NCHC Annual Conference: The ‘Ecology’ of Honors Teaching

The theme of the 2012 conference of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) being held in Boston is “challenging structures” in higher education, and at the center of that challenge is the honors focus on the “ecology” of undergraduate instruction: the critical and sometimes difficult balance among faculty, students, and the pursuit of knowledge that brings them together.

In a session devoted to honors instruction, a thoughtful and expressive panel of honors professionals emphasized that learning at the highest level requires challenging themselves and their students to see the acquisition of knowledge as a dynamic, adventurous process that goes far beyond the ingestion of basic facts.

The goal, according to Michael Doran, director of the honors program at the University of South Alabama, is to work with students so that they can gain confidence, accept risks, and become passionate about “inquiry and the creation of new knowledge…students rise to higher expectations, and that message is transferred to other students on campus.”

The words “creativity” and “reflection” and “inquiry” were prominent in the discussion.  John Zubizarreta of Columbia College in South Carolina noted that the “importance of reflection…is important for all students, but for honors students it’s indispensable.”

One reason: honors portfolios, when they are in fact used in honors programs, collect the most important elements of a student’s experience–major papers, significant projects, notes, lists of books and their significance–all of which connect the student to accomplishments and aspirations, and clarify goals.

At Texas A&M, according to Jon Kolinek, associate director of the honors program, students in living/learning communities meet to discuss what they have learned, especially in first-year courses and experiences, and then reflect on how the first year has reinforced their initial goals or caused them to consider different options.

The use of portfolios, discussions, and focused reflection is not unique to students.  At Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University, a formal mentoring program involving current honors faculty with prospective honors instructors has been in place for several years.

According to Jacquie Scott,  director of the Barrett Faculty Mentoring Program for Teaching Excellence and an honors faculty fellow at Barrett, the program requires two years of classroom visits and feedback, all geared toward making Barrett faculty as focused as they can be on effective, high-level student instruction.  The program has also increased overall faculty cooperation and reduced territorial conflicts among disciplines.  This is yet another way that honors education can be a positive influence for the university as a whole.

One part of the honors “ecology” that is requiring more attention is the recognition that the traditional honors predilection toward confident, extroverted young scholars who can comfortably participate in what are typically small honors seminars can mean that quieter, introverted students of great ability might be overlooked or misunderstood if they do participate in honors.  An audience member from the University of Southern Maine pointed out that faculty need to be aware of such students and not equate their relative reticence with a lack of ability or the passion for learning

Jon Kotinek of Texas A&M sees honors instruction is a process of “layering” honors experiences in the most effective manner.  This layering, the ecology of honors instruction, means that the watchwords of creativity, inquiry, reflection, and even risk should inform the pedagogy of faculty and the attitudes of students, to the end that the knowledge they all seek is not merely transmitted but also transformed by their exciting work.