Outside experts test Swarthmore's elite
That morning last week, Sofia Rivkin-Haas, 22, felt as if her heart were beating "3,000 times per minute."
The nattily dressed Swarthmore College honors student from Berkeley, Calif., was about to begin a barrage of 45-minute oral exams - all given by professors she had never met before.
The topics spanned Russian history to English lit.
"I know I'm going to talk about Stalin when I'm supposed to be talking about Shakespeare," worried a nerve-racked yet excited Rivkin-Haas.
At Swarthmore, the final tests for Rivkin-Haas and the 113 other senior honors students - who make up about 30 percent of the Class of 2009 - were given by a cadre of nearly 150 academic experts from universities, art galleries, hospitals, and other institutions around the world.
Swarthmore's program is the only one of its kind in the United States that makes such extensive use of outside examiners, experts say.
From as far away as the University of Geneva in Switzerland and as close as the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, the eclectic group of examiners come to Swarthmore for the week and meet one-on-one with the students whose written exams they have already evaluated.
They then determine whether the students, who will graduate along with the rest of Swarthmore's senior class Sunday, will receive honors, high honors, highest honors - or in a couple of cases no honors.
Rivkin-Haas' fate rested with four professors, from the University of Pennsylvania, Brown, Kansas State, and the University of Vermont.
"I'm not aware of anything quite like that," said Robert Spurrier, secretary of the National Collegiate Honors Council and director of the honors college at Oklahoma State University. He likes the idea as long as examiners are prepared.
Indeed, the examiners review the syllabi and design questions for the written exams, which are vetted by Swarthmore faculty to be sure the material was covered in class.
Modeled after Oxford
The approach, started by Swarthmore's seventh president, Frank Aydelotte, in 1922, was modeled after the system at Oxford, where Aydelotte was a Rhodes scholar. At the time, Swarthmore was known more for football than academics, and Aydelotte wanted to change that, along with replacing big lectures with small-group, interactive teaching.
The idea? Swarthmore students should be able to withstand evaluation and discuss their fields with any expert in the world, said Craig Williamson, an English-literature professor and coordinator of the program.
The process is high-pressure and as ambitious as many graduate programs.
"It was the most intense thing I ever did until I got to the point of defending my doctorate," said Ethan Knapp, this year's head examiner, who was a high-honors grad in 1988. He's now an English professor at Ohio State.
Mark D. Schwartz, a Bryn Mawr attorney and 1975 honors grad, still has anxiety dreams.
"I'm running around campus," he said. "I can't find the examination room. I get there 40 minutes late. I open the blue book - and it's for a course I never had."
But the program was so rewarding that he encouraged his two sons to go to Swarthmore. Benjamin, now a presidential fellow, graduated with high honors, while Aaron, an economics major and biology minor, got highest honors this year.
Swarthmore professors say the process rattles them, too.
"I'm like a nervous parent when your kid is having a concert," said biology professor Amy Vollmer. If her students don't perform well, she said, "I would feel I have failed."
The feedback from examiners has led professors to alter their courses.
English professor Phil Weinstein recalled a serious sit-down among the faculty in 1977 after several students did not receive honors. Examiners said students were short on knowledge of the progression of history in English literature and critical theory.
The next year, the department began teaching both.
Students, fresh from the exam room this year, say the process was affirming.
"Now I know I can walk up to any scholar of fascism and have a conversation," said Lauren Stokes, 21, a history major from Mountain Lakes, N.J., who got highest honors.
It was especially thrilling for students who were examined by academics whose work they have read as part of their honors seminar classes.
"The person who examined me on my thesis wrote the most important book for my thesis," said Sarah Ifft, 22, a medieval-studies major from Silver Spring, Md., referring to Villanova professor Rebecca Winer.
Ifft received highest honors.
Students, who must have at least a B-plus average to be in honors, prepare for exam day by working in teams, with professors acting more like coaches or senior teammates throughout the two-year program.
Swarthmore professors do not sit in on the oral exams or share any information about the students with the examiners in advance. The examiners' marks are final.
Big names in academia including Princeton president Shirley M. Tilghman, a developmental-biology specialist, have been past examiners.
This year, examiners came from 27 states, Canada, and Switzerland, with representation from all eight Ivy League schools, as well as other prominent colleges including Stanford, MIT, and the University of Chicago.
Local universities such as Drexel, Temple, the University of the Arts, and Rutgers also were represented.
Examiners earn $500 to $1,500, plus expenses. Exam week costs Swarthmore several hundred thousand dollars.
Cost is one reason the program probably has not been duplicated, examiners said.
Another is that giving so much power to outside academics might not go over well among some faculties. Oberlin College, for example, uses outside examiners on a smaller scale, but Oberlin professors sit in on the exams.
"It would be very scary for me to teach a course and then have someone who has never been part of my teaching experience come in and administer an exam on my students," said examiner John Scofield, a physics and astronomy professor at Oberlin.
Swarthmore faculty, however, say that bringing in a wide array of academics is very good public relations. A number of examiners then send their children to Swarthmore.
Rivkin-Haas' day started with an oral exam in Russian history at 9 a.m., followed by comparative literature at 11 and finally Shakespeare at 3 p.m.
She was nervous until a history professor, noticing her discomfort, encouraged: "Just go in there and show off."
By the last exam, she was.
"I think it went well!" Rivkin-Haas said, glowing as she emerged from her exam with English professor Don Hedrick of Kansas State.
Her preparation included talking to her mother, Rosalyn, Class of 1964.
Ever since Rivkin-Haas was a child, she remembers her mother citing the names of her professors and the amazing things she learned from them in the honors program.
Rosalyn Rivkin, 65, a psychotherapist, said the experience prepared her for life.
"For me, any intellectual challenge I've ever had to take on since, I've had a degree of confidence that I don't think I would have had otherwise," she said.
She received high honors.
As did her daughter.
Rivkin-Haas, who plans to teach English in Vietnam next year as a Fulbright fellow, was among 62 students with high honors. An additional 36 got honors. Fourteen won highest honors, while a couple were passed over.
Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or firstname.lastname@example.org