Thematic Developments

Colleges spend more time cooking up creative theme semesters. Are the efforts worth it?
September 8, 2006

Amy Hawkins attended the University of Michigan during the days of controversies over whether Martin Luther King Jr. should have his own federal holiday. She attended rallies and participated in dialogues, but she didn’t end up with a sense that she was making any difference.

To her, it felt like such events were somewhat scattershot and isolated. “I didn’t feel a sense of community or ongoing connection to the issues,” she recalls. “It was frustrating.”

University of Michigan officials felt that frustration. According to Terrence J. McDonald, dean of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts, administrators decided about two decades ago that they wanted to go beyond “hit and miss” regarding thematic programming. In turn, they chose to have a central focus for semesters, whereby professors could submit proposals to a faculty committee explaining why their classes might fit under a particular theme. If selected, those classes would be highlighted in course guides and given emphasis by campus officials.

During a diversity-themed semester, for instance, a class in political science that deals with the politics of minority populations might qualify. At the same time, McDonald says that thematic events and discussions are held throughout the semester in order to keep the topic fresh on students’ minds. In terms of a diversity theme, for example, Jesse Jackson, might be invited to speak on campus.

The idea seems to be catching on. While theme semesters are held in the Literature, Science and the Arts College at Michigan, varying institutions have chosen to go both broader, as well as narrower, in terms of how many students they try to reach through thematic programming. Many college officials believe that focusing on themes helps institutions, in effect, kill two birds with one stone: They're tackling social issues in a organized manner, while also providing students with a better understanding of how different disciplines connect.

But there are concerns, too. Stephen H. Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, worries somewhat that “top-down initiatives” could signal to faculty members that they should be putting certain issues at the center of attention. “I wouldn’t want these themes to mean that everyone has to march by the same drum beat,” he says. “Looking at the track records of universities, thematization seems not always to be an effort to produce discourse, but rather, to focus attention on selected problems and selected solutions to those problems.”

Debra Humphreys, the Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs with the Association of American Colleges and Universities, believes that theme semesters show “an increasing and genuine desire on the part of academic leaders” to get students more engaged with their institutions. “It is all an attempt to provide students a more coherent education and one that is a cumulative and progressive and integrative learning experience rather than an experience of just haphazardly picking up credits here and there,” she says. 

Hawkins, who is now an English professor at Columbia College in Chicago, hopes to reach at least half of the 13,000 students at her institution with a new theme-based project this semester that builds on her past experiences at Michigan. Over the past several months, she’s helped frame a theme, which allows the arts-focused students at the institution to learn more about civic engagement by studying and taking part in HIV and AIDS-focused projects, discussions and events.”

If they choose to do so, students can take classes and work with organizations outside of the college to help them explore the history and current status of the disease. Students in media classes, for instance, have already begun writing stories about new developments involving the disease in the Chicago area, and plan to share their work with local non-profits to help get the information out to the community at large.

The arts community has probably been disproportionately affected by HIV-AIDS,” says Steven Kapelke, provost of Columbia College. “Over the last five years, with advances in drugs, the topic seems to have fallen a bit off the radar.” He notes that no student will be forced to create a, say, sculpture that has something to do with AIDS, but he believes that the culture stemming from classrooms discussions and special guest speakers will have the ability to affect everyone.

Kapelke says that using themes allows the college to focus on its educational mission, while hopefully resounding with students in new ways. “Theme semesters have always been topical,” he says. “But we think it’s important to have a continuum of learning that isn’t just an isolated event that gets a lot of attention and then goes away.”

Columbia will expand on the HIV-AIDS effort next year, by layering on the “complicating factors” of poverty and privilege into classes, events and discussions.

The University of Michigan, too, is broadening its approach to thematic programming, by offering a “theme year” for the first time ever starting this fall, called "The Theory and Practice of Citizenship: from the Local to the Global." Through a series of classes, lectures, plays, concerts and public events, McDonald says that the goal will be to help students think about what it means to be a citizen in a globalized society. "Understanding citizenship has never been more important,” says McDonald. "We are obligated to illuminate the issues and showcase the opportunities for action.”

But there are other motives, too. McDonald says that thematic programming is “a way of leveraging our scale and a powerful way of revealing the vast resources we have on campus.” “The reason we do all this is really to help the undergraduates have a map of the curriculum,” he says. He’d like to see more large campuses take on such efforts, even though he notes that the coordination can be daunting.

Since the 1980s, many professors have become much more involved in shaping theme semester programs, according to educators who’ve been involved with such programs. And they’ve had fun thinking about ways to pique students’ interests. The titles of theme semesters offered up at the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks, for instance, are intended to do just that. “Romance and Reality,” “Nature of Nurture and Nurture of Nature,” and “The Mysterious and the Forbidden” have been but a few of the themes focused on by the institution’s integrated studies department, which serves about 400 students.

“We have a good time thinking up ways to communicate our themes,” says Tami Carmichael, director of humanities and integrated studies at the university. “The academy has not always been so good at connecting with students.”

This semester, the focus of several classes and events at North Dakota will be “Why We Are Here.” Carmichael says that science courses will ask questions, like, “Are we genetically programmed to be happy?” and a group of Tibetan monks will visit campus to share wisdom on self-meditation.

“Of course, we don’t really know the answer to that big question,” says Carmichael. “But answering the question isn’t really the goal.”


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