Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Re-Envisioning the Honors Senior Project: Experience as Research

Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Re-Envisioning the Honors Senior Project: Experience as Research

Article excerpt

HONORS EXPERIENTIAL CAPSTONE PROJECT (KEVIN GUSTAFSON)

One of the NCHC Basic Characteristics of a Fully Developed Honors Program is that it creates opportunities for undergraduate research, opportunities that frequently culminate in a senior thesis or capstone project (Spurrier 200-201). The senior research project typically distinguishes honors students from their non-honors counterparts in a significant way. The emphasis on undergraduate research may also distinguish an honors program or college ("or college" will be understood throughout this essay) within the university, where honors often becomes a de facto center for undergraduate research. Increasing opportunities for undergraduate research thus not only benefits honors students--by giving them a greater range of educational experiences and making them stronger candidates for jobs, fellowships, and graduate or professional school--but also helps honors programs institutionally as they seek to create alliances and obtain resources in both the university and the larger community.

Promoting undergraduate research within a comprehensive university also presents a number of challenges, perhaps the most basic being how to define research. Many honors programs acknowledge this difficulty by making a distinction between a thesis and a creative activity, but research varies much more widely, as is readily apparent to any honors administrator faced with reading projects well outside her field of academic specialization. The difficulty of defining research within honors in many ways reflects challenges within universities and even individual disciplines. Some of these differences are longstanding: between qualitative and quantitative methodologies in the social sciences, for example, or between more or less overtly politically informed scholarship in the humanities. Other differences are more recent, such as the move to promote entrepreneurial research or to make universities more socially accountable by addressing "wicked problems" such as poverty, illiteracy, and climate change (Thorp and Goldstein). A second new challenge involves what might be called (to adapt a term from Alfred North Whitehead) the differing rhythms of education across a comprehensive university. The traditional thesis is no doubt better suited to some disciplines than to others. It may work well in the liberal arts, where the primary goal of honors education may be to prepare students for similar work in graduate school, but less well in majors in which advanced undergraduates are expected to do a semester- or year-long residency or internship, either for certification or as preparation for the job market. Here the honors capstone is potentially in conflict with a senior requirement that the student be off-campus gaining professional experience while honors is requiring a sustained individual research project with a faculty mentor.

Several writers have discussed the impact of such disciplinary differences in honors enrollment (Jones and Watson; Giazzoni; Noble and Dowling). The present essay describes one attempt to address this problem at a programmatic level by tailoring the honors research project to the needs of curricula that promote or require a significant extramural capstone. This solution was developed within a specific context. The University of Texas at Arlington Honors College is a well-established, distinct unit within a large comprehensive public university that identifies itself as research-intensive and is seeking to be more so. The college follows a model of honors education in which students accrue most of their honors hours through contracted courses in their major rather than in a core sequence of interdisciplinary classes, and the college requires a substantial senior project, which the student is expected to pursue primarily under a faculty mentor in her home department but also in consultation with members of the honors staff.

Although rooted in a programmatic desire to increase participation from historically underrepresented majors, our experiment with more experiential approaches to honors senior research--the "experiential capstone"--quickly took on more philosophical dimensions and can no doubt be adapted to a variety of institutions. …

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