This term, New College students were offered a new course, The Odyssey. Run by Professors of Classics Carl Shaw and David Rohrbacher, the class facilitates students’ deep dive into classical literature. Each week, more than 50 students prepare by reading two chapters from Homer’s Odyssey, which is the only required book, and is distributed to students for free. They then meet to listen to lectures from professors and guests, before splitting into six discussion groups led by Shaw and Rohrbacher, assisted by four additional professors.
“It’s a little like a book club. We want people excited. The value in the class is more about getting students excited about a topic that maybe isn’t a part of their AOC,” Shaw shared with a Catalyst reporter, who is also enrolled in the course.
The class is not designed to be academically rigorous, instead focusing on building community and having fun, accentuated with weekly food trucks. The trucks, which change weekly, provide students with dinner and dessert they can eat during the lecture portion of the class.
Shaw said they are hoping to create “a social atmosphere that’s both academic and fun, and builds relationships when you get into New College.”
“So far, I have really been enjoying the class. The food has been great,” first year Lane Hagan commented. “I think my favorite part about it is just the wealth of information the leading people have. We had a guest lecture about archaeology and real life connections to the things we were reading about, which was super cool to see.”
Shaw and Rohrbacher responded promptly to an email query about costs associated with the six sections of the course. According to the professors, books for the class cost $600, the food trucks priced out to $21,000 for the 14 weeks and staff support cost $3,000. Pay for 10 guest lecturers was $500 each, for a total of $5,000. Budgeting for the six faculty who teach the course and lead discussion sessions with students broke down this way:
Co-directors 8000 2 @ 8000 = 16000
Base rate for section leaders 8000 6 @ 8000 = 48000
Bonus for first time participants 3000 6 @ 3000 = 18000
Program evaluation 1000 6 @ 1000 = 6000
In total, according to co-directors Shaw and Rohrbacher, the class is costing the school about $117,600.
In its pilot stage this semester, The Odyssey is part of a larger initiative led by President Richard Corcoran and the New College Board of Trustees to create new curricular requirements for students. The current proposal has future first-year students taking two required classes, one in their fall semester and one in the spring: The Odyssey and Data Exploration, Visualization & Communication.
According to Shaw, Corcoran’s intention with these classes is to build community and create shared experiences among students. “Part of the idea is that whether you graduated four years ago or 40 years ago, you have this thing you can talk about that everyone experienced in college,” Shaw explained.
In an opinion piece published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Sept. 25, Corcoran said that the “curriculum provides students with the opportunity to read directly and extensively from the great works of the past. In the ‘Odyssey’ class, new students will take their first step on this enriching and exciting journey.”
As a required course for first-year students, the College is planning on emulating other schools and sending their book in the welcome package from admissions.
“The idea is that when you accept at New College, with your incoming stuff, your welcome would be your copy of The Odyssey,” Shaw said.
Structured similarly to the Odyssey class, the new data-focused course is currently being designed and reviewed by faculty, and the pilot is intended to launch in Spring 2024. It will offer lecture and discussion sections like the Odyssey course, allowing for a large class size to break into small groups. Differing from the Odyssey class, the intention will be to allow students to choose from specific focus areas, including visualizing novels, sports statistics and quantitative political analysis.
“In order to serve the students most effectively, we felt that it can’t just be one big class that all the students are in,” Associate Professor of Mathematics Chris Kottke told the Catalyst. “That’s not really the ‘New College way’ to sit in a lecture hall full of 150 students. The proposal is to have most of the parts of this class broken into small sections.”
This semester, each breakout group in the Odyssey course has fewer than 11 students per section leader, with the intention not to go over 15. Next semester, there will be around 30 section leaders in total, in order to keep groups small. The proposed structure is critical, because according to Shaw, it’s possible the 2024-2025 incoming class will be larger than this fall’s.
“If there’s a class of 400 students next year, which isn’t impossible, and every student has to take both this data science class and the Odyssey class, that means there’s 200 students taking the Odyssey, and 200 students taking Data Visualization,” Shaw said.
Faculty who worked on creating the courses highlighted that they want students to be engaged with the material, even if it’s something they weren’t initially excited about.
“Students come in with a lot of different interests and levels of experience,” Professor of English and Theater and Performance Studies Nova Myhill told the Catalyst. “So figuring out how to balance those to create something that is actually going to be beneficial to all students and be something that is really a good cohort-building experience rather than something that they just kind of have to do, is really hard. I think that’s a really big challenge.”
Another new addition includes a small section in the Jane Bancroft Cook Library dedicated to The Odyssey and related materials, including reading guides and a graphic novelization.
The Odyssey class will fulfill the Humanities requirement for students, as well as a proposed New College-specific requirement.
“[If] you transfer in with an AA, that means you’ve definitely met your Humanities requirement already that’s required by the state. We can’t force you to take another Humanities class, you’ve already checked that box and are good to go,” Shaw explained. “But because this would be a separate graduation requirement, even if you come in with an AA and have satisfied every single requirement, you still would have to take this class.”
Shaw emphasized that his intention for the class is for students to learn how to evaluate art through discussion and debate.
“It’s not rigorous in the sense that you’re going to have to write a 20-page term paper, but more like, you know what, you’re going to have to stop and think about a work of art and we’re going to make you do it and hopefully you’ll enjoy it. And it will broaden your interest and capabilities and capacity for reading or looking at art or thinking about history,” he said.
Rohrbacher underscored that the class is about having fun, and said that he wants to make the text feel accessible to all students, saying that they shouldn’t feel like they need to have a PhD to read something like this, or know Greek.
“It’s a real academic class, a real reading, a real epic, but if this is something that everybody is going to do, it is just as important for people to feel like, I want to be here, I’m getting to know people, I’m having fun, I’m laughing. One of the purposes is for new students to come and say hey, I can read Homer’s Odyssey, and so it’s important that they come away feeling that they can,” he concluded.