Honors Forum might, from its title alone, smack of the ivory tower. But initial
buzz on the new program suggests anything but scholarly remove or academic stuffiness.
.....So when Dean of Studies Jon Ramsey, an associate professor of English and 20-year veteran of such discussions at Skidmore, began pondering honors possibilities anew in the early 90s, he knew that "a new construct" would have to be developed, something that would work with the Colleges inclusive, democratic values. Working with the Committee on Educational Policy and Planning, Ramsey and a faculty-student-administration task force came up with a more open "forum" structure that would offer not only the traditional membership for a core group of highly motivated students but also a wide range of honors-level courses open to all qualified Skidmore students. "Almost any student can engage in almost every Honors Forum event and opportunity," says Ramsey. "The program would never fly without that."
.....Says Honors Forum Director and Associate Professor of Classics Michael Arnush, "We hope that nonHonors Forum students will take forum courses." And the fact that they do is what gives wings to the program; on average, says Ramsey, 60 percent of the students sitting in any given Skidmore honors course are not forum members. But many could be, Lynn points out, "since the average GPA at Skidmore is 3.1, putting the Honors Forum requirement of 3.4 well within reach of many, many students." Besides the 3.4 (or B+) grade-point average, membership requires a minimum of seven credits in honors courses by the end of junior year, a senior capstone experience in the major discipline, and active involvement in cocurricular events (as documented by the participation summaries that students submit after each semester). Program attrition so far is low, about 6 percent, says Arnush, but to keep membership at a full 70 students per class, faculty are encouraged to nominate students, and students can also apply on their own.
.....Skidmores Honors Forum responds as well to the social needs of high achievers, especially those in their first and second years. Unabashedly excited about learning, some complain about fellow students unwillingness to speak out in class or to talk about ideas outside of class; often its hard to find kindred spirits among their classmates. As Ramsey observes, "Once they choose a major after their first year or two, there is a sense of community, a closer connection with faculty, and opportunities for collaborative and independent research. But before Honors Forum was launched, some of these ambitious students would arrive and think, Theres no one here like me. So one of the forums main efforts was to bring them together early on with like-minded people."
.....Some Honors Forum students choose to live on one of two honors floors in the residence halls, where, from the moment they haul their freshman luggage into their first dorm room, they belong. "You dont know anybody, but you know youre living with people who wont judge you," says Catherine Cella 02, a biology major and member of Honors Council, the forums coordinating board. "Forum students will be more tolerant when you choose to spend your Friday night at a lecture instead of a movie. And youll be able to talk freely with them."
.....Tightening social ties is the forums cocurricular calendar, chockablock with lectures, performances, gallery going, concerts, formal dinners, and informal discussions. While most forum-sponsored events are open to the campus community, a few are members-only, like the popular series of informal Wednesday night talks on research or current issues. "We pick topics wed like to hear more about and invite peoplefaculty, students, administratorsto talk to us about them," says Cella. "Its like being a kid in a candy store." Another perk: "We often ask speakers already on the College lecture schedule to address the Honors Forum in more detail," says Arnush. For instance, last spring Professor of Exercise Science Jeffrey Segrave spoke on an honors dorm floor in conjunction with his Moseley Faculty Research Lecture on the history and culture of the Olympic Games. This spring, forum students plan to travel to a Metropolitan Opera performance in the informative company of Associate Professor of Music Thomas Denny. Last semester, the forum cosponsored three major campus lectureson Tibet, sign language, and the African-American experienceand Jason Lowenstein 03 went to every one. "The lectures were fun," he says, "and this is collegeyou do things you wouldnt ordinarily do."
When the Honors Forum was proposed in 1997, initial response was "not wildly supportive," recalls Arnush. Many faculty voted no, some Student Government Association officers spoke strongly against it, and many students worried that "Honors Forum will cause a division between those who are 3.4 and those who are 2.8.," as Shayla Woodson 98 wrote in the Skidmore News. After the proposal was accepted, the Honors Council spent a year researching other colleges honors programs, inviting campus input, ironing out details, and hoping for the best. But once Honors Forum got under way, it worked better than theyd dared to hope.
....."Ive just received the first papers from the honors students in Art History 101, and they are stunningwell researched and creative! Their energy is so inspirational!" wrote Assistant Professor of Art History Amelia Rauser on the programs Web site in early October. Associate Professor of Mathematics David Vella reported that his honors calculus students were signing up en masse to take part in a challenging national math competitionmore than doubling the usual number of Skidmore contestants. Associate Professor of English Linda Simon mused that the students in her honors fiction class seemed somehow "affirmed, students who like to learn and have experienced success at it."
.....Thats definitely the profile for students like Andrew Cencini 01, a math and computer science major who joined the forum as a sophomore. "Learning is fun," he says simply. "If sometimes it isnt, you have to make it fun." Indeed honors students tend to agree that extra reading and independent study is fun, and so is a good hearty debate. "Its fun to argue with people," says Cella. "We argue about a lot of different things, but its in a good spirit and for a good reason, to understand better, and explain and adapt your own thinking."
.....That approach can change fundamental classroom dynamics, as Arnush explains. "In an ordinary college classroom of 20 students, five are likely to be vocal, so the others dont speak out much. Ive heard a student mutter the right answer under his breath and be too shy to say it out loud, even when Id say, Go ahead, thats right, say it! But in honors classes, students tend to be more sure of themselvesor maybe theyre so interested in what theyre learning that they dont care if theyre right or what others think."
.....Or maybe the honors classroom is so lively because, as art historian Rauser suggests, "everyone in that class is there because they want to be." When Rauser added a one-credit honors option to her regular three-credit class in art historyan option that meant extra work and an additional hour of class timeshe was surprised at how many of her non-honors students selected it. "One came to me and asked, Look, youve had me for two semesters, do you think I can handle the challenge? He did fine. And in that way, I think Honors Forum works very well: it lets all students do more of what they love."
But what about all the downsides? The notion that an honors level would create a more competitive atmosphere is proving unfounded, says Ramsey. "We dont want to cultivate a cut-throat competitive spirit in the students. The only thing we want to cultivate is the energy and the will to do ones best by ones own standards." And "its not about grade-grubbing," honors-teaching faculty attest; forum students are already working in A territory. Of course, working at that level can mean pressure and stress. "Stress is a big part of college life at any level of achievement," says Francesca Cichello 02, this years Honors Forum president. "But I dont think that an Honors Forum student necessarily takes his or her work any more seriously than any other student," she adds. "Honors Forum does provide a place where you can commiserate about it with other kids who have heavy course loads or are especially committed to extracurricular activities."
.....For some students, at first the feeling was, "Its a geek club; why would you want to join?" But as early as the programs second semester, resistance began to fade, along with the mistaken idea that forum students would associate only with other forum students. "Honors Forum students are into so many things that Honors Forum is not your only identity," points out Lauren Sweeney 02, who engages in sports and volunteerism. Cellas a musician, Lowensteins a snowboarder, and in his three years at Skidmore Cencini has been an LS 1 tutor, a Skidmore News copy editor, an information-technology assistant, a math and computer science tutor, a residence- hall counselor, an SGA committee member, and more.
.....If theres still a residual fear of elitism, students like Sweeney are quick to point out that "not everyone can be in the Bandersnatchers or on the hockey team, but no one has a problem with that." By December 99, the honors presence on campus was "frankly, not a big deal," says Joel Kurzynski 02, a hall leader on the Wait Hall honors floor. "Honors Forum people are really not much different from the rest of the Skidmore population, except that their academic goals are a bit higher." And Kurzynski, a non-forum student who enjoyed both of the honors-level calculus courses he took, adds that "Honors Forum is great for Skidmore, because it marks us as an institution thats serious about providing the utmost academic experience for those so inclined."
.....That kind of response is welcome to Jon Ramsey, who has been tracking typical patterns of reaction to collegiate honors programs: "First year, a mix of downright hostility and a wait-and-see attitude. Second year, a shift to tolerance and pride in the institution. Third year, pride and admiration." Adds Ramsey, "Were actually ahead of this curve." In fact, says Arnush, "We really have achieved much of the goal we started with. Exceptional students entering Skidmore no longer feel alienated. In the classroom with like-minded students, they dont have to be embarrassed to raise a hand and say, I did an extra 10 pages of reading and heres something I found. "
.....And for many faculty, Honors Forum holds special charms. For instance, "This program let me teach a difficult class I wanted very much to teach," says Mary C. Lynn. Her "New England Begins" was just too demanding for a standard three-credit course, but her honors class seized the challenge. "After a month of reading 17th-century theologydifficult material on predestination and Calvinismmy students insights into the Salem witch trials were really quite wonderful," she says. The best part? "Some of my students in that class were Honors Forum students, but I dont know which ones. They were all terrific."
....."I dont know why everyone wouldnt want to teach an honors class," says Linda Simon. "These kids are great."
.....As forum membership builds toward 280, the biggest challenge isnt turning out to be divisiveness or democracy, but providing enough course credits to meet the growing demand. "We offered 16 courses in 13 different disciplines in our first year," says Arnush, "and doubled that, to 30 courses in 17 disciplines, this year. But thats still not enough." Thats partly because almost half those 30 classes are regular three-credit courses with an extra honors credit-hour addeda convenient and successful arrangement, but with the drawback that only the extra credit-hour counts toward the Honors Forum requirement of seven by the end of junior year. No wonder incoming freshmen are clamoring for 100- and 200-level honors-designated courses in biology, music, psychology, and business, and as the first wave of forum members prepare to enter their senior year, theres also an increasing demand for upper-level honors courses.
....."Our goal is to offer honors courses in each of Skidmores academic disciplines," declares Arnush, who has been lobbying his faculty colleagues all year. "Were getting there," he says. "In another two or three years, well have a complete program."
So far, Honors Forum has been an amazing adventure for its charter members, the students who have helped shape the still-flexible program to suit their wishes and needs. Students sit on the Honors Council along with faculty and administrators, and they run committees to plan events and to network with first-year students and alumni. Some have also posed such challenges as "Im going abroad and I want to continue honors-level work in Ghana," reports Arnush. "So we looked into that. Or a student might say, Theres no honors course offered in what I want to study, so weve talked to the department and asked about converting an existing course."
.....In one case, a brand-new course was created to enable two sophomores to conduct independent research; to fulfill one requirement of the new course, the students gave a formal presentation of their findings. For the audience of faculty and students, Kerim Odekon 01 delivered a multimedia history of American suburbs, from the planned community of Levittown, N.Y., to the ideals of New Urbanism. Then Andrew Cencini described his progress in building a compiler, a piece of software that translates computer languages; theyre standard-issue in computers, but Cencini wanted to build one from scratch.
.....Last April, the forums first year ended with an ambitious two-day Academic Festival organized by a student committee and featuring 60 student presentations spanning the disciplines and taking place all around campus. And the ideas just keep coming. This spring, a new honors lounge opened in Ladd Hall, offering a guaranteed-quiet study space for all Skidmore students. And currently under discussion are a pair of new "bookend courses" for freshman and senior honors students, classes that would feature intensive interdisciplinary explorations into methods of intellectual inquiry. But once past the thrill of start-up, will all that energy continue to flow? "I think its built in," says Katie Cella. "The feeling of the program will vary with each new group of students, but the sense that you have input will keep up the excitement and fun." And there will always be input, notes Arnush. It will always be up to the Honors Forum students to ask for honors courses and guest speakers, to carve out independent research opportunities, and above all to bring to each class their own infectious delight in intellectual vigor and the play of the mind. Arnush still gets excited when he recalls teaching his first honors-designated class: "Id walk into that class and I couldnt restrain them! They had done the reading and the extra reading. They were exploding with observations and ideas. Theyre like wild mustangswe only have an hour and theyre rarin to go."
.....Lauren Sweeney puts it more modestly. "Honors Forum is for people who just want to take that extra step." Ah, but its that extra step thats such a kick.