Boundary Breaker

The annual Themester program unites the College — and the community

Anna Powell Teeter

The College has never been afraid to go big — architecturally, institutionally, intellectually, you name it. And in recent years, faculty and students alike have recognized that one way for the College to expand is, paradoxically, to dissolve: to break down the traditional borders between academic disciplines and embrace the local community of which the College is a citizen.

The College’s annual, semester-long Themester program is one way to demonstrate this expansiveness. Every fall, the College chooses a single theme and offers a wide array of courses, lectures, and other activities focusing on it. The College encourages community members to attend Themester films, plays, talks, and exhibits.

The first Themester was offered in 2009, the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. So, the topic was, quite naturally, “Evolution, Diversity and Change.” Subsequent Themesters have focused on beauty, war and peace, and food, to name a few.

Now, eight successful years later, the inaugural topic has been taken up again, with a slightly different focus. The 2017 Themester is devoted to “Diversity. Difference. Otherness.” The theme was proposed in 2015 by Jane McLeod, then the College’s associate dean for social and historical sciences and graduate education.

“I was trying to come up with topics that would highlight the social sciences,” explains McLeod, who now serves as provost professor of sociology and also chairs the department. “I had just finished editing a book on the social psychology of inequality. So, I was thinking a lot about ‘othering’ — about how people are constructed as being different from other people and about the divides that creates. I was also thinking about the ways in which people — both individually and collectively — resist being othered.”

Themester interns discuss the program at the College of Arts and Sciences' recent Majors and Careers Expo.

In addition to offering a complete spectrum of courses, this year’s Themester follows the buzz-generating, precedent-setting tradition of its predecessors.

It is, for example, the first Themester to feature a series of “Sidewalk Talks,” at which students, visiting artists, professors, and anyone else can create sidewalk chalk murals in the hopes of sparking conversations about issues that people are either unaware of or uncomfortable talking about.

And it’s the first Themester with a Star Trek edge. George Takei — who played Mr. Sulu in the original TV series — kicked off the 2017 Themester with a special presentation at the IU Auditorium. Takei is well suited to discuss diversity and otherness; he came out as gay in 2005 and, as a child during World War II, the actor, director, writer, and civil rights activist was imprisoned in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans.

Considering the options

Every year, the process of picking a Themester topic falls to a College committee, which selects from concepts proposed by groups of faculty. Once a concept is picked, the faculty who proposed it have another year to plan the specifics.

In the case of this year’s Themester, McLeod assembled a committee representing all the divisions of the College to help conceive classes and programs built around the concept of diversity. In 2016, after their proposal was selected, McLeod and her committee swung into action, firming up course offerings and meeting with campus partners like the IU Cinema to provide additional programming.

Throughout the planning process, McLeod had the help of Tracy Bee, the College’s director of initiatives and the sole staff member assigned to coordinating Themesters. While the task may sound impossible given the scope of the program, Bee emphasizes that Themesters are a campus-wide endeavor. They succeed, she explains, because they are largely decentralized, with responsibilities shared among many departments and programs.

And for Bee, the sheer variety of the work she manages is an inherent benefit of her position.

“I like that every year, I have a different job,” she says. “I meet new people who are passionate about what they do and want to share what they know. I learn so much every year.”

From her perspective, McLeod sees benefits, too.

“It’s challenging and fascinating for us as faculty to think about how the concepts that interest us resonate across the liberal arts,” she says. “For example, for this year’s Themester, there is a one-day workshop on refugees during the Renaissance. I wouldn’t have thought of that historical resonance myself. And this year’s topic has the potential to be politicized in ways we didn’t intend. We had no idea in 2015 that diversity would be such a hot-button topic in 2017.”

Ultimately, the goal of Themester is to encourage undergraduates to explore ideas across disciplines. And in that regard, Executive Dean Larry Singell marvels at its success.

“Themester has developed over the years into an integral piece of the College's traditions,” Singell says. “It is part of the fabric of the College because of its power to weave together ideas that may at first seem unrelated, contentious, or even contradictory. It challenges us to recognize that knowledge and understanding on a subject reside both deep and wide across our many disciplines. It’s really no exaggeration to say that the Themester concept perfectly embodies the values and spirit of the liberal arts.”

“Themester allows for childlike wonder. It allows students and faculty to explore the campus anew.”
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Jean Robinson, now an emerita professor of political science, was the associate dean for undergraduate education in 2009, the year that she shepherded Themester into existence and became its first director. Bennett Bertenthal, then the dean of the College, was inspired by the “theme semesters” that the College of Literature, Science and the Arts at the University of Michigan has offered since 1980, and he asked Robinson to start a similar program at the College.

Although Robinson reports some initial faculty skepticism, the idea caught on quickly. Robinson chose the topic for the inaugural Themester herself but, after the first year, she solicited faculty for ideas and more than 20 professors came up with proposals.

“I think that everyone — both faculty and students — understands that anything you study in just one class or one major doesn’t give you the whole picture,” Robinson says. “One of the challenges we face here is that once undergraduates decide on their major, they put their heads down and that’s what they do. We know they don’t go to the theater, or to concerts or art exhibitions unless it’s in their area of study.”

Themester, Robinson says, makes it more organic for students to move outside of their majors and sample courses and programs across the entire campus.

Themester’s expansive impact

Vivian Halloran, a Caribbeanist and literary food studies scholar who teaches in the American Studies and the English departments, has offered Themester courses three times. She requires that her Themester students take part in related programs.

“I consistently have students who say they’ve never been to Mathers or the Lilly tell me that having to go see something for Themester really opened doors for them to aspects of IU and the campus that they’d never experienced before,” she says. “Because of Themester, they felt they had a reason to inhabit these new spaces and take ownership of them.”

Professor Vivian Halloran has taught three Themester courses, including one this current semester.

This fall, Halloran — who was a member of McLeod’s Themester committee — is offering an American Studies course called “What is America? A Nation of Immigrants.”

“I’m hoping that what students will take away from my course is that the world is out there and you can learn from all sorts of things,” she says. “You don’t have to be taught. A Themester allows for childlike wonder. It allows students and faculty to explore the campus anew.”

Heather Reynolds, an associate professor of biology who also served on McLeod’s committee, is offering a Themester course called “Biodiverse-City! The Art and Science of Green Infrastructure.”

“This is the second Themester I’ve been involved in, which says a lot,” Reynolds explains. “It shows that Themesters are productive, positive experiences. They energize your teaching and even your research. I was inspired to develop a co-curricular event for my course this year.”

The event, which students in her class will be required to attend and which is also open to the community, is called “Restoring Biodiversity: A Panel Discussion on Invasive Species and EcoSystem Restoration.” Reynolds is excited that though “the speakers will be academic and conservation professionals, the discussion is meant to help real, live people foster diversity on their own land.”

Reynolds points out that the way she and her fellow plant ecologists now think about invasive species has been influenced by their exchanges with social scientists. When biologists think about “invasive” plants today, she says, “We’re careful not to demonize the plant. It’s not the plant that’s the enemy.”

Like Halloran, Reynolds loves Themester because she hopes that her students will likewise benefit from cross-disciplinary exchanges, as they, in effect, “invade” other fields.

“I love the fact that students will be exposed to ways of engaging with the issue that I never could have given them, through film or theater, for example,” she says. “They will be inspired to bring back new angles and ways of thinking about the course,” she says.

With that, Themester truly does succeed in its expansive, boundary-dissolving goals, as students are inspired to invade — and settle — new fields.

Julie Gray

Julie Gray is a freelance writer and editor who grew up around Indiana University. She has returned to Bloomington after spending years away — in New York City, Paris, Boston, and the Philadelphia area. Gray has been on the editorial staff of The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Town & Country, among others. You can reach her at juliemarygray@gmail.com.