A Half Century of Honors

February 16, 2009
By Randy Fiedler

As Baylor celebrates the 50th anniversary of its Honors Program this spring, supporters say the program's importance and popularity have never been greater.

"Our 50-year history has shown the importance of bringing together small communities of intellectually curious students," said Dr. Andrew C. Wisely, director of the Honors Program and director of German and Russian. "Just as iron sharpens iron, these students sharpen each other's minds and challenge each other. Both students and faculty have benefited from that."

History and purpose

In March 1959, Baylor faculty voted unanimously to adopt an Honors Program, something that only one other Texas school -- the University of Texas -- had at the time. Baylor's program was launched in September 1959 with 22 students participating under the direction of 12 faculty members.

Today almost 800 students are enrolled in the Honors Program, with more than 100 Honors students graduating from Baylor each year.

The Honors Program is not a major, but instead augments the curriculum of all majors and degree plans by offering challenging sections of introductory courses and a variety of small seminars at every level of study. Entering students typically have a 1270 SAT or 30 ACT and, once in the program, must maintain a 3.2 grade point average. Advanced students in the program develop thesis projects, guided by faculty who are specialists in the fields of research that students are pursuing.

The Honors Program is one of four programs that comprise Baylor's Honors College, along with the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, the Great Texts Program and the University Scholars Program.

"The Honors Program was originally designed to take certain capable and very highly motivated students and give them an opportunity, through smaller classes, to have greater interaction with professors and have the opportunity to develop to a higher level certain communication skills, especially verbal and written," said Dr. Thomas S. Hibbs, dean of the Honors College. "It also was designed to offer these students the opportunity to begin high-level research."

Students in the Honors Program are typically self-motivated high achievers, and many qualify for prestigious awards and scholarships. Three of the last four Baylor recipients of the Truman Scholarship have been Honors Program students, as have two of the last seven Baylor students awarded Fulbright Scholarships.

Recent growth

The Honors Program has benefited from two significant developments over the past seven years. The first was the creation of the Honors College in 2002.

"Since the Honors College came on board, the retention of students in the Honors Program has tripled. We had about 15 percent of students stay and complete the program in 2002, and now that retention figure is approximately 40 percent," said Dr. J. Wesley Null, assistant director of the Honors Program and associate professor of curriculum and foundations of education. "We've also expanded the number of majors represented by students in the program. In 2002 there were 12 majors represented, and by spring 2008 that number had tripled to 36. So the Honors College has helped the Honors Program expand University-wide as far as which departments have students graduating with the Honors designation."

Another development benefiting the Honors Program was the creation of the Honors Residential College in Memorial and Alexander Halls.

"Living in the Honors Residential College alongside other Honors students is a powerful draw," Null said.

"A very high percentage of Honors Program students live in the Honors Residential College," Hibbs added. "For them to be over there exercising leadership roles is a huge benefit to the whole Honors College."

Student attraction

The reasons students choose to join the Honors Program are varied.

"I think students know they're going to get an added level of quality with their educational experience. They attend class with other Honors students, and they are able to benefit from the professors who are drawn to teaching Honors courses," Null said. "These are highly motivated students who want to take their educational experience to another level."

Hibbs said the rigor of Honors courses appeals to highly motivated students because it makes them learn skills needed for academic success.

"That attracts them, and I think Honors students stay in the program because there is a kind of remarkable bond between students and each other, and between students and faculty, where they feel like they are part of an academic and spiritual community that enables them to flourish as students, and as human beings in ways they otherwise couldn't," Hibbs said.

Null said students considering postgraduate education are especially attracted to the Honors Program.

"Students realize there's a utilitarian dimension to this. We have a number of students in the program who are on the pre-med track, and the reality is that being a graduate of the Honors Program does set them apart from other students who are applying to medical school," Null said. "By having already done research through their thesis and being able to provide strong letters of recommendation from Honors professors, that helps to make a very strong application for either medical school or graduate school. Graduating with Honors strengthens and enhances whatever degree students have earned from Baylor."

But Wisely said Honors faculty strive to show students the program's value beyond career building.

"It's true that some Honors students view the program as a great line on their résumé that will look impressive to medical schools, law schools or potential employers," Wisely said. "But there is also a sort of conversion process we try to establish that convicts students of the value of ideas themselves. Sometimes students walk into Baylor with a fixed notion of what they want to do after they graduate, based maybe on what their parents or high school counselors thought. Obviously we don't want people changing their major once a semester, but it's our hope that after reading the great texts and participating in the Honors Program, students won't simply walk out of Baylor not having budged an inch from their original intention. We want some changes, even if that means saying yes, I would make a great doctor or teacher, but here's another aspect of my particular giftedness or calling I've discovered that I'm good at and should pay attention to."

Writing the thesis

One of the most distinctive requirements to complete Baylor's Honors Program is for students to research and write a thesis, something not many undergraduates attempt these days.

"A lot of Honors programs across the country have dropped the thesis requirement in order to make it easier for their students to get through the program," Hibbs said. "At Baylor we've gone in the other direction. The faculty in the Honors Program work hard to prepare students to get to the point where they feel they can write a thesis. The students see the significance of it both as a kind of culmination of their Baylor experience and for what that experience and those skills will do for them once they leave here."

Null said the Honors thesis is an attraction for many students.

"The prospect of writing a thesis is somewhat daunting for students, but at the same time it's attractive because it's a great challenge," Null said. "It's an opportunity to prepare themselves for graduate school and work directly with the professor who's doing research in the field that they are particularly interested in. Instead of waiting to develop those research and writing skills when they're in a Ph.D. program, our Honors students are doing that as undergraduates."

By completing the Honors thesis, Wisely said students reap both tangible and intangible benefits.

"First of all they get the end product itself -- their thesis bound in a handsome green volume with gold lettering," Wisely said. "But we think the thesis process itself is a meaningful discipline, because no one by themselves knows how to write a draft that's publishable. You need critical feedback to reach that point -- the give and take of hashing it all out with your thesis director. It's like an apprenticeship, because you can't just practice the trade. You can't dream up the disciplines yourself. You have to be apprenticed to something that has gone on for a long time before you arrived on the scene."

It's expected that the 1,000th student thesis will be completed and defended in 2009.

Jubilee events

Honors Program officials hope to use the 50th anniversary Jubilee to achieve a number of important goals.

"We want to use this Jubilee event to focus on the importance of institutional memory," Wisely said. "We are celebrating the faculty and staff who have worked with Honors -- some for decades -- and will recognize Honors students who have gone on to do great things. We'll celebrate not just the people who ended up at Harvard and Yale and are visible in the public eye, but also those who are using their talents to do a service to the world that is sometimes less immediately tangible."

The history of Baylor's Honors Program will be on display through a special exhibit April 6-May 31 in the Jeanes Discovery Center of the Mayborn Museum Complex. The exhibit uses photographs and text to chart the program's milestones and highlights exemplary graduates and their theses.

The focus of the anniversary will be during Honors Week April 20-25. The annual Honors Convocation will be held the afternoon of April 22. The events of the following day, April 23, will include a reception for friends and former students of the late Dr. F. Ray Wilson II, one of the Honors Program's most popular mentors, and the annual Honors Banquet that evening.

"During this year's Honors Banquet we'll be announcing the creation of a new thesis award named in honor of Dr. Ray Wilson," Null said. "The Honors Program has never had a thesis award, so this will be an opportunity to recognize a distinguished faculty member while at the same time creating a structure that will enable us to congratulate students on a job well done for many years to come."

Another spring event included in the Jubilee celebration will be a colloquium April 28 featuring a lecture by Dr. Wilfred M. McClay, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. McClay is the author of Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past, The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America and other works.

For more information on the Baylor Honors Program, visit
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