Meet Temple University Honors
By Vallorie Peridier, Professor of Engineering, Honors Program Oversight Committee
Introduction. Although several Colleges have an integrated Honors curriculum and an established faculty who teach in Honors, many Temple faculty in fact have relatively little interaction with the Honors program. A faculty member who teaches a regular (non-Honors) course cannot, for example, determine from the enrollment roster which of one’s students are in Honors.
I teach in a College which only recently developed an integrated four-year curriculum of Honors courses for our undergraduate majors. Indeed, for my first twenty years or so at Temple, I was only vaguely aware of Honors, sensing that it was somehow “selective” and that there were special core/Gen-Ed courses designated solely for Honors students. But now, having served both as my College’s liaison to the University Honor’s program, and even more recently on the Faculty Senate Honors Program Oversight Committee, I feel that my perceptions have become somewhat more informed. I have now come to the view that our Honors program serves the University in a rather substantial fashion with comparatively low overhead.
So the twin goals of the following narrative are, first, to provide faculty with a brief synopsis of the University Honors program, including its effectiveness and vulnerabilities. Second, I hope to encourage interested faculty to abet their own research and pedagogical vision by capitalizing on the resources associated with University Honors — especially the students.
University Honors: the recruitment function. Colleges and universities compete aggressively for that comparatively small pool of top-performing high-school students, and with good reason. High-performing students challenge the faculty and elevate the overall quality of the academic enterprise. The success of high-performing students in their subsequent careers confers prestige, reputation, and sometimes donations, to their alma mater. It is in every institution’s interest, including Temple, to attract the highest-quality students possible.
Temple University now fields two specific inducements to the top-performing high-school student. The first, here, is the new Freshman Academic scholarship program, which provides a range of merit-based tuition scholarships. The second is Temple’s University Honors program. The principal inducement of the Freshmen Scholarship program is tuition. In contrast, the principal inducements of the University Honors program are small, challenging classes and the personalized guidance that one normally associates with highly-selective private institutions.
University Honors: the student experience. It turns out that about one in seventeen undergraduates at Temple is a University Honors student. What privileges does this selective subset of students enjoy? The documented benefits include:
1. Honors students may take Honors-only courses, which average 20 students/class and are taught largely by full-time faculty.
2. Honors students may reside in the Honors-only “Honors Living and Learning Community” (HLLC) if they wish. (The HLLC is a particularly seductive selling point for the parents of prospective Honors freshmen.)
3. Honors students (along with scholar athletes) can register for courses in advance of everyone else.
4. The Honors administration area in Tuttleman incorporates the Honors-program staff, an Honors Lounge, an Honors Seminar Room, and walk-in advising privileges.
5. Honors students get graduate-student library privileges.
6. All Honors students get at least one $4000 summer academic-enrichment stipend (new this year).
There are also the subjective benefits. Many Honors students find the classroom experience of Honors courses, including the excellent faculty, to be the most important feature of University Honors. Another important subjective benefit is the quality of the Honors Program staff, which does an outstanding job of advising Honors students in academics, career, and personal issues. The staff also goes to great length to cultivate a community spirit among the Honors cohort.
University Honors: the administration. There are about 1600 Honors undergraduates, and their ranks span most of the Colleges and academic disciplines at Temple. The program is centrally administered by Dr. Ruth Ost, the Senior Director of University Honors, and her staff. They provide academic advising and personal mentoring for the Honors students, and coordinate the diverse curriculum of Honors classes across the Colleges. The Honors staff also facilitates the Honors students’ transition to graduate school, careers, and top-level academic awards like Marshall and Truman Fellowships. In addition, the Honors staff fosters Honors-student peer-mentorship arrangements and peer-recruiting programs, resulting is a quite a distinctive esprit-de-corps within the Honors student body.
Ruth Ost (the Honors students call her “Ruth”; she calls them “the Honorables”) and her staff are quite resourceful for creating the best possible experience in “the Honorables”, and a few examples follow. Ruth and her staff identify, and admit, additional Honors students from both the upper-class ranks and from freshmen admits who failed to satisfy the automated cutoff criteria. Ruth carries out her own internal system of course evaluations so that the Honors Program staff can more effectively advise students on course selection. Ruth conducts mock practice interviews for students who compete for prestigious fellowship awards and scholarships, and Temple’s remarkable track record in this regard owes a lot to the Honors staff. Ruth and her staff write numerous career, personal, and academic references for the Honorables. The Honors program staff train Honors students to mentor each other and to serve as Honors recruiting personnel. The Honors staff also runs Honors immersion/internship programs and cultivate Honors self-governance organizations.
It is rather impressive that this multi-purpose and multi-faceted coordination of all these high-expectation students, in all these diverse programs, is accomplished with just six full-time staff. Indeed, with the important exception of the actual Honors classes, the “perks” accorded Honors students incur relatively little actual, additional expense to the University. Temple’s success at fielding the University Honors curriculum will now be considered.
University Honors: the curriculum. Although Honors students enjoy excellent advising and special perks, the core inducement of University Honors is small accelerated classes taught by great faculty. Honors classes come in two flavors: either (i) an “honors” versions of general course, or (ii) a course unique to the Honors curriculum; in both cases a “9” in the second digit of the course number means it is part of the Honors curriculum. Note that University Honors classes are not merely smaller, selectively-populated versions of regular courses; instead, these courses are generally distinguished by an accelerated delivery and a more sophisticated course content. Indeed, some Honors courses are conducted as seminars, enabling participants to collectively explore topics of particular interest to the class.
To remain in the Honors program, Honors students must take three Honors classes by the end of their freshman year, five by the end of their sophomore year, eight by the end of their junior year, and ten by graduation; four of these courses must be at the 2xxx level or higher. In an ideal world, the Temple University Honors program would field a complete curriculum of courses, from Gen-Ed through upper-level courses in the discipline. In the real world, it turns out that there is a broad array of Honors-course options both in lower-level and cross-disciplinary courses (such as the Gen-Ed classes). There is also a decent selection of upper-level Honors courses in a few large academic programs. However, the provision of upper-level University Honors courses in the major is by-in-large less than satisfactory.
University Honors: the challenge of providing the upper-level curriculum. Most Honors students prefer to take their required upper-level Honors courses in their major. Indeed, some academic programs have so few free electives that students must take their upper-level Honors classes in the major, as is situation in my College, the College of Engineering. Unfortunately, in many disciplines there are few upper-level Honors-course options, and the reason will now be described.
Consider my College as an example of the challenge entailed in offering upper-level Hon- ors courses. The College of Engineering has about 1400 undergraduates and four academic departments, with one in seventeen undergraduates an Honors students. For sake of discussion, assume that Honors and regular undergraduates are uniformly distributed, both across the four departments and amongst the four undergraduate class levels. This means that a typical spring semester of a required junior class (say) will need to serve about ninety students, with about five of them in Honors. Suppose that I, as the instructor of these ninety students in this required course, were to consider opening another separate Honors section for just for these five Honors students; would I do it? Note that the Dean of the College of Engineering is categorically supportive of running Honors sections, regardless of enrollment numbers.
Despite the support of my Dean and my enthusiasm for the Honors program, I would not choose to develop and offer an Honors section in the situation described above. This is because most of my College’s full-time faculty already carry a full load, so if I were to develop and teach that new Honors section, either I or one of my colleagues would need to teach an overload. Another option would be to hire an adjunct to teach a section of the regular course, but using adjuncts for upper-level courses in the major is not always desirable. So, it seems that any combination of the three possible work-arounds: (i) teaching non- Honors majors in a overload capacity, (ii) teaching non-Honors students in larger sections, or (iii) assigning adjuncts to teach the non-Honors sections, merely pushes the burden of running a Honors section onto the remaining upper-level undergraduate majors. It is for this reason that I have yet to teach in Honors.
Thus it is seen that the limiting operational resource for the University Honors program is neither the scholarship awards, nor the administrative overhead, nor the provision of lower-level courses, nor the various benefits accorded to the Honors students. Instead, the limiting resource in my own College is a restricted number of faculty that, in turn, constrains development of upper-level Honors curriculum in the major. This situation likely mirrored elsewhere the University, particularly in the smaller academic programs. Note also that these difficulties for offering upper-level Honors courses in the major will likely be exacerbated by both (i) the new University budget model, and (ii) our University’s success in recruiting larger numbers of Honors students.
Of course a work-around for this dearth of upper-level Honors classes has been devised, and it is called the “Honors Contract”. In the Honor-contract scheme the student either: (a) does either extra (contractual) work in an existing regular upper-level course, or (b) substitutes a graduate course, to satisfy the requirement of at least four 2000+ level Honors classes.
University Honors: your involvement. In closing, perhaps the reader is now some- what more informed about both the successes and challenges of the University Honors program. If you would like to contribute to this Temple University Honors enterprise, there are three specific possibilities:
1. If your College and/or academic program can support it, please consider developing an upper-level Honors course. (Here, be aware that Ruth Ost is a must-utilize resource person for developing new Honors courses. Also, it is not uncommon for faculty to beta-test a new course by first offering it in Honors.)
2. If you would like engage an undergraduate in a research project (regardless of duration or scope), you might consider recruiting a Honors student, either within your discipline or otherwise. It might evolve into a working relationship that spans several years, benefiting all concerned.
3. If you personally know a talented high-school student, you might let them know about the University Honors program (as well as our competitive new Freshman Scholarship program.) •