By Mackenzie McDermit and Kevin Mullen
Mackenzie McDermit is a recent alumna of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she participated in the university’s Writing Fellows program. She spent a humbling and inspiring semester researching writing pedagogy in the Odyssey Project and has been hooked ever since. This is her first year as a tutor for the program.
Kevin Mullen recently completed his doctorate in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During his time as a graduate student, Kevin was fortunate to work for several years with the Writing Center and the Writing Fellows program. He is currently applying all of the skills and insights he absorbed there to his current position as a Literacy Faculty Associate for the UW Odyssey Project.
Now in its twelfth year, the UW Odyssey Project is an intensive, two-semester humanities course that seeks to remove economic barriers to education for 30 adult learners a year by providing tuition, books, childcare, and dinner before class. While earning six credits from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Odyssey students explore a wide range of foundational thinkers in literature, history, music, art, and philosophy. As they discuss the ideas of Socrates and Frederick Douglass, analyze the poetry of Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson, engage with original historical documents like the Declaration of Independence and The Federalist essays, and read aloud scenes from Macbeth and A Raisin in the Sun, students gain skills in critical thinking, persuasive writing, and communication. Many students in this program are struggling with issues such as homelessness, depression, substance abuse, domestic abuse, and teen pregnancy and have been made to feel in the past that they are “not college material.” Under the direction of Prof. Emily Auerbach, who recently won a national award for her work, and a team of dedicated UW faculty members, over 300 students have graduated from the Odyssey Project and two-thirds have continued their education by taking more college courses.
In order to prepare students for the next phase in their education, the Odyssey Project focuses on strengthening writing skills by emphasizing collaboration with tutors and classmates and increasing the visibility of student writing. The UW Writing Center has created strong ties with this program by providing trained tutors to help with individual writing needs. Every week, students have the opportunity to work through the writing process with a small study group that includes three other classmates and two tutors. Excerpts from these assignments are then published in the Oracle, a newsletter that contains student photos and writing. Students gain pride and confidence as Oracles are distributed in class, posted online, and shared with family, friends, and community members.
In order to understand how these practices have impacted the writing process, we asked this year’s class to write about three topics: the effect that collaboration has had on their writing, their responses to the Oracle (as both readers and authors), and the aspects of writing they find to be either frustrating or exciting. Their responses offer powerful suggestions about the ways in which collaboration and visibility can help students navigate the difficult balance between personal expression and the expectations of a discourse community, and they should be of special interest to instructors working with adult learners, literacy, bridge programs, and writing centers that are connecting with communities that reside beyond the boundaries of campus. We have organized their ideas around recurring themes, but we have left the entirety of each answer intact.
Visibility and Voice
“Having the ability to be creative and not being judged is a beautiful thing. Everyone in our Odyssey class is different and brings something new to the table and each week we respond to the same questions on our homework, which is published through the Oracle. You get to see how each personality is different and everyone has a story and a past of their own, just by the way they answer a question. We have moments in class where we get to free write about what we love, like music, and it’s a wonderful thing that people listen to how we feel and our purpose for why we love what we love. We are able to see how even though everyone is different, we share the same struggles, we are all works in progress and it’s okay to feel and be who we are. The Odyssey Project gives us that chance to explore ourselves, our thoughts, our dreams, and more through our writing.” (Prodajae)
“The things I read [in the Oracle] make me feel like I’m reading stuff from professional authors and I got front row seats. I get to see these authors and get to know them on a personal level and that’s a great feeling. I also get to see myself as a writer. Seeing my heartfelt writings being published in a book is a tremendous feeling. From the class I get responses like, ‘You write really well,’ or ‘You’re a deep individual and we should work together,’ and people trust me to read about certain topics because they see who I am and how I think through my writings.” (Shaneika)
“Both as a reader and as an author I feel the Oracle is wonderful. I feel you get a sense of who a person is through their writing and you can put yourself in their shoes. The Oracle is also a place to connect with my classmates.” (Lakoyé)
“I think that the Oracle is a really cool newsletter that tells many interesting stories of people’s achievements. When my story or response to an article is published I think that people enjoy reading my point of view. Sometimes it can be very touching, whether it’s powerful or funny and brightens up your day! I have shared the Oracle with my family and friends and they love that we are so engaged as a class. They really appreciate how involved the instructors are in helping you succeed. Since they have become familiar with what the Odyssey offers, they are planning to apply for the class of 2016!” (Michelle)
Collaboration and the Writing Process
“These past two months that I’ve been working in Odyssey I have grown as a reader, writer, and definitely as a thinker. My classmates here in the class are fun and overall give me the courage to share my ideas that, otherwise, I wouldn’t share. Then I have my wonderful teachers. One teacher in particular really helped me to release all the color, beauty, and sass in my writing. If it were not for this person I would probably still be close-minded. The reason I say this is because my teacher is so positive and encouraging that I was persuaded to share my inner most thoughts and secrets, which is something I have never been able to do.” (Tia)
“Since I’ve been in Odyssey, writing has gotten a little better for me. I have a lot to say and at first I didn’t want to because I would think about spelling and grammar. I still struggle with these things, but now I get my ideas out, and then I work on spelling, grammar, etc.” (Kelly)
“I met with [my tutor] to touch up my writing about my children. He made me look at writing more creatively and detailed. He made me dig deeper even though I thought I was already doing my best. From that moment forward with everything I write I think, is there any way I can make my writing better or give more details?” (Janina)
“Working with [the tutor] and my classmates on my reading, writing, and thinking process has been a challenge for me. Writing, in my life, was a learned skill—all about format, structure, and content. So when I turned in my first project to [my tutor] and he told me that it seemed too compact, I got it. He was right. I was so worried about format that I lost important facts. I understood that my focus on format and fear of sharing what’s considered personal would stand in the way of my writing success. I am now opening up more and not so focused on the old school format.” (Jessi)
“My writing process has changed in a positive way. When we work together, with the help of teachers or classmates, it is easier to come up with ideas of what to write. Listening to other people’s ideas helps me because it helps me search for ideas to add on to the conversation and it helps me realize that I have ideas on what to write—it is just a matter of searching for them.” (Heydy)
“Over the last two months, working in Odyssey with both my classmates and teachers to progress as a reader, writer, and thinker has made me question everything that I do. What’s my purpose? Why am I misunderstood? Better yet, I have a story to tell and if I write down what I feel on paper, it helps me see things a little clearer. When asked to write a story describing myself, or an essay, I learned that using small words tends to describe more and it is also easier for the next person to read. Then, when the teacher or student reads what was written and gives feedback, I begin to see what grammar, punctuation, and better proper word usage will create better sentence structure.
My writing has improved tremendously! When I’m asked to write a paper, I no longer choke up or become stressed out. I just use the techniques I was taught! I will jot down my ideas, anything that comes to mind, and come back 15 minutes later and my brain is HOT and ready to ROLL!” (Michelle)
“The collaboration within the Odyssey program has played a big role in my progress. Without it I would never have been able to understand the readings or never would have had the enjoyment of seeing other points of view. My writing process has changed since this collaboration, more than I could have imagined. I have seen more description and feeling in my work.” (Nissa)
Personal Expression and Audience Expectations
“Everything frustrates me about writing—not knowing how to spell, grammar, etc. What excites me about my own writing is that I learn about my self. I hope that one day I can consider myself a good writer.” (Margarita)
“Sometimes I still have reservations about writing because I know my spelling and punctuation skills aren’t that strong. However, my writing excites me because it takes me out of my body and I can freely be me in it.” (DeAngelo)
“I am not excited about writing. I wish I was a better speller and I wish I didn’t struggle so hard. But hard work pays off and I don’t mind working hard.” (Kelly)
“It frustrates me when I am not sure about the spelling of words, or sometimes the grammar or punctuation. It frustrates me to not be able to recognize where to place a comma, or where to close a sentence with a period. It excites me that I discover I am way more strongly opinionated than I thought. What I learn about me, and to feel that I am a good writer when I write something, shows my strengths as a writer. I like feeling talented, and confident, about it.” (Sahira)
“The thing that still frustrates me about writing is the whole writing process. Even though I can see my writing getting better with each draft, it still seems like too much work for such a simple task. The other thing that frustrates me is my lack of knowledge in grammar. This has been a life long issue for me and even though I’m getting better, it seems like I’ll never master this.
Whenever I see the finished product of my writing, I get so excited. I have come to see what an amazing writer I am capable of being. I love to see my heart and soul flooded onto the paper. The ink in my pen is the blood in my veins and brings to life everything that I write.” (Nissa)
6 Replies to “Odyssey Voices”
I love DeAngelo’s observation on writing as something that “takes me out of my body and I can freely be me in it.” I particularly love that the concluding “it” pronoun refuses a stable antecedent. Where does one become freer through writing, inside the self or out there in the open spaces of society? DeAngelo’s ambiguous “it” suggests both. Taking DeAngelo, among others, out of their bodies, the Odyssey project enables its participants to defamiliarize the ways in which they have been told to look at themselves. If the first stop in that journey is self re-discovery, the goal is a new civic order worth fighting for. Nothing short of an odyssey, indeed. Kudos to everyone who makes this happen. Keep up the good work.
Please pardon my enthusiasm but I am very excited about this program. It inspires both its students and its instructors who are privileged enough to watch each class pour so much passion into improving themselves. Having worked as a tutor with a only a few of these students, I have noticed a difference between Odyssey students who know education to be privilege and students at the university where education is sometimes no more than a means; merit is there thought to be an entitlement! I was struck by Michelle’s thoughts about her development as a writer as well as her passion and confidence as an independent learner: “When I’m asked to write a paper, I no longer choke up or become stressed out. I just use the techniques I was taught!” How awesome is that!? Odyssey’s open door has given her the space to think about big rhetorical questions like “What’s my purpose? Why am I misunderstood?” I think that these are such difficult writing questions and after reading through these excerpts I know that Michelle and her fellow Odyssey students are being prepared to think about them. As many of these students begin journeys in new professions and/or college courses they will bring with them invigorating attitudes and, importantly, a powerful set of skills!
I like how both Tia and Michelle note that writing can be an act of discovery for what they think. Michelle says that writing helps her “see things a little clearer,” and Tia says that she is less close-minded after going through the writing process. Which is a great reminder that we’re all in the same boat when it comes to writing, no matter how accustomed we are to things like grammar or academic conventions. The struggles and benefits here are so, so familiar to me. Thanks for sharing!
What a pleasure to read about the Odyssey program — and, more importantly, to hear from the students going through the educational journey that is Odyssey. I am so struck by the pleasure and pain that runs throughout Odyssey writers’ commentary on what it feels like to write and to labor through the process of seeing oneself as a writer.
And Nissa’s words (among so many here), “The ink in my pen is the blood in my veins and brings to life everything that I write” are so powerful, so vibrant, so important.
Thank you to the Odyssey writers, Mackenzie, and Kevin for sharing this!
All of the student responses were so full of honesty and insight. One that particularly stood out for me was how Heydy found that listening to others’ ideas helped in the search for her own. This resonates with me both personally and professionally because her observation just so happens to be the very backbone of a project I’m developing for public radio. We’re just getting started, and I found Heydy’s comment extremely timely and motivating. What a tremendous program. This deserves more attention and more resources.
Wow – “homelessness, depression, substance abuse, domestic abuse, and teen pregnancy” – most colleges would turn you down for all these except maybe pregnancy. When I used to study (in Europe) every so often a homeless person would venture into the student canteen and I often bought them a bread roll or a coffee or so. Now often “security” has been “tightened” and these people are turned away or effectively discouraged. Seeing that in the US the average adult seems to read at an eighth grade level I think making critical readers out of people with such disadvantages can be a challenging task and i can imagine these “graduates” feel like a blindfold has finally been removed.
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