After spending more than 25 years in honors education at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, it was appropriate that the featured speaker for the institution’s newest lecture series was its namesake.
Before a packed audience in the Guerry Center Reading Room on Feb. 24, the inaugural O’Dea Lecture in the Humanities series sponsored by the UTC Honors College kicked off. UC Foundation Professor of English Gregory O’Dea gave his talk titled “Humanities in the Wild: Reintroducing a Vital Species of Thought.”
O’Dea, who joined the UTC faculty in 1990, was selected as assistant director of the honors program in the mid-1990s and later promoted to director. After the program evolved into the Honors College in 2013, he took on the assistant dean role—a position he held until moving back to full-time teaching this fall.
In introducing O’Dea, Honors College Dean Linda Frost said that the lecture series “is intended to acknowledge the tremendous work done by Greg in honors education at UTC.”
“The O’Dea Lecture Series focuses on the humanities to ensure that we keep these concerns in the center of our University conversations,” Frost said. “The humanities are disciplines of memory and imagination telling us where we have been and help us envision where we are going. There’s nothing more important that you can learn in college.”
The humanities, she said, generally include the study of languages, literature, history, jurisprudence, philosophy, comparative religion, ethics and the arts.
When O’Dea decided to return to the English department and full-time teaching, Frost asked him to consider teaching in honors. “In a moment of weakness, he agreed,” she told the audience.
That led the way to the creation of the series.
“I hope that over time this series is going to illuminate and open for discussion aspects of humanistic thought and activity,” O’Dea said. “Terms like humbling and bewildering don’t quite describe my feelings on being invited to inaugurate the lecture series.
“I’m not often humble. I’m often bewildered—that’s true. Let me just say that right now, I’m beyond grateful.”
The humanities, he said, is a very broad and flexible term.
“Generally, at least in an educational setting, it encompasses the study of a wide range of human thought and activity through academic disciplines like literature, history, philosophy, critical theory, languages, rhetoric, communication, art, theater, music, as well as aspects of the social sciences that we borrow from psychology and politics, geography, anthropology and so forth,” O’Dea said.
“Fundamentally, those disciplines are concerned with questions of human being, ways of living in and making sense of the world where, when, and however we experience.”
He said that the humanities explore human creativity and knowledge, modes of thought, states of emotion, varieties of spirituality, dimensions of truth and ideas of justice.
“In practice, these studies involve intensive reading, committed debate and discussion, thorough research and writing and rewriting in a wide array of different kinds of tests and artifacts,” he continued. “In terms of portable skill development, the humanities generally seek to deepen critical reading and thinking and to shape and refine toward other expressive practices through formal and informal research, investigations, analysis, reflections and creative activity.”
O’Dea said one of the main ideas he wants people to understand is that “students who study humanities are being prepared for many careers, not just one, and importantly, they’re prepared for career changes.”
As for naysayers who question the worth of the humanities, O’Dea asked and answered a series of questions.
“Are the humanities weak and worthless, or are they powerful and dangerous? I say powerful and challenging. Certainly dangerous, depending on where you’re sitting.
“But if you’re on team ‘weak and worthless,’ I’m wondering, ‘Why are you so mad? Why is so much energy being expended trying to make the case for gutting the humanities?’”
He said that what humanities thinking offers to the greater good is critical.
“As the name implies, the humanities draw on and foster human-centered understanding of experience and activity,” he said. “It asserts over and over again that we are not robots.”
O’Dea was the recipient of the National Collegiate Honors Council’s 2022 Sam Schuman Award for Excellence at a Four-Year Institution. His career honors include being named Outstanding Professor by the UTC Student Government Association and Outstanding Teacher by the University of Tennessee National Alumni Association.