Although he teaches literature, Dr. Greg O’Dea used a tad of math to decide to step down as associate dean of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Honors College.
“This year marks 25 years of full or part-time Honors administration. I also turned 60 this year,” O’Dea said.
Ironically, his departure from Honors College day-to-day operations at the end of the spring 2022 semester came just as the National Collegiate Honors Council selected him as the recipient of the 2022 Sam Schuman Award for Excellence at a Four-Year Institution—a prestigious award in the world of Honors colleges and programs.
The award presentation will take place at the NCHC’s 57th annual conference Nov. 5 in Dallas.
“My reaction was actually disbelief,” O’Dea said. “I mean, I knew I’d been nominated, but there are many, many people nominated who deserved this award.
“But I thought, ‘Oh well, that was nice of them to nominate me,’ and didn’t think about it anymore. Then I got the word, and it was like, ‘OK. Alright. Great.’”
When O’Dea was announced as the award recipient, he’d already returned to full-time teaching. During the 2022-2023 academic year, he’s teaching two Honors College literature courses for first-year students.
“I felt like I wanted to go back to the classroom and teach—which I’d done off and on all that time, for sure—but I also felt like I’d spent enough time with spreadsheets,” said O’Dea, who came to UTC in 1990 to join the honors program faculty.
Dr. Linda Frost, dean of the UTC Honors College and the winner of the 2019 Schuman Award, said O’Dea’s dedication and enjoyment for teaching are infectious.
“Greg’s students always, without fail, amuse him,” she said, “and Greg’s amusement is entirely contagious. I have loved the students here at UTC more because of how much Greg loves them.
“When I first came to UTC, I was struck by how much he loved to tell the stories of different students, of the kinds of people they were, of the kinds of insights they shared. Greg’s understated assessment was often just this: ‘He’s a funny kid.’”
Easygoing with a quick smile and laugh, O’Dea is undoubtedly a hit with students—who honored him with the UTC Student Government Association’s Outstanding Professor Award in 1994.
Other career honors include being recognized as an Outstanding Teacher by the University of Tennessee National Alumni Association in 2001 and as UTC leadership’s Outstanding Academic Advisor in 2002.
O’Dea first joined UTC in 1990 as a member of the honors program faculty. He was selected as assistant director in the mid-1990s, then promoted to director of the program. After the program evolved into the Honors College in 2013, he took on the assistant dean role.
“I really loved doing what I did while I did it,” he said. “I’m not in love with spreadsheets or any of that kind of bureaucratic stuff, really. But what I loved was building something. It was small, certainly limited in terms of the number of students. But it offered great opportunities to those students.”
Creating the Honors College and maintaining its vision was “probably the single most important collaborative relationship of my career,” Frost said.
“We have laughed; we have yelled; we have cried; and we have taken on the vast task of crafting an Honors College from the foundations of a 40-year-old, well-established, well-respected, very-intimate honors program.”
In class, along with such familiar standbys as Homer’s “The Odyssey” and plays by Shakespeare—this semester it’s “The Tempest”—O’Dea selects novels by authors unfamiliar to most students. For example, while the first book this semester was Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey,” the immediate follow-up was Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” a series of short stories about the author’s experiences as a soldier during the Vietnam War.
“I keep coming back to writers that they’ve probably never read,” O’Dea said. “I mean, they’ve all read some Shakespeare. They’ve all read ‘Beowulf’ or whatever in high school. I’m trying to strike a balance between giving them some really canonical authors that they expect to have and some things out of left field.”
With Shakespeare as one of his go-tos, it makes sense that he chose the Shakespeare Garden on the UTC campus as the place for a recent photoshoot. A Shakespeare Garden is designed to—climate permitted—contain all the plants mentioned in any of the bard’s plays.
Along with his work at UTC, O’Dea also holds regular workshops with practicing physicians around the country. In 2016, he was chosen for the Nicholas E. Davies Memorial Scholar Award from the American College of Physicians, the national organization of medical internists.
The workshops remind physicians that they’re dealing with real people, not just looking at test results, making diagnoses and treating diseases.
“The idea is to remind them that what they’re doing is at least as much art as it is science, so you better know something about human beings,” O’Dea said. “The way they think; the way they emote; the way they respond to things.”
As he does in his workshops and with his UTC students, Frost said she has learned an important lesson from O’Dea.
“Greg has taught so many people so many different things, but this is what he has taught me most of all: What it looks like to truly create an honors culture—the patience it takes to do it, the personality, the fortitude, the deep sense of care,” she said. “All of that I have learned from this man who has done a life’s work in honors at UTC, work that I will continue to build on.”