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Winter 2000

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Open Forum:
Inclusive spirit gets honors program off to strong start

by Barbara A. Melville



Making new plans, in a new lounge, the Honors Forum executive committee includes: (back row) Rachel Burrows '01, Professor Amelia Rauser, Mary Bates '02; (front row) Catherine Cella '02, Zeynep Barnes '02, Francesca Cichello '02, Professor Michael Arnush; and (in front) Allison Sullivan '01.

Skidmore’s 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.

.....
Launched in September 1998 to enhance intellectual, social, and cocurricular camaraderie among the College’s most motivated students, Honors Forum started with 30 freshmen and is still growing toward a full complement of some 280 students–about 10 percent of the total student body. But the program wasn’t even a month old before the first raves rolled in, from faculty delighted by the intellectual intensity of their new honors-designated classes. One professor gleefully described the extraordinarily animated class participation as "rowdy." Another, quoting a student who told him, "When I leave this class, I’m on such a high!" added fervently, "I’m on that same high." And the exhilaration isn’t slacking appreciably as the young program, now 160 students strong, enters its fourth semester. Ask an Honors Forum student or participating faculty member how it’s going and you’ll get a full-length testimonial–and the oft-repeated question, Why didn’t we do this before?

.....
Short answer: the very idea had always struck the Skidmore community as elitist and exclusionary, inviting elements of fast-tracking, competition, and intellectual snobbery that were antithetical to the College’s basic values. "Honors programs were considered in the ’20s, the ’70s, and the ’80s, but always got shot down as not very democratic," reports Professor of American Studies Mary C. Lynn, author of Skidmore’s forthcoming history book. "Many thought an honors program would skim off the cream of the crop, separating the best from the rest, so they wouldn’t be there to challenge and inspire other students."

.....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 College’s 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."


 
"It marks us an an institution that's serious about providing the utmost academic experience for those so inclined."
 


.....Says Honors Forum Director and Associate Professor of Classics Michael Arnush, "We hope that non—Honors 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.

.....Skidmore’s 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 it’s 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, There’s no one here like me. So one of the forum’s 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 don’t know anybody, but you know you’re living with people who won’t judge you," says Catherine Cella ’02, a biology major and member of Honors Council, the forum’s coordinating board. "Forum students will be more tolerant when you choose to spend your Friday night at a lecture instead of a movie. And you’ll be able to talk freely with them."

.....Tightening social ties is the forum’s 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 we’d like to hear more about and invite people–faculty, students, administrators–to talk to us about them," says Cella. "It’s 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 lectures–on Tibet, sign language, and the African-American experience–and Jason Lowenstein ’03 went to every one. "The lectures were fun," he says, "and this is college–you do things you wouldn’t 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 they’d dared to hope.

....."I’ve just received the first papers from the honors students in Art History 101, and they are stunning–well researched and creative! Their energy is so inspirational!" wrote Assistant Professor of Art History Amelia Rauser on the program’s 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 competition–more 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."

.....That’s 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 isn’t, 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. "It’s fun to argue with people," says Cella. "We argue about a lot of different things, but it’s 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 don’t speak out much. I’ve heard a student mutter the right answer under his breath and be too shy to say it out loud, even when I’d say, ‘Go ahead, that’s right, say it!’ But in honors classes, students tend to be more sure of themselves–or maybe they’re so interested in what they’re learning that they don’t care if they’re 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 history–an option that meant extra work and an additional hour of class time–she was surprised at how many of her non-honors students selected it. "One came to me and asked, ‘Look, you’ve 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 don’t 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 one’s best by one’s own standards." And "it’s 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 year’s Honors Forum president. "But I don’t 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, "It’s a geek club; why would you want to join?" But as early as the program’s 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. Cella’s a musician, Lowenstein’s 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 there’s 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 that’s 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, "We’re 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 don’t have to be embarrassed to raise a hand and say, ‘I did an extra 10 pages of reading and here’s something I found.’ "


 
"Some in the class were honors students, but I don't know which ones. They were all terrific."
 


.....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 theology–difficult material on predestination and Calvinism–my 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 don’t know which ones. They were all terrific."

....."I don’t know why everyone wouldn’t want to teach an honors class," says Linda Simon. "These kids are great."

.....As forum membership builds toward 280, the biggest challenge isn’t 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 that’s still not enough." That’s partly because almost half those 30 classes are regular three-credit courses with an extra honors credit-hour added–a 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, there’s also an increasing demand for upper-level honors courses.

....."Our goal is to offer honors courses in each of Skidmore’s academic disciplines," declares Arnush, who has been lobbying his faculty colleagues all year. "We’re getting there," he says. "In another two or three years, we’ll 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 "I’m going abroad and I want to continue honors-level work in Ghana," reports Arnush. "So we looked into that. Or a student might say, ‘There’s no honors course offered in what I want to study,’ so we’ve 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; they’re standard-issue in computers, but Cencini wanted to build one from scratch.


 
"We want to cultivate the energy and the will to do one's best."
 


.....Last April, the forum’s 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 it’s 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: "I’d walk into that class and I couldn’t restrain them! They had done the reading and the extra reading. They were exploding with observations and ideas. They’re like wild mustangs–we only have an hour and they’re rarin’ to go."

.....Lauren Sweeney puts it more modestly. "Honors Forum is for people who just want to take that extra step." Ah, but it’s that extra step that’s such a kick.


Barbara Melville, a staff writer at Skidmore, frequently laments that she didn’t get the chance to come to Skidmore when she went to college.

To learn more, visit the Honors Forum on the Skidmore web site.
 


© 2000 Skidmore College