Date of this Version
Honors in Practice, Volume 8.
Almost every week throughout the year, the University Honors Program of Miami University holds recruitment programs for prospective honors students. High school juniors and seniors, often with assorted parents and family members in tow, file into an auditorium to learn about the key features, requirements, and benefits of our honors program. Smiles, nods, and eager questions greet comments relating to honors housing, honors seminars, advance course registration, and scholarships. Inevitably, when the mention of a required honors thesis arises, concerned looks, stony silence, and side glances emerge.
The hallmark of most honors programs across the nation is the undergraduate honors thesis, which represents a fitting culmination of a student’s college experience yet inspires fear and trepidation even among the most academically gifted and motivated students. Perhaps one reason for this reaction is the daunting goal of most honors theses: to demonstrate command of relevant scholarly literature and make a personal contribution to that scholarship. Although a thesis can take many forms—from scientific experiments to artistic performances—it usually involves a substantive written document that captures relevant background, methods, and techniques as well as details of the process used in completing the project.
Because of the daunting nature of the honors thesis, many honors programs offer or encourage various forms of support. Students, for example, are typically required to select a faculty advisor or committee of faculty members who offer guidance and feedback on work-in-progress. Sometimes, students have the opportunity to enroll in independent studies or tutorial courses with their faculty advisor while other programs provide a one-credit support course to help students develop a thesis proposal and identify a faculty advisor.
Like many honors programs and colleges, the University Honors Program of Miami University offers an optional pre-thesis support course that is one credit hour and ungraded. The course generally comprises twenty students from all different majors who are usually in their third year. A few seniors or sophomores also enroll. For six years, Carolyn Haynes, the director of the program, taught the course using the same structure: students would complete a questionnaire on possible interests; create an annotated bibliography of possible sources with the help of specialist librarians; develop and revise a draft proposal; identify and interview potential faculty advisors; and create a timeline for project completion. The pedagogy drew primarily from the work of composition scholars such as Ballenger and Booth, Colomb & Williams, who emphasize a process-oriented approach to writing research papers that helps students through various stages, including brainstorming, identifying a question or topic, engaging sources, planning, drafting, revising, editing, and proofreading.
This pre-thesis honors course has transitioned away from a systematic focus on each step in the writing process to an infusion of play and creativity into the early stages of the research process as well as higher expectations of student engagement and collaboration. We argue that the incorporation of play and peer-to-peer interaction into the pedagogy is particularly necessary for honors students who, perhaps due to their high need for achievement and drive for perfectionism (Hickson & Driskill; Mathiasen) as well as preference for independence and solitude (Rinn & Plucker), tend to follow accepted formulas for success and work in isolation. These tendencies can hinder creative and intellectual risk-taking as well as productivity.