How theme semesters are shaping the way you learn

Ruby Wallau/Daily
Buy this photo

By Tanaz Ahmed, Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 14, 2014

For more than 20 years, theme semesters have played an integral part in anchoring the LSA curriculum. Through theme semesters, LSA works to provide courses and events related to a specific topic each term.

Though they were first implemented in the 1980s, theme semesters became more established in the ‘90s under former LSA Dean Edie Goldenberg. Faculty and administration recognized the potential of theme semesters to foster thought-provoking conversations on campus and in the broader Ann Arbor community, said Marjorie Horton, the assistant dean for undergraduate education.

“The purpose of theme semesters is to involve the community in learning about, thinking about a complex subject matter together and from many different perspectives,” she explained.

Topics that are relevant on campus and but also have a national impact are chosen. Brown v. the Board of Education was elected as a theme in winter 2004 during the 50th anniversary of the landmark case. Past theme semesters have also included “India in the World,” “Understanding Race,” and “Genders, Bodies, Borders.”

The subject matter for each semester is carefully chosen. Preliminary proposals from departments, faculty and staff are expected to be brief, two-page documents with an explanation of the theme, lists of potential collaborating departments or programs, ways to involve students, proposed courses and community events. After the preliminary proposals are returned with feedback, a full proposal is developed.

The theme for Fall 2014 is “Sport in the University.” The recent media focus on collegiate athletics coupled with the passion for sports on Ann Arbor’s campus makes “Sport in the University” a timely subject, Anne Curzan, professor of English Language and Literature, said.

“We thought it would be fun and interesting to capitalize on the widespread and often passionate interest in sport on campus,” wrote Curzan, who is spearheading this semester’s theme, in an e-mail interview. “We wanted to highlight the ways in which sport intersects with questions and research we pursue across a wide range of disciplines at the University, from psychology to physics to literature to engineering, from race to gender to economics to medicine.”

Once a theme is selected, the dean’s office provides a large portion of the financial resources needed to plan events and programs. According to Evans Young, LSA assistant dean for undergraduate education, the office provides approximately $25,000 to $30,000 to the steering committee, comprised of faculty and staff, in charge of organizing the theme semester.

Specific LSA departments with an interest in the specific theme semester provide additional funding. Occasionally, other University schools and colleges, such as the School of Art and Design or the School of Music, Theatre & Dance will also contribute to the funding if the theme is relevant to their curriculums. There have also been instances where themes have been funded by organizations outside of the University — such as from the Ford Motor Company for the “Detroit 300” semester.

The English Department and Physics Department are some of the other departments contributing to this semester’s budget.

The money goes toward the multitude of events organized for theme semesters as well as staff support. Events — most of which are open to the general public — usually include speakers, movies, panels, performances, concerts, student essay and video contests.

The impact on campus

Over the years, theme semesters have made a significant impact on academics at the University.

For instance, in the Fall of 2012, the “Translations” semester led to the creation of the translations minor under the Comparative Literature Department. Although under the Comparative Literature Department, the minor stays true to its theme semester roots through its interdisciplinary approach.

The Environmental Semester, the theme in Winter of 1998, was a catalyst in creating the University’s Program in the Environment (PitE). John Knott, a current professor emeritus in the English department, was able to further pursue his interests in literature and the environment while a part of the ‘98 theme semester steering committee. He was later one of the key figures in implementing PitE.

Knott is not the only professor who has been given the opportunity to further explore his or her research interests and passions through theme semesters.

For Scott Ellsworth, a lecturer in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, this semester’s theme, “Sport in the University” is the perfect opportunity for him to incorporate the teachings from his book, “The Secret Game: A Basketball Story in Black and White” into a class on race and basketball in America.

“There’s a core group of faculty that works on sports from various disciplines but don’t often get a chance to talk with one and another, so I’m hoping this theme semester helps us get to know one and another better and share research,” said Santiago Colas, an associate professor of comparative literature, who is also teaching a course of global sports cultures this fall.

The extracurricular curriculum

For Tyran Steward, a lecturer in the History Department, this year’s theme semester gives him the opportunity to teach a subject that is generally disregarded in American academia.

“The reality is that many of the themes to be pursued, such as sport, have been understudied by scholars and/or undervalued in our classrooms despite their popularity in mainstream American life or their need for greater intellectual scrutiny,” wrote Steward, who is teaching two courses related to “Sport in the University” this semester.

To kick off the semester, “Sport in the University” hosted a panel titled “Game Plan: Achieving Success at Michigan and Beyond.” Michigan Basketball Coach John Beilein and Women’s Gymnastics Coach Bev Plocki — along with Phil Deloria, LSA associate dean of undergraduate education, University professors Rob Sellers, professor of Psychology, and Robin Queen, chair of the Linguistics department — were panel speakers.

Other events include a concert held in honor of the “Star Spangled Banner,” a History of Women’s Athletics gallery exhibit at the University of Michigan in Hatcher Graduate Library and a performance of “Good Kids” by the Sexual Assault Prevention & Awareness Center (SAPAC) at the Arthur Miller Theatre. Lectures given by speakers Philip Veliz, a professor at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and University alum Tarkington Newman, will take place as well.

There will also be screenings of films. “A League of Their Own” will be shown on Sept. 21 with an introduction given by Carol Hutchins, women’s softball coach.

“Afghan Muscles” and “A City of Fire: The Story of ‘68 Detroit Tigers” will be screened on Sept. 26 and Oct. 1, respectively. “Playing Unfair: The Media Image of the Female Athlete” and “Miracle” are some of the films which will also be shown.

While LSA junior Ayesha Mehrotra said she found theme semester courses to be unadvertised to students who did not seem to belong to a department sponsoring these courses, other students who had taken past theme semester courses or attended related events were intrigued by the selected topics.

“I did not feel like I was an expert in any of these topics before but I’m always looking for opportunities to learn more about my culture,” said LSA junior Sunny Dharod, explaining why he was motivated to enroll in two theme semester courses as part of the “India in the World” semester last winter.

LSA senior Loritta Chan became a part of the student advisory board for “India in the World” and took a theme semester course because she felt as though they enriched hers and other students’ learning experiences.

“The diversified learning approach which theme semester courses offer fosters a student's interest in the subject,” she added. “It gives students room to explore the multiple facets of Indian culture not taught in class, such as music or the arts. When one draws links between such events and issues taught in class, the course becomes much more dynamic, applicable and closer to real life.”