Academics & Research / Spring 2017

Honors Program lets students satisfy their intellectual curiosity

Her Honors Program thesis, says senior Ashlyn Stewart, was a project that allowed her “to find my own interest and run with it.” Photo by Wayne Armstrong

Knee-deep in her cross-disciplinary Honors thesis for her two majors, history and English, senior Ashlyn Stewart finds herself digging deeper, stretching further and thinking harder.

Which is precisely why, four years ago, Stewart applied to DU’s Honors Program. She wanted to immerse herself in academic challenges and to study alongside other high-achieving students seeking what Honors Program Director Keith Miller calls “a community of scholars.”

“I knew it would be smaller class sizes with people who prioritized school,” Stewart says, adding that the resulting experience “makes the work both in and out of class more vibrant and meaningful.”

Each year, DU’s Honors Program, in existence for more than 50 years, admits roughly 100 students of varying majors. Throughout their years at DU, they take special Honors classes and seminars to satisfy requirements from the common curriculum and their majors. As seniors, they’re required to produce a thesis or capstone project.

Outside the classroom, Honors students can also participate in a mix of high- and low-brow social activities: excursions to concerts, plays and dance performances; activities with the Voltaire Society (which sponsors a broomball team called The Candide Apples); and a book club that, this year, has taken on the 900-page “Shantaram.” As first- and second-year students, they can also live in an Honors Program living and learning community.

Unlike honors efforts at other colleges and universities, DU’s program is integrated into the university and is not focused on, say, an intense encounter with the “great books.” In other words, honors courses are offered in all the disciplines, and the program serves students from every major.

“The DU Honors Program has its own unique flavor, in that we are a program and not a college,” says Shawn Alfrey, the program’s associate director. “Ideally, the Honors Program is a way for students who have a lot of intellectual curiosity to pursue their academics with that in mind.”

Miller, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, savors the honors classes he teaches and notes that other professors regard them as an opportunity to stretch. “You walk into the room, and they challenge you. That’s an exciting environment to teach in,” he says.

Alfrey agrees. “[Honors classes] have to be proposed by faculty. And the faculty have to say what it is about this class that constitutes an honors experience. And that’s never just adding work. It’s never about reading more books or writing more papers,” she says. Rather, it’s about conducting seminar-style discussions, examining primary sources and making connections across disciplines, eras and experiences.

In a class she teaches, American Road Trip, Alfrey asks students to read Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Jean Baudrillard and Cormac McCarthy as they explore how “that cherished part of Americana known as ‘the road trip’” represents both a promise and a burden. In still another class, The Problem of Happiness in Modern America, taught by Jennifer Campbell of DU’s Writing Program, students explore Americans’ obsession with happiness and how contemporary culture serves or undermines the pursuit of it. The course culminates with a Passion Project that allows students to apply the theories covered in class to an analysis of something that brings them joy.

Classes like these are not so much about mastering a body of knowledge as about learning how to think and how to put knowledge and skills to use. Looking back at her four years in the program, Stewart puts it this way: An honors experience is all about cultivating “the ability to act on a lingering question.”

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