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Course offers chance to learn and earn college credits for free

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


Dale Bauer (left) with John Marsh
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Dale Bauer, left, professor of English and of gender and women's studies, and John Marsh, lecturer in English, are two of the five humanities professors involved in the C-U Odyssey Project, which offers one year of free college-credit courses to women at the poverty level in Champaign-Urbana.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In a small public library not far from the University of Illinois campus, talking is encouraged, and animated discussions not only are tolerated, they are provoked.

In fact, the voices in the classroom, just a few steps from the circulation desk, resound with the energy and excitement that comes from exploring new intellectual worlds.

The Odyssey Project has come to Champaign – to the Douglass Branch Library on the city’s north side – and from all reports, it is a serendipitous voyage of discovery for the five teachers – humanities professors at the U. of I., and for the 24 students – all women, from age 18 to 72, most of whom have never had the opportunity or the money to pursue higher education.

Qualifying by virtue of their commitment to the course, of being at least 18 years old and being able to read a newspaper in English, and of living at or near the poverty line, the women are receiving a year of college courses in the humanities for free. In addition to tuition, books, transportation and even day-care services, those who complete the course will earn six credit hours that can be transferred to the school of their choice.

For Sherri Gillespie, 41, the odyssey program couldn’t have come at a better time.

“It’s added a whole new element to my life – in fact, it’s changed the dynamics of everything,” said Gillespie, a single mother who had a year and a half of college some time ago but who cannot work now because she is suffering from Behcet’s (pronounced BAY-sets), a rare and chronic inflammatory disease that has her now using crutches.

“Every once in a while you have to move the furniture around in your living room,” Gillespie said. “I feel I have to do that for my brain, too.”

There’s another reason Gillespie is making the effort to attend classes two nights a week: “I strongly believe that going back to college is a very good example to set for my teenage daughter.”

Buying into the Odyssey Project is, in fact, a personal test for Gillespie: to see if her health could handle “getting back in the college scene, adding some mental stimulation and adhering to a new routine and schedule.”

For Keri Hogue, a single mother of 2- and 7-year olds and a full-time employee at a local cap-and-gown factory, this was “the opportunity of a lifetime, a blessing.” The classes are not only helping her build her reading and writing and critical thinking skills, “but also my self-esteem,” said Hogue, 24.

“This opportunity makes me feel like I’m doing everything that I’m capable of doing. I’m able to take care of my kids. I’m able to work. And I’m even able to say, ‘I have class tonight.’ You know, that feels good.

“There’s just so much more I want out of life and for my children, and this is helping me take the next step, preparing me for when I’m ready to start college.”

At year’s end, the students will have taken four courses in the humanities: literature and philosophy this semester, American history and art history next semester, with critical thinking and writing spanning both semesters.

The Illinois Humanities Council, with funding from the state and elsewhere, is partially supporting the new Champaign-Urbana course and three others in Chicago and Springfield. The C-U Odyssey Project is sponsored by the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, with substantial help from the Chancellor’s Office.

These programs and some 46 others nationwide, often with different names, operate in partnership with the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities, a unique educational program for low-income adults begun in the early 1990s.

“This is a great thing,” said Dale Bauer, the Odyssey literature professor and an expert in 19th- and 20th-century American literature. “I’m proud to be part of it and proud that the Chancellor’s Office is funding it.”

Bauer said she decided to teach in the Odyssey Project because she and her brother were the first in their family to attend college, “so I know how important it is intellectually and psychologically to go to school.”

The wide range of ages among students in the Odyssey course is making for a unique pedagogical experience, Bauer said.

For example, during a recent discussion of Zora Neale Hurston’s short story “Sweat,” one of the oldest students in the class immediately began drawing on her life experiences to interpret the story, Bauer said. “Some of the other students were more tentative, but grew bolder and more excited as we brought our lives into the discussion.

“These sorts of discussions don’t happen as quickly in my campus classrooms.”

Bauer said she believes that the students see each other as “sources of intellectual engagement and resources for their explorations into literature.”

Gillespie described that discussion as “a fantastic conversation” and Bauer as “a dynamic teacher.”

In the next few weeks, Bauer’s class will be reading Anne Lamott, Tadeusz Borowski, Aristophanes and Shakespeare.

The other Odyssey professors are Rebecca Ginsburg, landscape architecture; Debra Hawhee, English and speech communication; Mark Leff, history; and John Marsh, English, assistant director of IPRH and coordinator of the C-U Odyssey Project.

Marsh was the catalyst to bring the program to C-U. In the course of doing research on the poems union workers wrote in the 1930s, he learned how unions educated members, “not just in collective bargaining or learning English, but in everything – the humanities, the arts.”

“I regretted that such things more or less no longer exist,” Marsh said, “because every human being can benefit from learning about their and their world’s history, what it means to be human, to be mortal, ethical, disappointed, in love or out of love, in political power or the object of it, in short, everything messy about being alive that writers and artists and philosophers have been struggling with for at least the last 2,500 years.

“Yet after high school, if there, even, many Americans, especially low-income Americans or people beyond college-age, do not have the opportunity to ask these questions and get what answers we as a collectivity have found.”

Marsh believes the American university has become the default home of the humanities, “and thus, is partly responsible for making them available to all citizens.”

He said that when he found out about the Odyssey Project shortly after he completed his poetry anthology, he was “extremely predisposed to it.”

So are Hogue and Gillespie.

“Just being with U. of I. professors is exciting,” said Hogue, who hopes to put her new skills and knowledge to practice in the field of criminal justice.

As for Gillespie, an artist and papermaker who hopes to start a gift-card business, the Odyssey experience is “just invaluable.”

Bauer, their literature professor, also has a few hopes regarding the odyssey – “the greatest of which is that we will emerge as a community of intellectuals at the end of the semester.”