By Amber Kennedy

In communities around the world, the challenges of 2020 exposed the many ways society was literally and figuratively disconnected. While grappling with a historic pandemic, citizens also reckoned with issues of social justice, revealing the need for connection. This fall, Old Dominion University will delve deeper into that need with its first Themester -an interdisciplinary-themed semester - dedicated to exploring arts and social justice.

The inaugural Themester combines academic courses, public lectures and events to engage students and the external community in a collective learning experience built around social justice. Every academic college and campus unit is invited to participate and explore how their disciplines effect political change and alter the ways people think, behave, communicate, educate and conduct business.

While discussing a potential film screening in early 2021, Executive Director for the Arts Cullen Strawn shared how he has been shaped and impacted by themed learning experiences, including at his alma mater of Indiana University.

"I felt ODU was ripe to unite across all internal disciplines and external communities on themes deeply resonant in the human experience," he said.

He found a champion in Brian Payne, vice provost for academic affairs, who quickly assembled a team to develop a theme, timeline and call for ideas to explore in fall 2022 and 2023.

"One of the aspects of Themester that I find so valuable is that it promotes community building," Payne said. "At its heart, Themester is a common intellectual experience. Research shows that common intellectual experiences promote connections to the institution and enhance retention, program and graduation. In addition, Themester activities will build communities of practice among the faculty who are participating."

The concept aligns with the mission of ODU's Center for High Impact Practices (CHIP), which focuses on supporting student learning inside the classroom that is applied to real-world experiences. Lisa Mayes, executive director for CHIP, believes COVID created an opportunity for people to reflect on issues of social justice, and Themester gives the ODU community a way to respond.

"COVID shed light on a number of challenges within our communities, but we also saw the humanity of people creating ways to bring relief and awareness to those challenges," Mayes said. "Art can be a way to convey support and express feelings about social justice issues. Themester will allow for a collective learning experience to strengthen our Monarch nation."

The idea also resonated with Marissa Jimenez, a former high school English teacher who relished opportunities to pair relevant readings and activities to enhance themes. For ODU, she feels Themester has the potential to bring together the campus and community in new ways. As director of academic resources and coordinator of operations for CHIP, Jimenez is often tasked with bringing big ideas to fruition. "And this was a big idea with which I was happy to help," she said.

The team put out a call for proposals, leveraging partnerships across Academic Affairs and the Office of Student Engagement and Enrollment Services (SEES) to spread the word. For its initial year, the committee anticipated accepting 15 to 20 proposals. But based on the strength of the concepts, 24 proposals were selected. The team created a Themester website where students, faculty, staff and the surrounding community can find a listing of courses and events relevant to the theme.

Course topics cut across disciplines, from art and theater to human services and language acquisition. In one collaboration, Brendan Baylor's screenprinting and lithography students will work with Kelly Morse's English students to analyze the short story, "Girl," by Jamaica Kincaid. The English students will write about their own lived experiences amid societal pressures and injustice, to then be illustrated by the introduction to printmaking students for anthology zines. Both groups will come together for a final reading in the community.

"I hope we see students and faculty engaging in real conversations about social justice issues, learning from each other's diverse backgrounds and lived experiences," Jimenez said. "And I hope that through these conversations, we all walk away with a deeper and more vivid understanding of the world around us."

In its first year, Themester is funded through SEES and Academic Affairs. Payne envisions finding ways to connect future Themester activities with scholarship and service, and potentially seeking public and private donations to support the effort.

Strawn hopes the inaugural Themester will be the start of something that unites the campus in a shared academic odyssey year after year.

"My hopes for Themester 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," he said.

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