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Future of honors program in question

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Last week, members of the class of 2019 assembled in the Lang Performing Arts Center for an event entitled “Chocolates, Chai, & Choosing” sponsored by members of the faculty and the Dean’s office. “Chocolates, Chai, & Choosing” is designed to be an information session about the sophomore planning process. Five of the speakers at the event, each representing different academic disciplines, gave short speeches solely dedicated to explaining and advertising the college’s honors program.

The emphasis on the honors program was deliberate. Professor of English Literature and Honors Program Coordinator Craig Williamson explained why he thought the emphasis was necessary.

“I think that the faculty feels like honors is a great program. In the old days, students already kind of knew what the honors program was like, but it seems like that’s not so much true anymore, at least from some of the feedback we’ve gotten,” he said.

Williamson noted that in the past four or five years, there have always been three or four speakers at “Chocolates, Chai, & Choosing” to discuss the honors program. While he also mentioned that much of the information about honors could have been given at the designated honors program informational session, Williamson explained that some students who had not been set on doing honors prior to “Chocolates, Chai, & Choosing” changed their minds after the event.

However, he could not point to a specific reason for why he believes students are less familiar with the honors program.

“I don’t have an easy answer for that question. I think the academic mission has become vastly complicated over the years. You know, students want to do a variety of things. I think that because the number of students doing honors this year has come down somewhat in the last 4 or 5 years, there are not so many people doing it and talking to other students about it,” he explained.

According to honors program enrollment data from the college’s Office of Institutional Research obtained by The Phoenix, the number of students both graduating and majoring with honors has declined in the past five years. Williamson explained that five years ago, the normal amount of honors majors would have been around 105 students. In the past few years, the amount of honors majors has hovered around 70 students, even as the average class size has increased. During this 5 year period, humanities majors as a whole declined, while STEM majors rose in what Williamson described as “astronomical terms”.

“The honors program has always been a signature program at Swarthmore. I think the faculty largely believes in the program and supports the program. Not universal, but I think most of us would be sad to see the program disappear somehow,” he said.

When asked if there was an enrollment threshold, after which the honors program would be ended, Williamson indicated that the numbers were getting close, provided that the trend of decreasing popularity for the honors program continues.

“It’s hard to know what that threshold of enrollment is. I think we’re close to it. If you teach seminars, you need to have them reasonably filled up in order to teach them. If you offer a seminar, and two people sign up, you can’t do the seminar. It’s hard to know,” he said.

However, Williamson still remains hopeful.

“I think the program will strengthen and will rise again, but I’m not a prophet about these things. Nobody knows what the magic number is. I don’t think we necessarily need get it back up to 105, but I personally would like to see it around 90. That would be a strong number for the program in this particular era,” he continued.

Williamson attributes this decline to the rise in popularity of STEM course majors both at the college and in the nation. Humanities majors have declined at the college as a result too.

“Historically it’s been true that the strongest student support of honors has been in the humanities division, and the weakest support has been in the natural sciences and engineering. So, you know, the movement in the last three or four years in general away from the humanities majors and into the STEM fields, for whatever reason, has influenced the number of people going into honors,” he said.

Assistant Professor of computer science Ameet Soni shared his perspective on the CS honors program with respect to the growing popularity of STEM majors.

“We would love to have honors seminars, but we have a huge enrollment problem. In fact, we used to have two seminars but we haven’t been able to offer them in seminar format because of the enrollment pressures. If we ever got to the point again where we could offer honors seminars, then we would probably change the honors requirement,” said Soni.

Currently, the computer science department does not offer designated honors seminars. Instead, honors students must take two related high level courses concurrently to count toward one honors preparation. The department has experienced a sharp increase in the amount of course majors. In 2010, 11 students graduated with a course major in computer science. By 2014, that number was 48. Since then, only 3 students have graduated with an honors major and just 11 with an honors minor in computer science.

“I don’t think the way that we structure honors discourages students from doing it. Comparing to some disciplines, I’ve heard that to get into the popular seminars you have to be an honors student. We have a relatively flat curriculum where we want students to be able to engage in any of the type of courses the want to,” Soni continued. “Of the students I’ve talked to that I’ve done research with, a lot of them say that the haven’t seen a lot of benefit in doing the honors program. They’d rather have the flexibility to kind of change their path as the semester goes along.”

Soni later pointed to some possible reasons why students are choosing to complete course majors over honors ones: students increasingly prefer to study a large breadth of material across divisions rather than an intense focus in one area, and a lack of interest in attending graduate school directly after Swarthmore. The honors program has often been regarded as good preparation for graduate school.

Williamson further lamented the decrease in humanities majors in general.

“There are some places like Harvey Mudd that see themselves like kind of liberal arts colleges, but are really STEM schools with a little bit of liberal arts stuff. I’ve always felt that would never happen to Swarthmore. For the longest time I’ve felt that. I’m not so sure about that anymore,” he said. “I think if the percentage of majors in the humanities division got down to below 10%, I think that would be a great loss in terms of the students and their capacity to learn different things and exchange ideas.”

Dean of Admissions and Vice-President of the college Jim Bock described the Office of Admissions’ procedure on admitting a class that represents all the academic distributions.

“Typically, when we make admissions decisions, we admit to the College and not to the major, except in the case of engineering. Over the last few years, interest in humanities has dropped on a national level, and we have placed more emphasis on genuine humanities interest when making admissions decisions.  ‘Undecided’ is still a popular choice for students to list on their college applications, and as a liberal arts college, Swarthmore allows students the freedom to change their major before matriculation and once on campus. Because of that, we do not place much emphasis on what a student indicates as a potential major on their application,” he said.

Bock also stated that the Office of Admissions continues to highlight the honors program in its tours and other communications.

Students arrive at the decision to participate in the honors program for various different reasons. For Joe Boninger ‘16, the only honors major in computer science in his class, deciding to do honors was not a calculated decision.

“My decision to do Honors was pretty impulsive—I wanted to be achieving more, academically, than I was at the time, and I figured I would probably be taking all the classes and doing summer research anyway. For most of senior year I thought I’d made the wrong decision,” he said.

For others, the decision-making process was more straightforward.

“Essentially I chose to do the honors economics major for the seminars. Some of the more popular ones give priority to honors students, and taking these courses felt like a unique opportunity only available here at Swarthmore that I could always stop if I decided the seminars weren’t for me,” said Sam Wallach Hanson ‘18, an honors major in economics.

“I took an intermediate biology class my sophomore fall and really enjoyed the experience I had, both in the coursework and with the professor, which led me to working with that professor the summer after and eventually choosing to continue that research as my honors thesis,” explained Dan Lai ‘17, and honors major in biology.

At “Chocolates, Chai, & Choosing,” Williamson stressed that students who graduate with honors find the program to be a very gratifying experience. Boninger, Hanson, and Lai all echoed those sentiments.

“I don’t regret doing Honors now, because I did learn a lot of cool stuff and I forced myself not to spend too much time studying for the exams. That said, I definitely would not have done Honors if I knew about the reduced senior week,” said Boninger.

Senior week is a week of festivities at the end of the year held for graduating seniors. Last year, the length of senior week was reduced.

“What I really appreciate about the program is how supportive the environment is as an honors biology major…as even though my thesis is my independent work, my peers and professors have been a consistent source of positive yet critical feedback. The honors program as a whole is, in my opinion, a challenging yet incredibly rewarding intellectual exercise, and I think it’s helped me build a strong foundation of resolve and discipline I hope to keep with me after graduating,” continued Lai.

“So far the honors program has been great. I took the behavioral and experimental economics seminar last semester and am currently taking advanced microeconomics. Spending up to 5 hours at a time with 5-6 other students and a professor was intimidating at first, but I feel like the degree to which I master the subjects, and the depth to which I learn, is totally unmatched by any other educational setting I’ve experienced before,” echoed Hanson.

Williamson lastly reflected on the possibility of the honors program disappearing in the future.

“I think there’s a sense in the academic world today that this is the thing that really makes Swarthmore stand out as different from all these other liberal arts colleges. If we lost it, I think it would do something serious to the reputation of the college,” he concluded.

It remains uncertain whether honors enrollment numbers will rebound or continue to decline into the future.

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