Honors Examiners Arrive on Campus, Continue Unique Tradition

Susan Clarey

Honors Examiners Arrive on
Campus, Continue Unique Tradition

by Susan Clarey
5/21/2010

honors program
Sofia Rivkin-Haas '09 after completing her Honors English exam.

Nearly 150 academic experts from as far away from San Diego, Calif., and as nearby as Haverford, Pa., visited the Swarthmore campus last week, where they met  face-to-face with each of 104 senior honors students to discuss and evaluate their work. Honors exams are the culmination of two years of intense preparation in an Honors Program unique among U.S. colleges.

Created in 1922 under the leadership of Frank Aydelotte, seventh president of the College, the Honors Program was modeled on the tutorial system at Oxford, where Aydelotte had been a Rhodes Scholar.

In fact, the program's antecedents date back as far as the Middle Ages, says Craig Williamson, professor of English literatureand coordinator of the Honors Program. Williamson points out that Chaucer's best student on the pilgrim road to Canterbury, a 14th-century clerk, studied under the same Oxford tutorial system that later inspired President Aydelotte. Chaucer says of this clerk that he would "gladly learn and gladly teach."

Nearly one-third of Swarthmore's seniors are enrolled in the Honors Program, which they began in their junior years.

Many features of the program remain what they were in 1922: faculty working with small groups of students in seminar and laboratory settings; an emphasis on independent learning; students entering into dialogues with peers, teachers, and examiners; a demanding program of study in major and minor fields; and an examination at the end of two years of study by outside scholars. From ancient history to physics to theater, honors majors and minors are available in every field of study.

The exclusive use of outside examiners is a distinctive feature of Swarthmore's program. "We believe that the surest test of learning is to be able to enter into a dialogue not only with fellow students and teachers but also with outside experts who work in the field," Williamson explains. "Often the examiners are scholars whose work the student has read as part of the honors preparation.

"This is a rare opportunity for the students to test their ideas against those of scholars publishing in the field," he continues. "It is a chance to bring what I call 'the conflict and collaboration of ideas' from the seminar or lab into the larger arena of those who are most actively engaged in research, publication, and teaching in the field and who care passionately about it."

This year, honors examiners came from 23 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and Montreal, Canada. Their ranks include faculty from Ivy League and other prominent schools, including Stanford, Williams, and MIT, and leading public universities including Michigan, Wisconsin, and Virginia. Some came from outside the realm of higher education. One examiner in sociology/anthropology represented the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona. An examiner in theater came from The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia.

Honors examiners arrive on campus having already evaluated students' written exams. After their meetings with students, the examiners determine who will receive honors, high honors, or highest honors. (In a handful of cases, honors are not conferred.)

"Oral exams were a wonderful challenge," recalls Daniel Putnam '08, an honors philosophy major with a minor in political science. "I remember my philosophy of language exam in particular. It felt like a tennis match, where the examiner would ask me a question and I would reply, and then he would come back with another question."

Not surprisingly, some of the examiners are Swarthmore alumni who were honors graduates themselves.

One is Wendy Cadge '97, associate professor of sociology at Brandeis University, who recently shared her reflections as an honors examiner:

"As I walked down to Sharples Dining Hall to join the other honors examiners for lunch, past the students on Parrish Beach who had just completed their exams, I thought again about the intellectual respect and engagement that is at the heart of the Honors Program. This kind of serious engagement with colleagues, faculty, and examiners has modifiedand continues to model for me the best of academic life. I was and remain grateful for the opportunity to participate, as a student and examiner."

Hear from more Honors examiners who went through the program when they were students.