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Departmental honors programs flourish

Joe Trombello | Friday, September 19, 2003

Although the Colleges of Arts and Letters and Science offer a joint honors program that attracts 60 first-year students annually, many Arts and Letters departments offer departmental honors programs that are open to selected upperclassmen.

According to the 2003-04 orientation guide for Arts and Letters department chairs, eight departments currently offer approved honors programs: American Studies, English, German and Russian Languages and Literatures, History, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology and Romance Languages and Literatures.

Each honors program requires a thesis, but some departments additionally require students to take more advanced classes, even on the graduate school level. In addition, some programs remain open to as many students as meet the criteria, while others aim to cap the number of students that participate.

Rationale

Mark Roche, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, said that colloquium discussions on the Boyer Report in 1998 formally began the process of exploring how more departmental honors programs could be integrated into the college. The Boyer Report, a study of undergraduate education at research universities, proposed that education should involve more student inquiry rather than a transmission of information from faculty to student. The ensuing colloquium and college counsel discussions centered on ways to provide more capstone experiences for students, and the college counsel passed a resolution to introduce honors tracks in departments.

“The result has been a huge increase in the number of undergraduates involved in research projects,” Roche said.

Roche said that three criteria were set up for honors programs: a formal selection process, courses that engage the student in more sophisticated ways and a capstone project or thesis. Roche said that these programs allow students to have greater control over their intellectual lives as well as combine Notre Dame’s strengths in research and undergraduate teaching.

Roche also said that honors programs and capstone projects encourage Notre Dame students to become more intellectually curious and challenged, allowing them to break out of an apathetic approach to learning that has concerned some faculty.

“It’s a fairly widespread perception that Notre Dame students may not initially bring to the table a level of intellectual maturity as some of their peers [at other universities],” he said. “But once that curiosity is sparked, our students can keep pace with students at any university in the country. [Honors Programs] give an avenue to help students strive for that kind of spark.”

Roche stressed that no department is required to introduce an honors program, and also that departments with no current honors programs may still provide numerous opportunities for research and scholarship that allow students to become more intellectually curious.

Humanities

The English honors program requires students to show more focus with their electives, as well as to write a senior honors thesis and take a graduate-level course related to the area of their thesis. Students were invited by letter the summer after their sophomore years and wrote a brief letter of intent to confirm their decision; students qualify for the program if they have taken three or more English courses and achieved a 3.78 GPA or better in these courses. James Dougherty, a professor who, as director of undergraduate studies last year launched the program, said he believed the honors program to be worthwhile.

“Having a program that recognizes the intellectual motivation and interests of students is a worthwhile thing to do,” he said.

Dougherty said that students self-selected into the process, meaning he did not have to make cuts. He said he may need to do so in future years to keep the number of students enrolled at a manageable level.

“The faculty made it quite clear they didn’t want this to be a junior graduate school; its objectives are to be clearly distinguished from those of graduate school,” he said.

Alfred Freddoso, director of undergraduate studies in philosophy, said that the honors program in his department has been around for at least 5 years and is not invitation-only; about two to three students participate each year. The requirements involve two additional courses, including a senior thesis.

Freddoso said the program allows motivated students with flexible schedules the chance to gain further depth in philosophy through additional, higher-level coursework and may help a student’s chance to attend graduate school in the area.

The history honors program consists of a three-semester course sequence that begins in the spring of the junior year. Students take both a special honors seminar in methodology and a colloquium that involves intense reading and discussion, in addition to writing a thesis during their senior year. Every junior history major is invited to apply to the program, with about 20 students accepted.

“We wanted to give bright, motivated students the possibility to do more advanced work and work closely with a faculty advisor,” said associate director of undergraduate studies Daniel Graff. “They really liked having more authority in designing their own coursework and developing a thesis.”

The department of American Studies also offers an honors program that consists of a research project and presentation, additional tutorials or seminars and the completion of an honors assigned reading list.

Languages

In addition to the departments of Spanish, French and Italian, which require a graduate seminar and/or thesis in their honors program, the department of German and Russian Languages and Literatures offers an honors track to German students with a minimum GPA of 3.5. The thesis must be at least 40 pages long and composed in German, and the student must achieve a grade of B+ or higher on the thesis to graduate with honors in the department.

Robert Norton, department chair, said he implemented a similar honors program while teaching at Vassar College and had no problem initiating the program at Notre Dame.

“When I first arrived, I was shocked to discover that many of my students had never written a paper in any class that was above 10 pages; this put them at a competitive disadvantage … for considering graduate schools,” he said.

Social Sciences

To graduate with departmental honors in political science, a student must have a 3.55 cumulative and major GPA, must replace a 300-level course with a 400 or graduate-level course and earn a B+ or higher on the thesis paper. As many students as meet the criteria are eligible, although Joshua Kaplan, associate director of undergraduate studies, said the number of students enrolled usually hovers around 40. Kaplan sees the honors program as a way for students to maximize their education.

“It is used as a way to help students get the most out of their major,” he said.

The Department of Psychology offers a year-long senior honors essay intended to immerse the student in the research project from start to finish. The program has been in existence for a number of years.

“The goal is for [students] to get the complete experience in doing research that helps them to understand both the lofty and the mundane aspects of research,” said Tom Merluzzi, associate professor of psychology and supervisor of the honors program.

About seven to 10 students participate in the invitation-only honors program each year. Students meet as a group to discuss readings in methodology, interact as colleagues and review each other’s work. Participants receive mentoring and constructive criticism during several presentations throughout the year that help them refine both their thesis content and their communication skills. The final product is a journal-length manuscript that is presented at a formal colloquium in April.

“Engagement in research from beginning to end is a very important learning process,” Merluzzi said.

The Department of Economics also offers a year-long senior honors thesis.

Student Experiences

Students from a wide variety of disciplines within the College of Arts and Letters say their experiences with the honors program have been both the most challenging and the most enjoyable academic pursuit so far.

“It’s a great way to get started in doing research because you are given a lot of freedom to pursue a project that interests you but at the same time are given enough structured class time to help you through the process,” said Lisa Brintnall, a 2003 graduate and participant in the Psychology honors program who is attending Mayo Medical School.

Dan Munsch, a senior history major, said the rigors of the history honors program will help him adequately prepare for other challenges such as Law School and a career.

History honors program participant Jake Baska said the program has required him to become more personally motivated in his studies.

“The concept of being the one in charge of research, creating [your] own deadlines … has forced me to take a level of personal responsibility that’s hard to force upon yourself in a traditional class setting. You find out a lot about who you are as a student when you’re the main person you need to answer to,” he said.