Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Service Learning and Skunkworks in a Senior Honors Colloquium

Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Service Learning and Skunkworks in a Senior Honors Colloquium

Article excerpt


In this essay I will describe a course and a service learning project related to a course that I had the good fortune to teach when I was new at a university and in an honors college. My point in describing how this course developed, including its structure and year-long project, is to demonstrate that pedagogical environments relatively free from constraints give rise to innovations and worthwhile educational experiences.

In the summer of 2008, I took up a new post as Assistant Director of the Louisiana Scholars' College at Northwestern State University. The Louisiana Scholars' College is a "fully-developed" college with fourteen of its own faculty and roughly 160 students. The students take a series of courses that are specific to the college, and Scholars' College faculty members teach a large number of discipline-specific courses as well as a wide variety of interdisciplinary courses. The college offers a series of "Great Books" courses and includes a strong science education curriculum. The student who graduates from Scholars' will have completed over sixty hours of honors credit. The program from which I had come had, unlike this one, a traditional "program" structure with courses taught by members of other departments teaching honors sections. At my new post, few philosophy courses were offered since the college had no philosophy major (a lamentable fact to be sure), so I had no courses to teach within my specialty. When my director asked me to help teach the senior colloquium, I agreed.


The senior colloquium is a two-hour-per-semester course offered sequentially in the fall and spring semesters. All seniors must participate, and the colloquium presents a venue where they can come together and choose a topic that will cap off their undergraduate career. One of the ideas behind the course is that it gives students a chance to reconnect with their peer group in an important way. The class has a mandatory service component and typically has a number of guest lecturers. The students in the course are responsible for choosing both the topic and texts. Examples of topics that have been chosen are the 90s, drugs, and crime. The topic chosen for the 2008-09 academic year happened to be food. My experience with food, other than as a daily consumer thereof, was as a saucier and a baker while in college and graduate school, so I had some knowledge of food and food preparation, but I was not anything close to an expert in an academic sense. Clearly I had some work to do.

The senior colloquium, I was told, is a course that contends with a number of distractions. The seniors are all working on their theses in addition to their other coursework. The class is not meant to be overly demanding of time and resources, and this is why it is a two-hour course. Further, the class is supposed to provide a variety of educational experiences ranging from guest lecturers to hands-on experiences. To that end, our colloquium had a sommelier, an expert on Creole cooking, a physician, an ecologist and a chef as guest speakers. The class spent two days in a kitchen learning to make a traditional stock and then using it as a component in a dish the students would later prepare. In addition, the class is supposed to be student-driven and include service learning, with which I had little experience.

While I was a bit unnerved at having my first teaching experience in this new college with seniors who already had a strong identity and had chosen the topic and texts for the course, I kept reminding myself that honors instructors need not be experts but can instead be guides in an educational journey. I was a facilitator rather than lecturer, a member of the class not a distinct leader. And though I repeated these reassurances to myself as I began reading the moment I arrived on campus in early July, I was not relieved of my apprehension until after the service learning project was finished in early March of 2009. …

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