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Summer college provides head start for honors students

STANFORD -- It might be termed "Head Start" or "Camp Nerd," as some of the participants mockingly suggested.

In fact, the Honors College, held for a two-week period before fall quarter classes began, gave the 64 participating students time and resources to concentrate on their honors theses.

The college, which was held on a pilot basis in 1993-94 with three participating departments or programs and 30 students, this year expanded to nine departments or programs and double the number of students.

Students lived and ate their meals in Lantana House. They got together for small-group workshops in writing skills and in library research and computer resources. Members of each department or program met to hear about one another's thesis topics.

Both students and faculty are enthusiastic about the Honors College. Thomas Wasow, professor of linguistics, sees the program as a way of encouraging more students to pursue honors projects and of promoting "a higher level of intellectualism" on campus.

Wasow, who was the faculty supervisor for participants in the symbolic systems program, said the college gives students an earlier start on their theses and therefore a good chance to produce higher quality work. It also nurtures a sense of community. "Collaboration with colleagues and the exchange of ideas is probably the most important aspect of academic life," Wasow said.

"I know of no other comparable experience here where peers give constructive criticism to each other by the hour," said anthropology Professor William Durham, faculty supervisor for human biology students.

Students agreed that the Honors College facilitated scholarly interaction with their fellow students.

Julie Kikuchi and Allison Walsh, human biology majors who had not met before taking part in the Honors College, found that their thesis topics overlapped. Kikuchi will write about "The Tuberculosis Problem: A Quiet Legacy of Japanese American Internment Camps," while Walsh's topic is "The Cultural and Clinical Re-emergence of Infectious Disease in America," which includes tuberculosis.

Both enjoyed the daily meetings of human biology honors students where they heard each other's strategies and exchanged ideas. In the dorms during the school year, it's hard to find out who is doing an honors thesis, Kikuchi said.

Jennifer Hughes, honors student in humanities, said she didn't know anyone in her interdisciplinary major before taking part in the college.

Now she and the other humanities honors students plan to keep meeting during the year. "I often have dumb questions I don't want to bother my adviser with," said James Lyons, humanities honors student. "This way I can ask other students."

Like other faculty members in the Honors College, Helen Brooks, senior lecturer and program coordinator in Humanities Special Programs, organized workshops on both writing and research.

For the writing workshop, she gave Claude Reichard, lecturer in English, copies of the humanities students' thesis proposals. The students raised specific problems they were encountering in their writing.

Brooks also arranged sessions in computer resources with Charles Kerns, head of the media center at Meyer Library, and in library research with Kathryn Kerns, reference librarian.

Lyons said those sessions "opened up my awareness of the resources at Stanford. It also gave us a two-week head start when the libraries weren't swamped with people."

Camille Dungy, an English honors student, said she was grateful that Joss Marsh, assistant professor of English and faculty supervisor for the English students, brought English Professor Diane Middlebrook to meet her students. Dungy, who is writing her honors thesis on poet Nikki Giovanni, said she enjoyed hearing Middlebrook talk about her work on a biography of poet Anne Sexton.

During the year, Dungy said, she knows that she will frequently consult the library staff she met through Marsh.

The Honors College also provided a quiet time before the rat race of the academic year. Brian Brennan, an American studies major who is writing an honors thesis on a refugee shelter in El Paso, Texas, where he did volunteer work, sees the value of the college as "getting my mind back on my thesis after the summer."

Time spent now will show up in the final product, Brennan said, "because it will mean more time later for writing and revising."

Having a period without classes is particularly valuable, Brennan said. During spring quarter, he recalled, he did reading to prepare for his thesis, but when that reading conflicted with his meeting deadlines for papers and tests in his classes, the papers and tests won.

Stanford's quarter system accelerates time pressures on students, said history Professor Jack Rakove, faculty supervisor for the college's American studies honors students.

Lyons agreed that "you get to school and it feels like it's immediately midterms and two weeks later, finals."

Durham said the faculty is experimenting with ways to continue aspects of the summer college experience during the year, perhaps in the form of seminars. But, he said, "we can't remove the distractions. In the summer college, you can completely immerse yourself in a research project. If you can immerse yourself for an afternoon during the year, you feel lucky."

Wasow said there has been some faculty unhappiness about the prevailing ethos in many dorms separating academic life from the rest of life, and that the summer college might counteract that ethos.

Brooks agreed that students in the Honors College feel comfortable about having a "passionate interest" in academic pursuits, rather than feeling compelled to discuss academics casually, as they might during the year.

"Here the focus is on research, not on which fraternity is having a party this weekend," said Jeff Meador, an honors student in American studies.

Dungy believes the dorms do provide intellectual stimulation. "Many a dinner conversation has flowed into Nietzsche," she said.

The advantage of the Honors College, Dungy said, is that it provides a concentration of people doing the same thing. "Some are people I had classes with, but now I know them." Friends who aren't writing a thesis, she said, "can't empathize with the excitement of finding something or with the problems you encounter" the way fellow thesis-writers can.

Money for this summer's Honors College, which included a stipend for participating faculty members and food and housing for the students, came from Bing Teaching Initiative undergraduate research funds.

The students included majors in American studies, English, history, human biology, mathematics, philosophy and symbolic systems, and in the honors programs in humanities and ethics in society. The Haas Center for Public Service also sponsored a diverse group of majors whose theses all focused on aspects of public service.

The students were selected by their departments or programs. Ellen Woods, assistant dean of humanities and sciences, said the selection process varied, with some departments focusing on their most advanced students and others deciding that the Honors College would be of most benefit to students who were at early stages of the thesis process.

Both students and faculty said they would like Honors College to be a permanent part of the Stanford scene. Ramon Saldivar, associate dean of undergraduate studies, will solicit proposals for the 1995-96 Honors College at the beginning of winter quarter. With continued support from the Peter and Helen Bing Fund for Teaching, the college has the potential for reaching about 25 additional honors students each year over the next two years, Saldivar said.

"Our task in Honors College is to create an environment that encourages a fellowship of scholars who seek to pursue ideas and create knowledge," Saldivar said. "We are heartened by the apparent success we have had in establishing an exciting community of learning."


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