Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 27, 1995

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

     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

     "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

     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

     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

     "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

     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

     "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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