Friday, August 12, 2005

 

Honors

This is a cry for help.

My college is taking a fresh look at its Honors program. This is trickier than you might think.

Community colleges are, by definition, open admissions. We take all comers (or pretty close – there’s a very, very basic level of English proficiency we require, and you need a high school diploma or G.E.D., but that’s it). Our mission involves serving the entire community. Selectivity is not what we’re about.

This means that even selling the concept of ‘Honors’ as a program or course of study (rather than simply as a recognition of a high GPA) can take some doing.

Happily for me, that battle was fought some time ago. We have an Honors program, but it’s neither fish nor fowl and it isn’t thriving, so we’re trying to revamp it.

It definitely has its virtues. The class sizes are capped much lower (they average around 12), all courses are taught by full-time faculty (to allow for sustained mentoring), and the academic content of the courses is richer. But enrollments are lagging, and the Chinese-menu course list isn’t terribly coherent.

I’ve looked at the Honors programs in the nearby four-year schools to which our students most frequently transfer. Each one is wildly different from the others: some have a mandatory residential component, some require service learning, some are almost entirely interdisciplinary, and some don’t even take hold until the junior year.

This means that looking at the nearby four-year schools doesn’t help much. It’s hard to build a transfer program when the various points of transfer are so idiosyncratic. (The default method of building a transfer program is to look at the four-year programs and copy their first half. That doesn’t work when each one is different.)

I like the concept of Honors at the community college level. Although it sometimes gets attacked as elitist, I think the attack is misplaced – to me, elitism would be to confine Honors courses to kids whose parents can afford four-year schools. Nothing is too good for the proletariat, as an old professor of mine used to say. So I don’t want to just junk the concept. But it’s devilishly hard to implement.

Is calculus an honors class? Calculus II?

Should an Honors program allow concentration of Honors courses in a given major or cluster of majors, or should an Honors student have to do the heavy lifting across the entire curriculum? (In other words, should an Honors history major have to take Honors chemistry?)

What to do in a major like Nursing or Engineering, where almost every available credit hour is spoken for?

What to do when a given major already has low enrollments, and slicing the sections even thinner would doom them to oblivion? (Political read: what to do when some departments will, by necessity, be frozen out of the program?)

And, worst of all...(drum roll, please)...

How to convince the type-A personality student to risk a lower GPA by taking Honors courses? As a college, we’ve taken the position that weighting the grades is out of the question (a position with which I agree).

Any help would be appreciated. This is a tough nut.

Comments:
Our CC has no Honors Program because we simply can't fit in into any programs other than our Transfer programs (AA, AS). We're small (1700 FTE) and rural (50,000 in service area), so our our second year courses are small and defacto honors classes. They can explore many areas wtihin the syllabi constrainsts.
 
Hi Dean Dad...
If you could send me an email at adjunctkait@gmail.com (I don't see your email address listed here), I will forward you some links from my University's honors programs. One of the colleges at my University is a two-year college, and its honors program may be similar to what you need.
But I will say this here: I don't think a student needs to do heavy lifting across the curriculum as part of an honors program. Humanities people will cringe if they have to take honors science and math courses, and vice versa.
I'll explain more of the details to you in an email. Hope to hear from you soon!
Cheers, Adjunct Kait
 
The posters at the cc where I teach (adjunct) begging for students to sign up for honors classes indicate that the course is no harder than the regular section (this might be a lie). There is a GPA requirement to enroll in honors.

I'm thinking that honors is something that should be a la carte. There's no guarantee that a student who would flourish in honors history would also flourish in honors science, etc.

I suppose one way to approach this would be to invert the normal registration policy: Identify honors students at enrollment/semester end. Then, instead of those students requiring permission to enroll in honors sections, they would need permission to enroll in NON-honors sections. Be free with the permission, but make them make the effort to get out of honors rather than begging them to make the effort to get into honors.
 
I teach regularly in our honors program, but I'm afraid I don't have any good suggestions for your situation - as you've found, there's no clear pattern to honors programs, and I don't think there's any single right answer to any of your questions. (My personal preferences would let honors students clump in and around their major, and to create parallel honors classes for the basic "core" courses that the nursing/engineering/education folks would need to take, if that's possible.)

What I will do, at the risk of increasing your consternation, is to point out another problem that we regularly face. Not only do the type-A students not want to risk their GPAs, but many of our faculty don't want to risk their evaluation stats. Honors students expect high grades, which they won't all get if you don't weight the grades, which I think is a wise preference on your part. And when they don't get them, they'll often blame the prof. You'd think teaching honors would be a plum, but many of our best faculty shy away from it for that reason.
 
Our college has honors modules that are taught along with the regular class. For instance, if you were teaching Intro to Lit, you would have an honors module attached so that interested students could do extra, more challenging work and get credit for having been in an honors program without the college's having to create another section. Students would register for either Intro to Lit or Intro to Lit--honors, but would be in the same section of the course.

Adjunct kate, that's a cute avatar you're sporting.
 
That 'module' idea certainly carries some political appeal. Part of the reason the program has been limping has been limited faculty buy-in, driven mostly by the fact that some departments have been, for all practical purposes, frozen out. A modular approach would get around that issue. Hmm...
 
The "module" approach would probably work well. Many colleges do something similar with specialized upper-level courses. The students are a mixed batch of undergrads (who take the course at 400-level) and grads (who take it at 600-level). Lectures are the same for both, but the grad students have additional assignments and are graded on a different curve.

Another advantage is that a student who is floundering at honors-level, but who would pass at normal level, can just drop the honors module mid-semester. No lost time, no wasted tuition. It also might be a good way of attracting more students into the honors program, since they know they have that safety net--and some of them may find that they were better than they thought they were. Win-win.

Dicty
 
Ours has an a la carte approach as well -- the students choose 18 hours from the honors curriculum. Honors classes have the same core number as the regular version (i.e. English 101 is English 101), but there is a separate Honors section which often entails more thinking and a bit more work. It sounds pretty similar to yours, so do feel free to shoot me an e-mail at russianviolets@gmail.com if you'd like more details.
 
I think the module idea is a great solution, especially if the honors students could meet together maybe once a week as well, apart from the rest of the class. My honors students ask once in a while how my honors history courses are different from the regular ones, and I tell them the truth - that the smaller class size and the greater interest and self-discipline of the students makes all the difference. The content is pretty much the same, but the discussions are much more lively, the camaraderie is much greater, and we can pursue ideas in much more depth. You'd lose that if you had honors modules as just tacked-on extra work.
 
Most of the students I refer to the CC honors program are happy at the prospect of classes that are more engaging for them. Far from worrying about their GPA, they see the "honors" designation as appealing to admissions officers at their desired transfer schools.
 
Honors is a sore spot for me. Maybe I'll just tell you what we do, and you'll know this is a take from a contingent faculty member.

There are two options for honors credit at our CC. One depends on the teacher offering the class an "extra" assignment, a contract for the honors designation. So far, I feel guilty for not offering it. Yet I haven't found any compelling reason to do the extra work. (not nice to admit it).

The other option isn't open to adjuncts. During the summer, several courses are offered together, usually seminar sized, with a common theme. Only full-time faculty are offered this option.

I suspect not feeling welcomed to take part in one offering kind of leaves me feeling less-than-obligated to volunteer for the other. This is unfortunate since, of course, the students lose out.
 
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