A Retrospective Look at Honors

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In the past few weeks, Swarthmore’s sophomores have been trying to choose whether to do the Honors Program. It’s a very different choice now than it was just fifteen years ago, before the Honors Program was revised in 1994 in an effort to address declining enrollments. The Gazette spoke to English Professor and Honors Director Craig Williamson last semester about the impact of these changes.

Before 1994, a full three-quarters of the last two years was spent preparing for Honors, taking six seminars instead of only four. This wasn’t a problem in the beginning–a whopping 50.7% of the Class of 1937 graduated with Honors–but in the five years before 1994 the numbers had dwindled to 15-18%. Williamson explains that “students increasingly wanted double majors, were going abroad, or were coming late to a major, and they didn’t have the time to do three quarters of their program in Honors… it was changed for greater flexibility.” Now Honors preparations can include study abroad, community-based learning, or even a musical composition or book of poems. Methods of examination have also changed in more traditional fields. It used to be that the outside examiners would only see your written exams and your oral exams, but now students in majors like History and English also get to send revised seminar papers.

Williamson continued, “the situation today with students wanting to study a wide variety of things is a lot different than it was fifty years ago… I will say that one of the great advantages of the old way is that you got to study a subject in-depth, but the more you have like that, the less diversity you have… it was too much of a sacrifice in a world where our sense of possible subjects to be studied was growing ever greater.”

A more controversial change that came in 1994 was the addition of grades. “Students were beginning to have trouble getting into graduate and professional schools without grades… increasingly schools wanted grades and they didn’t like to see gradeless courses and seminars on the transcript to the tune of three quarters of the work of the last two years.” Many students protested, feeling that the course atmosphere would be changed for the worse with grades, but “we didn’t have much choice,” explains Williamson. “Most faculty now believe that it really hasn’t made a difference… I think the initial uneasiness or irritation with that change has abated.”

The changes have mostly accomplished their goals, reflected Williamson. “We wanted to see [the number of students choosing Honors] between 30 and 35 percent, and that’s where it has stabilized.” Another one of the problems that has been addressed is the discrepancy in terms of participation between the natural sciences and everybody else. “The difference has been substantially lowered as a result of the changes,” explained Williamson. “Natural sciences have greater requirements because the curriculum is more vertical and there are also also research projects that are required.”

Although the honors program has certainly changed, Williamson stressed that the important parts have remained the same. “Our honors program is kind of unusual in that everybody who comes to Swarthmore has a chance to be in the honors program… very few schools could or would make the kind of commitment that Swat has made over the years.” He concluded, “the program has solved its problems and become much more successful… the numbers and the breadth are a testament to its success.”


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