Sunday, December 08, 2013

We are family

I'm now three semesters into my stint as Honors Program director, and I think I'm starting to get the hang of the gig. I've learned the ropes well enough to feel confident tweaking things here, cinching it up there, and making many many midcourse adjustments. Give me another term or two and I'm gonna feel ready to make some bigger changes.

Like what? I've had a number of conversations with one of my closest colleagues about ways in which the Honors Program could be made to cater more to students who demonstrate exceptional intellect and motivation via measures other than standardized test scores and high achievement in courses (like AP classes) ultimately driven by rote examination. I don't want to go too far too fast, but my colleague and I brainstormed ways we could modify both the admission process to the program and the requirements for graduation with Distinction as a University Scholar in order to encourage less the grinds, grade-grubbers, and résumé-builders (many of whom either drop from the program before completing Distinction requirements or simply take a path of least resistance, relying on courses they know won't really challenge them) and more the risk-takers, visionaries, and authentic learners (many of whom are ineligible for the program as it's currently constructed because their risk-taking and earnest focus on real learning has led them to lower performance by quantitative measures).

How might we do this? Disallow membership in the program for first-year (or at least first-semester) students, requiring all interested students to opt in to the program (and not simply be placed there) after having spent some time at the university. Admittance criteria would be more holistic and not so focused on classroom performance. The program's curricular offerings would be more intentionally integrative and dovetail with substantial extra- and co-curricular activities and programming. Students would be asked to complete a sort of Honors thesis at the end of their involvement in the program. Most important, Honors students would be asked to interact in a meaningful fashion with students who are not members of the program. Of what this interaction would consist...I don't know. All I know now is that both I and my partner in crime in this revisioning exercise believe that the Honors Program offers a troubling equity issue, providing real resources to the most academically gifted of students, the ones who are less likely to need those resources in order to succeed in their college careers, while their less-academically-gifted peers make do without such assistance.

Excellence without elitism: how do we realize this vision? One way might be to take the tack we've slowly been turning to over the last couple of terms, emphasizing not the Honors Program's academic offerings but instead its sense of community. I truly believe we've done far more to support Honors students' success during the past year through Honors yoga sessions, Reading-Day snacks, "Good Books" reading groups, and Honors trivia nights than we have through sending a small handful of Honors students to statewide, regional, and national conferences.

My university (like every other in the country) is struggling with recruitment and retention, and I truly believe the community-building we're trying to do in the Honors Program is an unbeatable means of achieving those two related goals. Nothing beats the inestimable and intangible benefit of bringing the students together in the Laurel Forum, introducing those with like interests and aims, giving them access to one another's support. They'll stick around, and they'll not regret a minute of it. And when their younger peers come to visit the school they'll talk the program up into the stratosphere (I've heard them do it).

So, expect to see more community-building as the program looks to the future. And if you've got any ideas for ways we can do this (jigsaw puzzles? Brew-offs? Iron-Chef-like cooking competitions?), please let me know.

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