Crain Enjoys Challenge of Creating an Odyssey By Karen Fay A large grid is displayed on the screen of Tom Crain's computer, but it's not, as one might expect, for solving math equations or calculating budgets. Instead, boxes are labeled with titles such as "history," "literature," "science" and "foreign languages." Crain stares at the screen, leafs through a pile of proposals on his desk and jots notes in the boxes. He is in the midst of planning the fall 1995 semester for Odyssey, the School of Continuing Studies' noncredit liberal arts program. "Odyssey may appear to be a piecemeal collection of courses, but that's not the case," said Crain, director of the Odyssey Program for the past year and a half. "We follow a grid to ensure that the program's scope, from science to current events to literature and art, appeals to several distinct audiences." Crain's efforts in scheduling courses with broad appeal seem to be paying off. Last semester, Odyssey enrollments increased approximately 65 percent to 1,470 students in 64 courses, up nearly 600 registrants from the previous fall. "Our main objective with Odyssey is community outreach. We try to tailor programs to meet the educational needs of nontraditional students who seek out courses and seminars because of their thirst for knowledge." Current Odyssey student Cheryl Hemmeter reinforces the notion of taking an Odyssey course purely for enjoyment. "I never really appreciated college when I was earning my degree," she said. "It seemed like a chore most of the time. With Odyssey, there are no grades or tests, and I can learn just for fun." "What drives people to spend $60 to $150 per course is partly a desire to learn, and partly for entertainment. It's the entertainment that keeps them away from subjects that may be too troubling. For example, we couldn't offer a course on medicine and health that concentrated on disease," Crain said. While building an exciting, intellectually diverse program is a daunting challenge, Crain's background appears tailor-made for the task. Crain began his undergraduate career at Williams College in Massachusetts, studying chemistry and biology. With six generations of doctors preceding him in the family, it was natural that he would feel an inclination toward medicine. But, his love of the arts propelled him to major in English literature and minor in art history. After graduation, Crain spent eight months in Florence, Italy, immersing himself in the language and culture. He later enrolled at the University of Michigan for graduate study in English and American literature. Crain's career path after graduate school found him teaching at a private boarding school in Easthampton, Mass.; teaching, working in administration and editing a literary magazine for the University of Maryland European Division in Germany and Italy; and, most recently, coordinating cultural programs for the Smithsonian Associates, prior to his position at Hopkins. "The Smithsonian's courses are similar to those in Odyssey in that study tours and performances are used to enhance the classroom experience. After three years in that environment, however, I found myself missing academia." The noncredit nature of Odyssey was a large part of its appeal for Crain. "Noncredit classes create a special dynamic between faculty and students, often engendering open, intellectual exchange on a more intense level than in credit courses. "Noncredit programming also encourages innovation and risk taking. Odyssey allows me to experiment with different formats. For example, recent courses have included panel discussions, debates and field study. One of our most successful formats is the town meeting, allowing for an interchange of ideas between the experts and the public," he said. Ideas for both current and future classes are developed from a variety of sources. Crain regularly pores through the Washington Post, New York Times, Discover, U.S. News & World Report, Atlantic Monthly and other periodicals. He also receives numerous proposals from instructors, some who, he says, have interesting ideas but haven't refined their plans enough to know the intended audience. "One suggestion offered was for a course entitled Physicians Who Have Healed Us. The title was obscure, and it was unclear who would attend," he said. Once Crain accepts an idea for a course, the planning can take anywhere from 20 to 100 hours of work. "I couldn't put this program together without assistance from course coordinators, who take a very hands-on approach to the process," Crain said. "Some have created courses in the past and can pull speakers and materials together fairly quickly. Others need to start from scratch." Even those very familiar with the subject matter may spend more time than they anticipated in the planning process. Ghita Levine, coordinator of last semester's popular In the News: Media and the Shaping of Public Opinion series, admitted that fortitude was the key. "It was extremely time consuming, but I set goals for myself regarding the speakers I wanted to attract," she said. "Each time someone accepted my invitation, it was an unexpected thrill. You have to be enthusiastic about the subject, or you'll find yourself saturated before the planning process is complete." Crain's planning process does include recycling some concepts over time, though course redesign is ongoing. "The Irish: At Home and Abroad, offered last semester, focused on Irish heritage. At the end, one student remarked that folklore hadn't been discussed much, so this semester we offered a course on Celtic mythology. When the area of Irish history is exhausted, we'll give it a rest and maybe offer it again in a few years," he said. Some subjects he instinctively knows will be popular, due to past experience. "While I was at the Smithsonian, we offered a course on the Italian Renaissance that was extremely well-received," Crain explained. "This spring, Florence in the 15th Century is filling the Shaffer Hall auditorium with 140 students. "Designing public programs, on the whole, is not an exact science," Crain continued. He admits it is sometimes difficult to predict which courses will succeed. "Last semester, Odyssey had record enrollments," he said. "The increase had a lot to do with strengthening the foundation of the overall program. By including five or six major series that will attract large audiences, such as the media and public opinion series, we are also able to offer programs, such as upper-level French courses, that interest much smaller groups of individuals. "However, last semester we also canceled 25 percent of the courses offered," he added. "I'd like to improve our percentage." Developing new audiences through targeted programming may help in this effort. "Currently, the profile for an Odyssey student is similar to what you see across the country: Someone who views education as a form of, or alternative to, recreation and who is typically well-educated, between the ages of 35 and 65. I'd like to see more diversity among our participants; we're designing programs on African American, Asian and Hispanic culture," Crain said. "I'd also like to design more programs of interest to professionals. For example, we currently offer a Certificate in Environmental Studies. This fall, Odyssey hopes to add a Certificate on Aging, targeted toward those who work with the elderly, from lawyers to health care workers. We're also exploring courses on media and the presidency and on money and financial markets. "Adding new venues for courses is another part of my long-range plan. Our fall course at the Baltimore Museum of Art and spring series at the Walters Art Gallery are experiments in this vein. But, I'd like to reach even further--into local neighborhoods. Overall, Odyssey is such a terrific interface between Hopkins and the community. I'd like to see it more integral to the Hopkins community. "The true secret of Odyssey's success has always been and continues to be the quality of its instructors," said Crain. "Veterans like Janet Heller and Charlie Stine have been teaching in Odyssey for years and have developed quite a loyal following. Over time, they've built close relationships with their students." Coordinating this semester's foreign press course, Heller finds that the opportunity to share her interests with Odyssey participants is rewarding. "It's exciting to have the courses I create work out--to have students find them fascinating." Stine, who teaches environmental studies, enjoys recounting one field study when he ended up in the water while trying to help students out of a canoe. "Probably the part of teaching in Odyssey I enjoy most is taking students on field trips to places they've never seen," he said. "It's not always an unexpected event like Charlie's dousing that makes a class memorable. One student evaluating Richard Henry's Physics and the Universe course wrote, 'I wanted the course to go on forever.'" With many Odyssey courses closely related to Crain's background in art and literature, he has yet to teach any himself. "I admit, I miss teaching--and I'm waiting for the right opportunity. But, frankly, our faculty in literature and creative writing is so strong that I feel there are better instructors for almost anything I could teach," Crain said. "I'm also limiting my teaching at this point because I want to spend as much time as possible with my 4-year-old daughter, who is an odyssey all to herself," he added.
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