Theme Years Provide Glue for Campus Unity

Year-long activities unite students from different disciplines and promote feeling of community

Something slightly provocative is about to happen at Centenary College in Shreveport, La., a tiny, tradition-bound school that touts itself as the oldest college west of the Mississippi.

Today, Kenneth Schwab, the college's no-nonsense president, will give a convocation address with the titillating title: "Forbidden Knowledge" - which is also the school's theme for the year.

Centenary, along with a number of colleges nationwide, is experimenting with "theme years" as a way to promote intellectual and social cohesion on campus. The aim is to offer lectures, seminars, film series, and courses on a common theme to bridge the gap between students often isolated in their disciplines, and to create a sense of community.

"We think we have found a way, with theme years, to engage our students in thinking more deeply about what the liberal-arts tradition and education as a whole should mean to them," Dr. Schwab says. "We are aware of the need to strengthen the common intellectual experience."

Centenary surprised its freshmen this summer by mailing them each a copy of Mary Shelley's classic novel, "Frankenstein," to get in sync with the new theme. The same theme is rolled out to upperclassmen.

"Forbidden Knowledge" talks this fall will include a biographer of Mary Shelley, a bioethicist, an FBI agent who specializes in serial killers, and a historian speaking about "American myths."

Colleges have long held theme years geared to anniversaries or campus events. But the shift to broader themes is "something new," says Frederick Rudolph, professor emeritus at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and author of "American College and University: A History."

Prior to World War II, relatively few people attended college, and those who did came from homogeneous socioeconomic backgrounds, he says. Campus traditions also enhanced a sense of collegiate unity. Classes typically stopped at noon, for example, and everyone ate lunch together in the same dining hall - a quaint idea these days, he says.

But on many campuses, the greatest loss has been that of a "core curriculum," where students all took the same general-education course requirements, Dr. Rudolph says. This has left many colleges today "challenged to do something about the loss of community," he notes.

"People bring so many different pasts and expectations with them, that to create a community is much more difficult," he says. "By rationalizing the extracurricular program of lectures with a theme - if you can get it to catch on - you have done something to increase a sense of community."

Steven Shelburne, associate professor of English at Centenary, will team-teach, with a physics professor, an English 101 class focusing on Galileo.

"We were looking for some way to fulfill the promise of the liberal arts - not just pursuing separate disciplines, but integrating them," he says. "To me, this is part of the basic promise of a liberal education. But most curricula don't fulfill this promise."

Centenary is hardly alone in adopting theme years. Among 20 colleges responding to an informal Monitor e-mail survey, most began offering theme-year programs after 1990.

At American University in Washington, "Moving Together Into the Millennium" is this year's theme. At Lebanon Valley College near Hershey, Pa., the theme is "Cyberwhat?" - joining others like "Baseball as a Cultural Icon," "Human Rights and Wrongs," and "Mysteries of the Mind."

Theme years seem frequently to veer into heavy territory. Even though most college students today were born after the Vietnam War ended, for instance, Vietnam will get a closer look at Connecticut College this fall, where "Adversity" is the theme. Two former soldiers, Hugh Thompson and Lawrence Colburn, will speak with students alongside authors and a documentary filmmaker. The men rescued 10 survivors of the My Lai massacre and fought to see the atrocity - where US servicemen murdered Vietnamese civilians - exposed.

"It unites the campus in lots of ways," says Teresa Ammirati, dean of freshman at the college. "But the basic fact is that it gives students who might not necessarily have things in common something to talk about over the lunch table beyond individual academic or personal interests."

Yet theme years can just as easily produce a rocky debate as unity. At American University, Jeffrey McCafferty who helps organize events, says university faculty are not yet persuaded.

"We're struggling with the idea and its execution," he says. "There's not a lot of buy-in on it yet. We're trying to find a way to connect this to the faculty and the culture of the university."

Whether all the time, money, and sweat spent on theme years has much impact on students is unclear and may remain so until well after students graduate. But several students had good things to say about the idea.

Amy Boltinghouse, a Centenary senior, says it has been "interesting to watch teachers intertwine these [themes] in with their particular disciplines."

Christopher Portante, a sophomore at Connecticut College majoring in Russian and East European studies, cites an intellectual benefit to him personally as well as some social impact.

"Most students are aware of the theme," he says. "I remember one time after ... a play connected to last year's 'Creativity' theme. People I was with were asking: "What did it make you think?

"It was a really fun discussion that went on all the way back to the dorm and wasn't at all under the professors' eyes and ears," he says. "I think it's got to be a unifying factor."

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