Thursday, December 17, 2009

Can all students have an honors-like experience?

Last week a group of us--faculty, staff, administrators--got together for a conversation about vision in higher ed. Most of us lead co-curricular programs. The premise of the conversation was that in a time where people feel constrained, anxious, etc. about the future of higher education it makes sense to think about what a better world would look like. So we talked about these questions: What would you do if you suddenly had many more resources to run your program with? What if you had freedom to lead your program where you want it to go. Where would you lead?

Though we all said it in different ways the group came to one agreement--if we had freedom and/or resources, we would spend more time working directly with students, and that work would look a lot like an honors program.

I should explain--most of the group has little interest in teaching honors classes--at Westminster small seminars team-taught by our best faculty for students with the highest academic profile. But there are components of the honors program, or athletics, or music students, that most of us enjoy and believe lead to good learning. Here they are:
  1. students strongly committed to the program--once students are admitted to honors they rarely leave. Instead that commitment becomes part of their identity
  2. long-term commitments and connections--honors students participate in two years of seminars and then complete an honors thesis. In other words, they commit to each other and the program for the duration of their time at the college. And the honors faculty return year after year, so the connections between faculty and students endure as well.
  3. freedom to give the program distinctiveness--honors students complete their liberal education requirements in the program. But their LE looks substantially different from that of other students
Not every student can be an honors student. (After all, honors is a way of drawing distinctions between some students and others.) And honors is an expensive program per-student. Small team-taught classes are expensive. So are scholarships for students. But the conversation got me thinking about what a school built around an honors-like experience would look like. Here are some thoughts;
  • the campus would be broken into smaller and longer-lasting groups--every student in a cohort of 20, say, for their entire experience at the college.
  • individual faculty/staff would connect with a group the entire time they are on campus.
  • the faculty/staff group leader would have a substantial amount of say on who is admitted to the group and what the group's program looks like.
  • groups might overlap, and they would share administrative support, but there would be no common experience for all students, except the experience of being part of an on-going group of fellow-learners.
  • within the groups, students would have heightened leadership roles, shaping the activities of the group, its educational experience, and its standards.
  • in short, the educational experience would be decentralized.
Is this the sort of thing you would like to see happen on your campus? Could it? What would be the result for students? For faculty and staff? For the institution? If not, why does it work for honors students but not the rest of the student body?


Anonymous said...

Today’s deep thoughts by “anonymous.” Ready?

Thank you for your piece on humanities. Nice to know that my casual comment on perspective inspired such a thoughtful post! I learned about the Utah Humanities Council and Mash-ups. Very useful! But I don’t think that young people “doing humanities” through Facebook and hip-hop amounts to exciting developments in the Humanities. (Capital ”H” intended). And I don’t think that we need to rethink our humanities curricula, necessarily. In fact, come to think of it, I think that may have been what has weakened the humanities; pressures from the social sciences, shorter attention spans, a turning away from “the text,” reflexive acceptance of “exciting new trends...” So how to make the humanities more relevant, if getting Homer on Twitter won’t do the trick? Develop a stronger backbone and wait it out? I don’t have a better answer. But insisting on the value of the humanities by showing their relevance and application in daily life (perhaps taking a cue from recent trends in science education) should probably be part of it.

As for your post on student presentations, perhaps the answer relates to your ruminations on ”doing the humanities.” Could it be that students think of presentations as putting on a show, and what they understand as a good show should have an element of sensationalism (Fox News, man-eating sharks, and such). But when they are forced to “be real,” as when they are asked to answer questions in real time, they can’t keep up the performance, which works out for the better. Just a theory. As a student, I always thought that in-class presentations were a tremendous waste of time; a chance for the others to tune out as the presenter sweated at the front of the room.

As for e-portfolios, my former employer, a liberal arts college, tried it a few years back and met the most resistance from faculty. That was, ultimately, what killed it. The students seemed to like it OK. Good luck!

As for honors programs, I think that they work best at universities, but are not such a great idea for small liberal arts colleges. At my former college, the idea was floated by a faculty group some years back and promptly rejected by those who argued that our college was already elite (or supposed to be). Tracking students would create undesirable divides in the student population. A few years later a similar idea was pushed through by the enrollment dean as a means to attracting high quality applicants to the college. The select group of students would have a special name (the Something Scholars), more faculty face time, special programs, and guaranteed internship funding. I see little evidence that this move did anything for student learning, and consider the motivations for starting the program rather cynical.

At my new college (enter violin music), we are fortunate to have a very impressive student:faculty ratio and lots of attention paid to students in lots of ways. Of course, it is a question of funding, and my employer is very privileged in that way. Ultimately, I suppose, I think that in a small place, formal tracking of students based on academic potential could do more harm than good. Letting students self-select into the kind of groups you are talking about could work better.

Bryce said...

I was intrigued by your comments about Westminter students' commitment and connection to the Honors program. I'm not sure that I see that sort of commitment among students in BYU's honors program.

What would you attribute that commitment to? Are there specific things that happen in Westminster's Honors program to engender that sense of connection?