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Liberal Arts

A Revamped Honors Program

By Gregg Sangillo

American University’s new Honors Program, grounded in the liberal arts, takes an integrated approach.

An honors student receives his medal during a ceremony before commencement.

People often categorize themselves as “left brain” or “right brain,” but new students accepted into American University’s Honors Program will have no such luxury. That is the stimulating challenge of the newly revamped Honors Program. Most of the required courses will consist of three different professors, examining three different disciplines—all with the purpose of mastering one subject.

In 2014-2015, first-year Honors students will inaugurate an overhauled program that demands varied skill sets and creative thinking.

The initial Honors Program was established in 1959, and this is the first time it’s been revised since 1989. “In this new program, the chief difference is that it’s got a set curriculum,” says Michael Manson, the interim Honors Program director. “We’re training integrative, interdisciplinary problem solvers.”

The Coursework

The new Honors Program will have much more structure than the previous system and will be grounded in the liberal arts. The current program requires 30 Honors course credits, but students can choose from a variety of subjects. In the new program, all Honors students will take the same four core courses.

The first course will be on climate change, taught by three different professors. Stephen MacAvoy from the Department of Environmental Science will teach students about climate modeling and the science of global warming. Todd Eisenstadt of the Department of Government and Sikina Jinnah from the School of International Service will both deal with climate policy and international climate negotiations.

“All three of those professors are bringing different kinds of questions, different kinds of approaches, to the one problem,” says Manson.

The second course examines forensic science and criminal justice. James Girard will teach chemistry, while Elizabeth Malloy handles statistics and a professor from the School of Public Affairs leads an inquiry into criminal justice and crime data. To augment this learning experience, the professors plan for students to visit crime labs at the FBI and other federal agencies.

Students will also take a class about the emotions, which includes Bryan Fantie from the Department of Psychology considering this from the perspective of a neuroscientist. Literature professor Richard Sha and historian April Shelford will then approach the emotions from different perspectives within the humanities. This course might be enhanced by a visit to the National Institutes of Health.

The fourth core course will be a composite of the other classes, building on the earlier coursework and emphasizing creativity and innovation. The nine faculty members and students will identify three professors to teach areas where the previous three courses intersected.

“So one can look at maybe the interconnectedness between emotions and the brain, and what happens in criminal cases. Or they could look at how juries are influenced by DNA. There will be room for synthesis,” explains Lyn Stallings, vice provost for undergraduate studies.

The Honors students will subsequently take a challenge course, where they’ll put what they’ve learned into action through hands-on projects pursued by interdisciplinary teams. Students will also complete a capstone project, which could range from a thesis paper to founding a nonprofit.

An Exclusive, Integrated Experience

The design of the program enables students to amass extensive knowledge of each area of study.

And the Honors Program hopes to attract ambitious students, with distinctive backgrounds. Obviously, a solid grade point average and strong test scores are critical. But, in keeping with the overall AU admissions process, the Honors Program will examine students more holistically, factoring in extracurricular activities and volunteer work.

“The admissions team has been very broadminded in the way they’ve been looking at these students. And when they pass the files in front of me, we’ve been saying the same thing. ‘What’s the kind of feeling we get from this student?’” Manson says.

The new Honors Program is also more exclusive. The current program accepts about 200 freshmen, while the new inaugural class will have only 45 select students. In the new system students apply directly to the Honors Program, whereas in the current system it’s offered to students after applying to AU. Honors Program students will be awarded $20,000 in scholarship money each year.

Coming Together

The Honors Program rollout caps a lengthy process that began in the fall of 2011. “This was probably one of the best experiences I ever had in colleagues coming together and disagreeing vehemently, but listening and processing and appreciating each other’s points of view,” says Stallings.

A committee was convened with faculty members and two current Honors students. Many university officials were consulted, including new and former deans of different AU schools. The Faculty Senate approved the new program in the spring of 2013.

“What we think is enticing about this program is that students are going to emerge from it with a real sense of what being an Honors student means,” says Manson.