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A Lifelong Quest for Learning: Students of all ages broaden horizons in Odyssey courses

Austinite Fairy Rutland can tell you all about the medieval crusades from Europe to the East. She can explain how feudal inheritance practices left the younger children of noblemen searching for a worthy cause, how factions of the Catholic Church were vying for control of Alexandria and how the seeds of distrust between the East and West were planted all these generations ago.

Illustration of man's head representing memory as core of identity of self
The Odyssey program offers adults opportunities to learn about memory and myriad other topics.

But Rutland isn’t a student seeking a university degree nor a factoid-spouting history buff. She’s an attorney and one of hundreds of area adults who has participated in the new Odyssey personal enrichment program in the Division of Continuing and Extended Education.

A class offered by English professor Geraldine Heng as part of the “Mediterranean Encounters” Humanities Lecture Series last fall led Rutland to consider the lasting impact of the crusades.

“It was fascinating,” says Rutland of the series. “It was one of the first times I had the opportunity to study anything about the Middle East. Odyssey offers a terrific opportunity for me to keep learning.”

The Odyssey program offers short-term, noncredit classes for students of all ages, from all backgrounds. Engaging topics from Beethoven to Argentinian ballet, the evil eye to candidates eyeing the White House, Odyssey aims for the grand scope implied in its name. It is quickly becoming the place where the community comes to gain access to the best that The University of Texas at Austin has to offer. And the community is driving the program.

“One of the great things about Odyssey is that it can be really responsive to student demand,” says Dr. Jo Anne Shea, director of University Extension and one of the key forces behind the creation of Odyssey. “The curriculum is established directly from what people tell us they want.”

They want classes in history, music, art and the humanities. They want in-depth learning that goes beyond what they can get from cable television. They want the chance to not just listen, but to really engage speakers on a variety of topics. They want access to the riches of the university usually reserved for degree-seeking students.

Odyssey delivers on all counts.

Odyssey courses run one night a week for six to eight weeks and are held at the university’s Thompson Conference Center (TCC) and Bass lecture hall. Most courses focus on a particular topic with experts approaching the topic from a variety of directions.

For example, for the spring offering “Memory: The Bridge to the Past,” Dr. Bradley Love from the Department of Psychology will give a talk on the brain’s learning and memory systems one week, and another week Dr. Samer Ali from Middle Eastern Studies will talk about memory and identity in sixth-century Arabia. Students will also learn about Proust, memorial gardens and Renaissance self-portraits.

Flag of state of Texas alongside State Capitol building
Upcoming Texas-focused lectures include “Lone Star Nation” and “Joining the Wartime Fight for Mexican Rights in Texas.”

“Odyssey is bringing some of the university’s finest lecturers to the forefront,” says Wayne Hunt, director of the TCC. “The caliber of the lecturers is one of the things that makes the program unique.”

University enrichment programs exist all over the country, but it’s rare to find one so centered in the university itself. Usually universities match experts outside the university with students outside the university. Odyssey enlists active, esteemed university faculty, along with some top-of-their-field guests, to interact with students who may be retirees, local professionals, university students or staff or just interested members of the community.

This type of interaction benefits the students, but it benefits the faculty members as well.

“This program offers faculty members the opportunity to think about their disciplines in relation to other disciplines,” says Dr. Betty Sue Flowers, director of the LBJ Library and a well-known poet and editor. “What’s fun is that because you are speaking to a general theme, you may have to think outside the confines of your specialty.”

Flowers offered a lecture in the fall as part of Odyssey’s Word for Word: The UT Speaker Series. Word for Word connects Odyssey students with thought-provoking lecturers in a line-up that covers anything imaginable. This spring journalist and author Liz Carpenter will talk about making speeches and Dr. Robert Freeman, dean of the College of Fine Arts, will present “Beethoven and the Future of Austin.”

Flowers’ November lecture, “Poetry, Story and Soul,” was a classic Odyssey event. The students ranged in age from 25 to 80. Some took notes. Other simply listened. The discussion was lively. And when Flowers spoke of the power of poetry, saying, “what makes things beautiful and poignant is that they pass,” she had a rapt audience.

This is one of the other benefits for faculty members: students who are simply glad to be there.

“It’s learning for the sake of learning, the joy of learning and the experience of learning,” says Hunt. “This is the purest form of learning there is.”

Odyssey’s third season begins February 2, and this season’s offerings are diverse and exciting. In addition to the series on memory and Word for Word, the program will offer a seven-week course commemorating the 60th anniversary year of the Normandy Invasion, “Local Fronts, Global Consequences: A 60-Year Perspective on World War II.” University scholars and researchers will cover everything from the origins of the war to the wartime Mexican civil rights fight.

Julio Bocca and Ballet Argentino
Odyssey students can see Julio Bocca and Ballet Argentino perform in March as part of the ArtesAméricas series.

Odyssey is also celebrating its first collaboration with the Performing Arts Center (PAC) for the “ArtesAméricas Up Close and Personal Lecture & Performance Series.”

ArtesAméricas is an initiative of the PAC and the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies. It brings the best in Latin American and U.S. Latino performing artists to the university and to new audiences across the country through partnerships with more than 40 universities and institutions. Launched last fall, ArtesAméricas has already featured a wide range of Latin American artists. This spring it will premiere the opera “La Tentación de San Antonio” by Mexican composer Luis Jaime Cortez, present Julio Bocca and Ballet Argentino and stage a first production of the opera “The Old Majestic” by San Antonio native Robert Xavier Rodriguez.

“It began with the idea of bringing Latin American and Latino artists to the forefront,” says Judith Rhedin, community relations specialist at the PAC. “The focus is to make it as commonplace to bring in artists from Latin America as it currently is to bring them in from Europe.”

The collaboration with Odyssey enables ArtesAméricas to expand its educational component. The series is like a living documentary. Students attend eight lectures and behind-the-scenes encounters with choreographers, directors and other performing arts professionals. They have the rare opportunity of meeting with the composers of both operas. And then they attend the performances. Enrollment will be limited to allow for a real hands-on experience. It’s hard for participants to get more in-depth without getting on the stage themselves.

The ArtesAméricas collaboration is the first in what Odyssey planners hope will be a long line of collaborations with the PAC and other organizations across campus. Given the enthusiastic response of Odyssey students and the wealth of resources at the university, the possibilities for future courses are endless.

“This is where people, ideas, the community and the university come together,” says Hunt. “It is, as our dean likes to say, serious fun.”

[For more information about Odyssey courses, visit the Odyssey Web site or call 512-471-2938.]

Vivé Griffith

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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