumarkin-Deratzian and Alix Davatzes, for example, visits the the Academy of Natural Sciences to examine the dinosaur eggs on exhibit.

Intellectual Heritage instructor Richard Orodenker has used the PEX passport to send his "Mosaic" I and II students to see plays they were studying in class. Last semester, as they studied Sophocles' Antigone, they saw the Quintessence Theater group's performance of Jean Anouilh's stage adaptation of the work.

“These Philadelphia Experiences are really a way of extending the classroom,” said Orodenker. “I am a big fan of assigning plays because they are texts in performance, and "Mosaic" is all about reading and comparing texts.”

“What’s made this program different from the beginning is that it was motivated by the philosophy that students will learn more when they step outside of the classroom,” said Deborah Block, theater instructor.

Block and Ken Finkel, distinguished lecturer in American Studies, serve as cultural consultants for the PEX passport program. Both have deep ties to the Philadelphia world of arts and culture both professionally and personally. They recruit and manage the large network of cultural partners and work closely with professors on integrating the passport program into their courses.

“We want professors and students to use the city as a text, to look at an art work to be experienced and ‘read,’ explained Finkel. “I know I have more impact when students can integrate real, place-based experiences into their education.”

Consider the Windsor chair, a recent subject of Finkel’s class.

“Not any artifact can speak to the bigger cultural issues, but there are many reasons why the Windsor chair can and does,” said Finkel. The plain, spoke-backed chair with a plain, carved plank seat is considered the most important innovation in American furniture of the 18th century. It was made here in Philadelphia with local talent, local labor, and with materials untouched by slave labor.

“We can look at a printed or digital image of the chair, but the experience of experiencing the real thing in a gallery at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is so much richer, so memorable,” said Finkel. “I ask students to consider how an object speaks to the culture and how it represents a transition in thinking. They go beyond reading and writing and use their senses for perception and it helps inform their analysis.”

This is what connects the PEX passport to the goals of GenEd, said Finkel. Arts and culture events and places help students, many of whom are fresh out of high school, become adult learners, at a college level.

Students love the passport and how it enhances their college experience.

“The events and outings that the PEX program offers have allowed me to continue to grow and learn beyond the classroom,” said Julian Otis, a senior music and voice performance major. “Each event provides me with a new experience or interaction that I then interpret and formulate an opinion on. The amalgamation of all of these experiences has given me a wealth of stories and knowledge to pull from when talking to professional individuals who frequently go to these cultural institutions.”

The cultural groups love it as well. All of them have an educational mission and a big desire to reach college students, who have the potential to become life-long patrons.

For these reasons and more, Block and Finkel foresee the program only continuing to expand in terms of offerings and venues.

Said Block, “Temple is blessed with having this wonderful cultural landscape all around us — and to use it is a no-brainer.”