Check out MAPH Alumnus Greg Langen’s (’13) reflections on his internship at the Odyssey Project. Also be sure to see the Odyssey Project’s latest issue of In Medias Res, edited by Greg Langen.
A liberal arts education is, on the graduation speech level, freedom granting. With the powers of critical thinking and a strong (passable) handle on the English language, no area of culture is barred to those with BAs and the like. MAPH free since June ‘13, I know this notion well. As a humanities masters student I am free to read, free to write, free to deconstruct the laden societal assumptions perpetuated by YouTube commercials, free to know that my notion of the obviousness of my liberal subjecthood is much more complicated than I know or can escape (Althusser fans?), free to alienate nearly everyone around me at one (multiple) point(s) in our relationship (Feel free to skip this section). However, a thing that nobody tells you while you are in the process of freeing your mind (but that all creatures of institutions secretly know) is that freedom can be suffocating. I discovered this on my first day at the Odyssey Project when my boss, the lovely and impassioned Amy Thomas Elder, sat down with me to talk about my class for the upcoming summer. “You are free to do whatever you want,” she told me. “I don’t want to get in your way.”
The good graduate student that I am, I soon saddled my freedom with questions. What were the limits of my class? What did I want to do? What am I capable of teaching? What topic can I talk about and still appear competent to a host of adults? After the initial struggle of learning to trust my own instincts and capabilities (something ideally learned before the age of 25) I had to actually make this class “a thing.” I decided to split my class in two parts: the first part focused on strategies for fiction and non-fiction writing. The second half focused on compiling the content produced from the beginning of class into a journal that we would publish by the end of the summer. The result is Volume 2 of the journal In Medias Res (formatted in Microsoft Word and printed at the Illinois Humanities Council offices).
After forming an idea of what I wanted my class to be, I had to actually teach it. Proactive is a useful résumé word. That meant reserving class space, recruiting students, drafting a syllabus, procuring bakery treats to bribe my students, etc. It would be easy (and perhaps more helpful for current MAPH students) if I could compare the class environment at the Odyssey Project to a community college. But I can’t. True, Odyssey Project students are “non-traditional” in that they aren’t the ruddy-cheeked children of the bourgeoisie on a track to earn the credentials, ahem, the education that will grant them access to the far upper reaches of the middle-class. However, apart from the Odyssey Project students’ “non-traditional” status, the similarities end. The Odyssey Project is special in that our students are self-selecting humanists. They are also typically less utilitarian in their approach to humanities education. After years of experience (usually) studying something else, working in another field, raising families, etc., they’ve seen the marketplace and decided that the humanities is not the playground of the leisure class but instead a basic need, vital to everyday existence. I believe my students understood the freedom granted by a liberal arts education that I, a recent graduate of MAPH, still do not. This gives the classroom an added sense of urgency, a sense that instead of coming to class out of an obligation to institutional upkeep, students are, in a way, coming to [insert sustenance/spiritual metaphor here]. This put pressure (good pressure) on me as a teacher/facilitator to not only be prepared for the day’s class, but to give the class something meaningful each week that would not only engage them on an interest level, but reach students on the tangible, take-this-home-with-you-and-lean-on-it level. You are free to do whatever you want, Amy tells me. She has far too much faith. After a few weeks I learned that classes worked best the less I insisted upon my role as teacher. Ideally I’d start the class spinning like a top, then step back and watch it go.
After coming to terms with my own power/responsibility in making my class “a thing,” part of the art (challenge) of putting together my class and our subsequent magazine was finding a way to do what we needed to do, and have what we needed to have, without a budget. This is not to say that the Illinois Humanities Council was completely unsupportive of my efforts. Instead, the IHC kindly asked if I would pursue more creative (free) ways around the whole issue of paying for things. So, we still had class, we still printed our magazine, we still hosted our release party at the Chicago Cultural Center, but we did these things as cheaply as possible. That required doing a lot of things myself and with volunteered help. It also required asking—kindly—for donations. Works well independently is a good résumé phrase. One thing that I learned while at the Odyssey Project is that you can get a lot of things for free (pastries, coffee, event space, printing, paper, etc.) by simply asking for them. Speaking on the behalf of a valuable non-profit also helps.
If you are interested in the Odyssey Project I’d encourage you to reach out to either the South Side class (located just a few blocks south of campus at the Akarama Community Center (6220 S Ingleside Ave) or to the downtown headquarters. Visit prairie.org. Sit in on a class. Volunteer to tutor students. Talk with Dr. Hilary Strang. Email Anna Burch, MAPH ’12. Email me (greglangen at gmail dot com). The Odyssey Project is always looking for help. More importantly, it is a good idea to, every once and a while, escape the perpetual motion MAPH machine, if only momentarily, and come into contact with intellectuals from a non-university setting. (Important aside: Remember to step outside your own head. Insight is rarely found in the Joseph Regenstein library or in tense debates with your peers where the word “problematic” is used far too liberally. Seriously. You can use the word. Just be careful with it). But I don’t need to tell you how to do research. Instead I’ll simply say that if you are curious to see what humanities education looks like without the dressings of gothic architecture and the persistent scent of musk and vanilla, take a closer look into this program. Personally, working with the Odyssey Project not only helped me articulate my answer to the question What are the humanities for? and its various, less kind iterations, (useful for family reunions, first dates, weddings, awkward conversations with your friends’ friends’ parents, job interviews, social interaction) it brought to my attention the other, just-as-crucial-question: How far do the humanities reach? If either question moves you, chances are the Odyssey Project will too.
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