Ethnogenesis: The Construction and Dynamics of the Honors Classroom Culture

Article excerpt

Introduction

In 2008 the Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council published a series of essays which editor Ada Long described as a "rich and varied conversation about the culture of honors" (10). The contributors, mostly honors administrators, included Charlie Slavin, Dean of the University of Maine Honors College, whose lead article provided "one cornerstone ... that is common to the culture of honors: taking intellectual risks" (15). George Mariz echoed Slavin in his claim that honors "is, above all, a culture of intellectual effort" (24). He posits that, "while [it] is catholic and inclusive, it is also discriminating and critical" (24). Jim Ford writes that another cornerstone of honors culture includes students with "a passion for knowledge and for wisdom" (28) while Paul Strong stresses the importance of shared identities, camaraderie, and a healthy dose of humor complementing the serious nature of the honors endeavor.

How this culture is actually created in the classroom was the starting point of research undertaken at the behest of our dean by a group of students and faculty in the honors college at the university of Maine. While the administrators of honors programs have a sense of what they think characterizes an honors culture, our questions were how faculty and students understand and implement this culture in a classroom; how honors models and pedagogies play out; and what factors exert more influence than others in achieving the honors culture to which we aspire. In a program such as ours, with faculty coming from a number of disciplinary homes and schools of thought, we wanted to know how the culture of honors is cultivated in practice. As Charlie Slavin is fond of saying, "some people get honors and some don't."

Our study is a preliminary one only, a point to keep in mind throughout the discussion. A much larger research project would be necessary to draw broad conclusions, but this study sheds some light on the nature of honors culture from the perspective of faculty and students and, as such, is a worthwhile contribution to that "rich and varied conversation" described by Long. our research focused on the first course that incoming students take in honors (HON 111) and included observations of only the first five weeks in two of the sixteen sections of the course offered in the fall 2009 semester. using non-participant observation in the classrooms and surveys of students and faculty, we sought to understand how a random group of individuals brought together in a section of HON 111 emerges as a class with a shared identity and purpose.

Classroom culture is informed by several interest groups: in this case, the honors college itself in terms of course structure and curricula; the faculty; and the students. All three stakeholders bring an understanding and set of experiences that shape their notion of what it means to be a participant in education, albeit from different roles and perspectives. The college's objectives are defined in its statement of purpose while those of the faculty are formally articulated orally and/or in their written course outlines. occasionally students participate in this process; more typically, they are the passive recipients of an imposed structure and curriculum. our research was aimed at discerning how these constituencies contributed to the creation of classroom culture within the context of the University of Maine Honors College.

The concept of ethnogenesis--" a way of looking at culture as a historical and complex process of cultural and group formation" (Skoggard)--was the organizing theoretical framework for the research as it describes the process whereby groups deliberately create or are defined by a common identity. Although etymologically rooted in identities forged from ethnic or national relationships, ethnogenesis is a term relevant to a study of honors culture, where stakeholders work to create a shared culture and identity in relation to the surrounding physical, intellectual, and interpersonal environments. …