By Brooke Clayton
In a political moment dominated by a campaign to Make America Great Again, the University of Iowa’s theme semester asks the community to consider what exactly does make America great.
For the UI’s fifth theme semester next spring, several events will center on the American Dream and how people from all walks of life, across the country and across the world, can aspire to an inclusive American Dream that goes beyond individual success.
“It’s all about teaching and learning,” said Hancher Executive Director Chuck Swanson, a founding member of the theme-semester committee. “We want to engage on a common topic of importance to Iowa, and really of importance to the world, and use this as a way to promote teaching, learning, and engagement.”
He has been thrilled by the way the themes have encouraged members of the campus and community to get involved and connect with one another.
“It’s time that we all stop and not only talk, but listen and find out what everybody wants,” Swanson said. “And I think universities are a great way to pose the question, what is the new American Dream? How can the university help?”
Kathrina Litchfield, a doctoral student studying language, literacy, and culture, submitted the idea of Redesigning Our American Dream for the spring 2019 semester’s theme.
“The American Dream is very specific to America,” she said. “And yet everyone in the world knows that phrase and has an idea of what it means.”
Most of Litchfield’s students are in the UI College of Education, but 12 are in the Oakdale prison.
Through the Center for Human Rights, she directs the UI Liberal Arts Beyond Bars program, a pilot partnership in which a dozen undergraduates read and discuss books alongside a dozen incarcerated students. In such a distilled environment, Litchfield has spent a lot of time considering how powerful institutions such as prisons can start to open accessibility to what we deem the American Dream.
RELATED: College prison program brings undergrads and inmates together
“We’re hoping that because the theme is so broadly conceived, people have already been thinking about this to some degree or another,” Litchfield said. “And when that phrase comes before them, Redesigning the American Dream, something gets sparked, something they want to communicate, something they want to know more about.”
The theme semester is in its earliest stages. In the 2019 spring semester, promotional material will be plastered across the campus and the community. But these early moments are some of the most important, and Litchfield, along with the rest of the advisory board, are adamant about getting as many people as possible involved.
“This is a well,” she said. “And it’s just up to how much energy and networking we can accomplish in the next few months.”
Jordan Brown, the program administrator for the theme semester, has approximately 30 people on his planning committee right now, from faculty, staff, and students with community members from Iowa City to Coralville to Cedar Rapids. But he’s always looking for more people.
“Anyone who wants to be associated in part with this theme semester,” he said. “We’ll never turn them away.”
Diversity is central to the theme and to the dream that it hopes to redesign. One of the things Brown is most excited about is that the theme is applicable to every discipline across the university and in every home across the community.
“That’s one of the important things that I’d like to see personally from this theme semester,” Brown said. “How do we have these educated, nice conversations about issues that really do affect all people and aren’t easy to talk about?”