Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My Semester with the Honors Students

After a few years in a row of teaching one of the freshmen seminars for honors students, I think that I'm finally getting it.

The guidelines for the seminar were that I had to have the students read a book, discuss it, and write a paper.

For the reading and discussing part of things, I put teams of students in charge of the discussion for about 1/3 of the class meetings. This went OK, but I think I will need to give them much more specific guidelines about how important it is to meet with me ahead of time and discuss what they think are the important issues in the reading and what their discussion questions are.

I admit, I did treat them more like "freshmen" than "honors freshmen" with the paper-writing task. Sure, I have made the assignment somewhat open-ended and have told them that they can pretend that they're writing an article for The New Yorker or writing a script for a piece on NPR or write a well-explained piece of software, but I've been really fussy about the process.

The paper is due on December 10. I made them turn in topics in early October. We then met with a reference librarian in mid-October to learn about the resources the library has and how to use the awkward database interfaces to find what you're looking for. I think that I have taken enough classes to "library class day" that in the future I will reserve a computer-classroom in the library and do "library day" myself. In early November, they had an annotated bibliography due. This in my new favorite writing assignment for students writing papers. Last week and this week they're giving seven-minute presentations on what they're working on (I have banned PPT), and we're all making helpful comments. The presentation had to be accompanied by a one-page hand-out. I'm not requiring a draft, but I've invited them to turn in drafts for comments.

In addition to all this, I've started out each class period with roughly five minutes on how the university works. I've told them how to find the well-formatted and informative timetable of classes (and not the annoying version built into the registration web page). I've shown them the web client of the graduation-requirement checker. I've explained the various castes of people who teach courses here. I told them about EndNote and how to download it and other software that the university has site licenses for. I explained the petition process and told them that it's always worth asking to see if you can fulfill a requirement with a higher level course than is on the official list. I told them about REUs and other research opportunities.

For the honors students the primary advantage that this university has over a small liberal arts college is the massive research infrastructure (library resources, wider variety of faculty research on campus, more connections to government and industry). And the trade-off is that many of the classes here are ginormous, impersonal, and taught by TAs. The main advantage that we have over the large, private research universities (like Duke) is that we're cheap. If we're going to provide a good education to honors students and hope to retain them, we need to find a way to connect them to the best this university has to offer.