Meet Miguel Martínez
Professor of Literature in El Proyecto Odisea
On Wednesday evenings, Miguel Martinez would arrive in the Odisea classroom feeling tired after a full day of teaching and meetings at the University of Chicago.
He knew he wasn’t alone in his exhaustion, as students arrived at 6pm after working jobs and tending their families. But Miguel says each night things quickly changed. “There was so much energy in the room once we started talking,” he said. “We always managed to learn something new and have fun doing it.”
El Proyecto Odisea is the only Clemente Course in the country taught exclusively in Spanish, offering the same deep engagement in the humanities as other Clemente Courses while serving Chicago’s large Latinx population. In his role as a professor at the university, Miguel specializes in the literature of Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries, but in Odisea his primary goal was to get people hooked on good literature.
“I chose texts that were beautiful, powerful, and engaging, and that allowed for discussion,” he said. That meant including Argentina’s Julio Cortázar and Mexico’s Fernanda Melchor, among others. He also wanted students to understand that a text can have many purposes, and that they can use it in their own lives. This became clear when students read “Ode to an Onion” by Pablo Neruda, one of hundreds of the Chilean poet’s odes to ordinary things.
“Through the poem they suddenly realized there is so much to say about an onion—and finding beauty in something so common and familiar was a powerful moment,” he said. “The life experiences our students bring to the classroom offer the possibility of having radically different conversations about the texts than in a traditional classroom.”
Miguel says teaching in Odisea reinvigorated him as a teacher. The students’ commitment to learning and the broad perspectives they brought to the material helped him discover new aspects of texts he’d taught numerous times. He was also inspired by the sense of urgency in the room. A number of the students had already taken Odisea and came back just to continue learning in the community, without the possibility of earning credit. They wanted to be part of the conversation.
“The kind of educational experience Odisea offers is unique,” he said. “In a city where more than 20% of people speak Spanish, I think it is a responsibility of public agencies to offer more opportunities for this kind of engagement with the humanities in the second language of the city—and the country. It should not only keep going, but grow.”