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Why some CS majors aren’t doing Honors

in Letter to the Editor/Opinions by

In its Nov 5 edition, the Phoenix published an article about the decline in Honors participation across Swarthmore, claiming it correlates with an increase in participation in the natural sciences. In particular, computer science was named twice as a department contributing to the decline. As two students studying in the natural sciences who considered, but are no longer pursuing Honors, we believe the article both paints an incomplete picture of the computer science department specifically, and, more broadly, elides some of the factors reducing Honors participation among natural science majors.

First, it is important to recognize that the Honors program, as implemented in many of the social sciences and humanities, would be unfeasible in the natural sciences. Many of these departments encapsulate their Honors preparations in the form of double-credit (or, rarely, two single-credit) Honors seminars, normally capped at 12 students. If we consider the fact that upper level CS courses typically have enrollments of 30 or more students (many are, indeed, closer to 50), such caps — necessary to provide an “Honors experience” — would necessitate dramatically increasing the number of faculty, drastically restricting entrance to the major, or unfairly increasing the teaching load. As it stands, a 12-person course is a luxury that, unfortunately, is impossible to provide except in very limited circumstances.

Another reason why some students in particular natural science departments choose not to pursue Honors is that, unlike in other departments, it is not necessary to be an Honors student to enroll in specific upper level seminars. As students in a major that generally has open enrollment, we find this policy to be bizarre and contrary to the spirit of the liberal arts. We stand by our department’s decision to allow any student in the college with the prerequisites to take its upper level courses. We believe that students should pursue Honors because they want to, not because Honors grants access to particular courses. This policy allows all students to pursue their interests, appreciate the breadth and interconnectedness of the field, and develop problem-solving skills readily applicable not only to computer science problems, but more general challenges across disciplines. Indeed, the liberal arts are not meant to be vocational preparation, but to prepare students for life.

Additionally, some students in the natural sciences have difficulty completing an Honors major simply due to the interdepartmental scheduling complexities involved. With many courses making up Honors preparations offered on a biennial basis, and some courses having associated labs, a single conflict in junior or senior year can derail even the best-formulated schedule. Given that all students are required to submit a tentative course of study their sophomore spring, it is conceivable that conflicts can be foreseen and resolved. Proactive inter-department cooperation in formulating semester schedules to this end could increase the number of students who are able to successfully complete an Honors major.

If the decline in Honors majors is truly a concern, then it is imperative to move past dramatic characterizations of declining numbers and instead examine why fewer students are pursuing Honors majors. Honors, as it exists outside of the natural sciences, is difficult to incorporate, and would reduce the accessibility of the curricula to the student body at large. It is up to the community to think critically about the form an Honors major in the natural sciences should take in order to ensure the rigor of Honors does not compromise strong existing programs.

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