Thinking smart

MU's Honors College provides opportunities to stretch its students' intellect in academics and the community
Tuesday, November 16, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:34 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Two MU students casually discuss the relative merits of empiricism and rationalism — not in class or a nook of Ellis Library but over a buffet dinner of chicken skewers, egg rolls and meatballs spread across their professor’s dining room table.

In the living room is their host and teacher, Stuart Palonsky, speaking to one of his 15 student guests, comparing raking his wooded yard to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who is sentenced to push a boulder up a steep hill, only to have it roll back down again for eternity.

The scene encapsulates some of the many advantages for students enrolled in MU’s Honors College. Honors students enjoy personal access to their professors, small classes and unique course offerings, such as “The History of Baseball” or “The Geology of Our National Parks.”

Honors colleges on large public university campuses throughout the country aim to offer advanced students opportunities most often associated with elite, mostly private schools. At MU, qualified students can take sequences of study in science, the humanities and social and behavioral science as well as elective seminars and discussion classes.

“It gives you a small college atmosphere along with all the advantages of a major university,” said Andy Basnett, a senior pre-med major and Honors College student.

The Honors College admits 700 students per year. Although the number of faculty teaching honors courses varies, between 75 and 100 typically teach the classes in a given semester.

The cornerstone of MU’s honors curriculum is the humanities sequence, which was founded in 1954, six years before the inception of the Honors College. The sequence draws on an integrated study of literature, rhetoric, music, the visual arts, philosophy, religion and history, its mission statement says. The course of study encompasses different periods of Western history and is spread over four semesters: the ancient world, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the early modern world, and the modern era.

In the sequence, 300 students are taught by 15 faculty members. It is the largest, most-rigorous program of its kind at a public university, said Palonsky, a humanities professor and director of the Honors College.

“In my experience, honors students have real intellectual curiosity and a real drive to achieve a kind of unity in their knowledge,” said Julie Melnyk, a humanities professor and the college’s associate director. “They strive to bring it all together and see how it all relates.”

Students also provide positive feedback about the intellectual climate of the Honors College.

“Our class discussions are really open,” said senior psychology major Kelly Mills. “Everyone’s opinion is welcome.”

In addition to the individual attention that comes with small class sizes, humanities sequence professors are given an entertainment budget to spend on out-of-class interaction with their students. Some, like Palonsky, host dinners at their homes for their students.

Melnyk incorporates themes from her class into her students’ entertainment. In the spring semester of 2003, she used her entertainment budget to give her students a picnic that recreated the picnic scene in “Beloved,” a Nobel Prize-winning book by Toni Morrison read Melnyk’s class read that semester. This year, she plans to recreate a Victorian Christmas dinner for the students in her early modern world class.

But not all Honors College professors receive entertainment budgets.

“Science is more expensive than the humanities because of supplies and equipment,” said Jan Weaver, a professor of environmental studies who coordinates the college’s science sequence, a two-semester course. Weaver said science professors receive equipment budgets, which they use to fund field trips and laboratory equipment. Her fall class, which draws on concepts from both physical and life sciences, is called “The Warm Little Pond.”

“The pond is an organizing concept,” said Weaver. “The goal is to get students to understand that nature isn’t divided into compartments — even though we study it that way.” The course title refers to the course’s use of Lefevre Pond for some lessons and exercises. Her course differs from conventional science courses in other ways, as well.

“We sacrifice some depth, but we try to get key concepts across that everyone should know,” Weaver said. “We wrote our own lab manual; it includes narrative sections to explain underlying concepts.”

The second course in the sequence, “The Warm Little Planet,” applies the same interdisciplinary approach to the formation of the Earth.

The social and behavioral science sequence is the only other multi-semester course of study in the Honors College. It employs anthropology, psychology, sociology, economics, geography, history and political science to illuminate the history of the United States over a two-semester span.

Beyond the course sequences, the Honors College offers seminars, discussion groups and service learning.

Lindsay Leshin, a senior communications major, participates in the Honors College Community Involvement Program, which places students in community service organizations and classes in which they discuss how to improve those organizations.

“I wrote a 12-page proposal for improvement to Head Start,” said Leshin, who worked at a Head Start day care center in Columbia last semester. Involvement program classes are also open to non-honors students. In addition to Head Start, involvement students mentor middle and high school students, participate in public health projects and work to promote academic success for low-income schoolchildren in Columbia.

Jill Raitt, who founded MU’s Department of Religious Studies, teaches a “Religion and the Professions” discussion group to honors students. Her class of 14 hears from guest professors of medicine, law and journalism, and students work in groups to analyze ethical dilemmas with religious and professional dimensions, such as whether to levy fines against religious groups for practicing animal sacrifice in violation of health codes.

Groups choose how to divide research and discussion topics on Tuesdays and present their analysis to Raitt, the guest speakers and their classmates on Thursdays.

Raitt relishes the opportunity to work with Honors College students.

“How could you not love to work with students who love to read, write and think?” she said.

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