Laura Thomas

Instructor, Senior Teaching Appointment

Due to thinking stimulated by the Honors Colloqium, I personally have revised my conception of art, religion, and the goals of life to which one should strive….In short, I had my eyes opened to many things….This privilege, which should be one of, if not the most important opportunity [sic] offered college students is tacked on the curriculum as an afterthought, and only then through the hard work of a few persons. Is this school concerned with turning out education men or technicians? Technicians seem to be the answer, and to me this is the purpose of a trade school and not a university. –Paul Jennings, civil engineering major on his experience in the first Honors colloquium

Paul Jennings was among the 15 students carefully selected from each division of CSU to participate in a colloquium focused on in-depth study of four non-fiction works addressing ideas found in the fiction of Leo Tolstoy. Taught by English professor Willard Eddy and historian Bruce Frye, this course was the first in what was became the University Honors Program. Eddy, Frye, and the Honors Committee spent years bringing an idea–first proposed at a local American Association of University Professors meeting in 1954—to fruition. Just as many of those first students went on to academic and professional success, the University Honors program has achieved much since that Winter term of 1957. 

Today, the UHP enrolls 469 students, having accepted 48% of its pool of applicants of majors from diverse disciplines. While seven of the original 15 students were women, 71% of current Honors enrollees are. Of course, the biggest shift is from offering one course to today’s comprehensive program that includes an entire curriculum, scholarships, theses, and study abroad programs.  

What has remained, however, is the program’s mission to achieve Eddy’s goal for its participants: “an alert and growing personality, with a balanced system of values, a deep-seated purpose in life, a sense of responsibility for the future, and a dedication to good citizenship.” Also intact is the deep engagement of English faculty in the Honors program.  

Although the scope of this column does not allow for a thorough gathering of statistics about English faculty involvement in the Honors program, a collection of anecdotes from current and former faculty illustrates the quality of our engagement over time. 

Professor Martin Bucco, a 43-year veteran of the department who began his appointment in 1963, embraced the chance to teach humanities in a small group setting that Honors courses afforded. “I taught Homer, I taught Swift, I taught Moliere and I taught Flaubert. I taught Tergenev. I taught Faulkner. I taught Joyce. I tried to give [students] a wide spread of literature from different centuries, different countries. It was a wonderful experience. 

Retired professor Charles Smith similarly recalled the joys of the curriculum he taught in Honors courses: 

I taught an Honors course in the turbulent 70s called “Love and Sex in the West.”  It was a serious examination of changing conceptions of love and sex and included readings from Plato’s Symposium, Aquinas and Chaucer in the Middle Ages, Ficino and the Neoplatonists of the Renaissance, and so on to the lighter Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen at the end.   For a number of years in the 80s, Don Crosby in Philosophy, Jim Jordan in History, and I team-taught a two-semester course for Honors students called the Western Heritage that covered history, philosophy, and literature from roots in the ancient near east and Greece to 1660.  After three or so years I had learned so much from Don and Jim that I did the entire course when they were both on sabbatical or on leave…. In the 90s, Don Crosby in Philosophy, Elaine Roberts in Ag Sciences, and I with Sandy Kern in Physics and a number of other guest lecturers including David Mogen did an Honors Capstone until I retired called Nature and Human Nature in which we introduced students to readings in Evolution, Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and Ecology and made an effort in lectures and related readings to encourage students to assess the impact of each of these four developments in the sciences on our changing conceptions of nature and human nature.  During the years we taught this course, probably the most fascinating I was ever associated with, a number of faculty members and people from the community joined our students to sit in on this course.   

 Among current faculty participating in the Honors program are Barbara SebekRoze HenstchellLeslee Becker, Tom Conway, and Ashley Davies—and many others. Barbara is the current English Honors adviser, has had many English majors “Honors option” the Shakespeare course, and has advised Honors Theses. Roze has taught Honors seminars including Shakespeare and Film (HONR 192) and Shakespeare and Adaptation (HONR 193)Leslee and Tom have advised Honors theses, and Ashley has been teaching Honors 192 and 292B, both focusing on graphic novels, since 2018.  

 Advising an Honors thesis seems to provide memorable interactions with talented students, as Barbara, Tom, and Leslee each recall notable details about their students’ work. The range of subject matter—and student majors—is striking. Tom’s students translated a French poem, wrote high school literature curriculum, and wrote a Young Adult fantasy novel. Leslee recounts a study of Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Revelation, and a novella in which a student “incorporated her work in Environmental Studies into stories that dealt with characters heading out to the ravaged landscape of the present and the future.”Barbara remarked in detail about theses in which one student “compared two powerful women in Shakespeare’s plays: captured Goth queen turned Roman empress Tamara in Titus Andronicus and Volumnia, the mother of the ancient Roman hero Coriolanus” and another “offered a feminist reading of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, drawing on early modern food studies and criticism of the novel to think about how the novel stages food and questions of identity, history, and power. 

That these faculty went on at some length about their experience working with and teaching Honors students is testament to the richness of collaboration that the program provides. It is only my concern that I have gone on too long that prevents my sharing more.  

Before ending, however, we must acknowledge the English department’s two study abroad programs in Livingstone, Zambia, and Oxford, England, as exemplars of the education Willard Eddy envisioned for Honors participants, both students and faculty.  

Begun by recently retired literature professor Ellen Brinks and currently led by Ashley Davies, the Zambia program “takes students to Livingstone, Zambia to assist Zambians in educational settings (schools, after school programs, adult literacy programs, physical education programs), community health areas (clinics, home-based care, health education programs), gender equality programs, and sustainable building. Coursework focuses on ethics, motivations, and sustainability of development work.” Open to all undergraduates, this summer program includes an Honors option.  

The Oxford summer program was started by Roze Hentschell as an Honors program, but now is open to qualified English majors and minors as well. Professors Aparna Gollapudi and Barbara Sebek have also served as faculty in Oxford, bringing Shakespeare to life through reading texts and attending performances of his work on English stages.  

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