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“The Perfect Capstone”: Honors Program Back to Fully In-Person Exams

Scott outdoor amphitheater in spring

For Michael Pollack ’08, the prospect of engaging deeply with classmates and professors in Honors seminars topped the long list of selling points for Swarthmore. Then, the opportunity to meet with outside experts for his oral exams proved “the perfect capstone.”

“I learned so much from them,” says Pollack, now a professor and associate dean for faculty development at the Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. “Talking with experts about my ideas, and realizing I was actually able to do it, was incredible.”

Pollack returns to that process this week — this time from the other side of the table. He joins 123 external examiners to conduct a total of 228 oral exams with students across three dozen subjects.

It’s a return to form for the Honors Program, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary. The COVID-19 pandemic caused oral exams to be virtual the past few years, and, while the College adapted well to that format, nothing beats the real thing. 

“The Honors process is richer and more rewarding with face-to-face conversations,” says Bob Weinberg, Isaac H. Clothier Professor of History and International Relations and director of the Honors Program. “Discussions flow more smoothly when participants are in the same room."

“We have missed hosting external examiners,” he adds, “and are thrilled that Honors is back on track.”

Most of this year’s examiners are college professors from schools across the U.S., as well as three from Canada and one each from the U.K. and Argentina. The others hail from an array of institutions, ranging from the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to the Bearded Ladies Cabaret.

At least 11 alumni returned as examiners this year, including Ben Kapilow ’13, resident music director for The Media Theatre located about 10 minutes from campus. It’s a “full-circle” moment for Kapilow, who honed his interest in writing and directing children’s musicals while at Swarthmore and conducted an exam with a student, Jacob Viscusi ’23, who completed one.

Ben Kapilow sits in dark theater

At least 11 alumni returned as examiners this year, including Ben Kapilow ’13 (above), resident music director for The Media Theatre located about 10 minutes from campus.

“Furthermore, I’ve played his score many times,” says Kapilow, “and I was eager to finally meet the person whose songs are continually stuck in my head!”

The benefits of oral exams extend beyond the students and examiners. College faculty relish the chance to meet and hear about exciting work being done by colleagues from other schools and in their fields, says Weinberg, which helps to forge the types of connections that make the Honors Program special.

Kapilow’s familiarity with the Music Department, which has several times tapped him to consult with students producing musicals on campus, made him an “ideal choice” for the compositional work Viscusi is doing, says Jon Kochavi, associate professor of music.

“Ben understands the broad scope of educational experience that goes into a project like this,” says Kochavi. “We’re tremendously lucky to have him in our ‘neighborhood,’ and our students have been able to build professional connections through their interactions with him.”

These and other opportunities with the Honors Program had a significant impact on shaping Pollack’s legal career, he says. So when he got his first call to come back as an examiner, in 2019, he jumped at the opportunity.

“It was so much fun to talk with these impressive students, who were far more talented and thoughtful than I was at their age,” he says. “The quality of the education and the training they receive is up there with the top graduate programs across the country."

“I’m deeply grateful to have been part of that tradition as a student,” he says, “and so proud to get to be part of it from the examiner's side — now for the second time!”

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