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ODU Launches “Themester,” a Collective Learning Adventure

By David Simpson

When students can link their coursework to what's going on in the world around them, chances are they'll learn more and retain it longer. On a grand scale, that's the idea behind "Themester," a new endeavor at Old Dominion University.

Each fall semester, ODU will offer an array of courses clustered around a single topic that resonates deeply with the human experience. The theme for fall 2021 is Arts and Social Justice. Conjuring images of street protests over police brutality or civil rights, the topic also suggests ways that the arts can express our common humanity and even stir social movements.

"Given horrific events this past year and throughout American history, exploring social justice deeply is of utmost importance to each of us today and tomorrow," said Cullen Strawn, executive director for the arts at ODU.

The inaugural Themester came together fast. In January, Strawn pitched the idea to Brian Payne, vice provost for academic affairs, who endorsed it. The coming months produced a team, a theme, proposals from faculty, grants from the Provost's Office of $500 to $1,000, and a firm schedule of courses.

The undertaking isn't confined to the classroom. Themester 2021 includes lectures, exhibits, performances, film showings and other events designed to engage not only students but the wider community in a collective learning adventure. For information, visit the Themester website.

Payne sees power in themed learning and programming: "Common intellectual experiences have been shown to build community, improve learning, and enhance retention, progression and graduation."

Below are the Themester course titles, along with faculty grant recipients in parentheses. Read more about each project.

ARTS 258: Print I - Screenprint & Lithography; ENGL 112L: American Literature and ENGL 110C: Composition (Brendon Baylor, Kelly Morse)

ARTS 263: Introduction to Ceramics (Richard Nickel)

ARTS 281/381: Weaving & Fibers (Virginia Brinn)

ARTS 472: Art Therapy (Eleanor Lampell)

ARTS 495: Art for Social Justice (Natalia Pilato)

COMM 400W: Intercultural Communication (Fran Hassencahl)

COMM/THEA 495/595: Asian American Media & Social Justice (Priya Vashist)

ENGL 100C: English Composition (Jenn Sloggie)

ENGL 112L: Introduction to Literature (Heather Weddington)

GDES 490: Design Seminar (Kenneth Fitzgerald)

HIST 104H: Interpreting the American Past (Leanne White)

HIST 481: Museums and Museology (Ingo Heidbrink)

HMSV 346: Diversity Issues in Human Services; HMSV 448: Interventions & Advocacy with Children (Jason Sawyer)

PSYC 353: Adulthood & Aging (Suzanne Morrow)

SOC 201S: Introduction to Sociology (Jonathan Lopez)

THEA 495: Arts & Social Justice (Brittney Harris)

TLED 468/568: Language Acquisition and Reading for Students with Diverse Learning Needs (Jihea Maddamsetti)

Here's a closer look at the projects of three faculty members:

Senior Lecturer Jonathan Lopez is giving an artistic twist to SOC 201S, an introduction to sociology learning community course for prospective criminal justice majors.

"I am a musician, and one of my key interests is the ability of music to shape thought and action not only at an individual level but also at a societal level," said Lopez, who sings and plays guitar, piano and other instruments.

So the course includes an event blending music with research conducted by students during the semester. Lopez will start the program by talking about the history of music as a medium for social justice. Then each student will give a presentation about a song that deals with a social justice issue. At the end, students and departmental faculty will perform a song together.

Assistant Professor Natalia C. Pilato's Themester course, ARTS 495, will combine art-based research and studio practice to investigate topics related to what she calls basic human rights, such as food, shelter and water. Students will research how artists have handled these issues and then create art addressing a topic that is significant to them. Those works will be exhibited at semester's end.

Pilato said she hopes her students "come away understanding the significant impact art and artists have had, and continue to have, in addressing inequity and aiding in the fight for human rights."

In THEA 495, Assistant Professor Brittney Harris will focus on "the performance of what it looks like to physically embody social justice and equality," she said at a Themester faculty luncheon on Aug. 12.

Her "performance activism" project includes giving a guest lecture in Pilato's ARTS 495 and leading a workshop for student groups. In November she'll also co-lead a public workshop on the Brock Commons in which she and some ODU students will embody social justice concepts and their opposites. "So if this is what oppression looks like," Harris said, "what does liberation look like? And then how do we encourage that flow?"

Other University divisions are stepping up for Themester too.

Offerings from the ODU Libraries include a kickoff event on Sept. 16 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; virtual and physical displays of resources; a panel discussion of music composer Allan Blank's "Poems From the Holocaust"; and a Wikipedia "Edit-a-thon" guided by recommendations from the nonprofit organization Art + Feminism.

Student Engagement and Enrollment Services is sponsoring a Unity Block Party on the lawn in front of Webb University Center on Sept. 9 from 7 to 9 p.m. Later in the fall, Student Support Services will hold a poetry slam. The Office of Academic Success Initiatives and Support (formerly known as the Center for High Impact Practices) sent out the request for proposals and is managing the Themester website, where you can find details and updates on events.

Cullen Strawn of Arts and Letters said he adapted the idea for Themester from Indiana University-Bloomington, where he did his graduate work. There, the program involves a single college; here, it extends to the entire University and community. He's excited about the concept's potential.

"My hopes for Themester," he said, "are that it brings people together in ways otherwise not likely or possible, that it offers participants an exceedingly rich environment in which to gain multiple perspectives, and that it becomes a meaningful tradition at the core of the institution and broader communities."

Meanwhile, a theme has already been chosen for fall 2022. A request for proposals on the topic of Sustainability will go out this semester.

The Themester advisory group consists of Brian Payne, vice provost for academic affairs; Lisa Mayes, executive director, Office of Academic Success Initiatives and Support; Annette Finley-Croswhite, director, Center for Faculty Development; Lesa Clark, executive director, Office of Intercultural Relations; Johnny Young, associate vice president, Student Engagement and Enrollment Services; and Marissa Jimenez, director of academic resources and coordinator of operations, Office of Academic Success Initiatives and Support. The Themester planning group members are Jimenez; Cullen Strawn, executive director for the arts; Natalia Pilato, assistant professor, Department of Art; Shanna Crockett, digital media and graphic design advisor, Academic Affairs; and Lucinda Wittkower, head of teaching and learning initiatives, University Libraries.

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