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Honors College marks fifth successful year

"I'm rambling ­ sorry," Brian Babcock says, as he seeks to explain how his studies of philosophy, religious studies and computer science are coalescing in a paper on reconceptualizing identity.

"That's OK," Helen Brooks, senior lecturer and program coordinator for Humanities Special Programs, assures him. "That's what we're here for."

In a Building 70 seminar room overlooking the Main Quad, five seniors in the humanities Honors College were presenting the first drafts of their works in progress. The topics ranged from Virginia Woolf's concept of the heroic to Ayn Rand's emphasis on reason, to the films of Lina Wertmuller.

After living in the same dorm and eating together for more than a week, the students were comfortable enough with one another to ask questions and offer potential leads: How did you come up with that topic? How do you plan to compare opposing world views? Have you considered gender methodologies?

Brooks, who has taught in Honors College for the past four years, longer than any other faculty member, encouraged students to keep reexamining their perspectives and defining key terms. She also kept the questions flowing back and forth across the table.

"They really learn a lot from their peers," Brooks said. "One student may tell about how her interest in Virginia Woolf was sparked by a CIV or English class. And then another student will pop up with, 'Oh, I had a course on Woolf and have you read so-and-so?'"

Connie North, a senior in the humanities program, says the support other students showed helped to validate her own project, in which she compares the autobiographical writings of a Crow medicine woman and a pioneer woman.

"It's always been important to me, but when other people show interest, it's an extra bonus," she said. "Their questions make me think about issues I haven't addressed, and help me organize and articulate my thoughts."

Like 58 other Honors College students, North received an Undergraduate Research Opportunities grant last spring. She spent the summer doing archival work in Montana. There she also got to visit a Crow reservation, where she met the granddaughter of Pretty-Shield, the medicine woman who is one focus of her study.

That kind of contact is invaluable, according to Honors College faculty.

"Original research is what scholars do and I can absolutely relate to all of the joys and all of the anxieties," said Karen Sawislak, an assistant professor of history who is faculty supervisor for the American studies program this year and has served in the same capacity for the history department.

"I really think Honors College is one of the very best ways for students to take charge of their own intellectual experience at Stanford," Sawislak added. "They are personally connected to their topics and they end up producing something that's theirs, which is very different from being a critic or a consumer of information."

Piloted by Al Camarillo, currently the Mellon Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, then the associate dean and director of undergraduate studies in the School of Humanities and Sciences, Honors College attracted 30 students and faculty from three departments in the initial 1993-94 academic year. Those numbers have increased steadily over the past five years, to an all-time high this year of 123 students and 17 participating departments or programs.

"It's the best innovation we've done in support of the faculty-student partnership in undergraduate research," said Ellen Woods, assistant dean for undergraduate studies in the School of Humanities and Sciences. A website spells out the program's successes at

Students spent almost three weeks on campus before the start of fall quarter, housed in Castaño and Lantana dorms and fully funded by the Bing Teaching Initiative. Discussions that began in morning workshops often continued at the lunch table and far into the night.

"I enjoyed the thesis conversations we got into in the bathroom more than the contrived interdisciplinary discussions," one student said.

The spontaneous was supplemented with the scheduled, and evening and weekend activities were big draws this year. More than 40 students signed up to attend a Sunday evening performance of Blues for an Alabama Sky, directed by Harry Elam, associate professor of drama, for TheatreWorks (see story page 5).

Honors College students hunkered down in small workshops with computer specialists and statistical analysts who were eager to help them design data sets in the early stages of their research, and they also got plenty of help with the big picture. Alice Rayner, associate professor of drama and director of Humanities Special Programs, spent one sultry afternoon walking students through the historic approaches to close readings found in Aristotle, Cicero, new criticism and post-structuralism, among others.

"This really is a chance for them to explore independent study and enhance their research skills," Brooks noted. "It stretches them beyond the formal requirements of departments to a point where they come to understand new things about themselves."

Many students also used the time to get reacquainted with familiar campus resources like the university libraries.

"Undergraduates tend to not make a lot of use of Green until they're doing a sustained research project, and they don't necessarily know that a curator of American history will sit down with them and help them to define their topic," Sawislak said. "So I try to put them in touch with librarians and curators who are experts in their fields."

This year Hilton Obenzinger, a postdoctoral student in the Program in Modern Thought and Literature, was hired by the dean's office to guide workshops in writing theses, and each student will continue to work with a faculty tutor throughout the year. In June those theses will be bound and placed on a university library shelf and the degree certificates graduating seniors receive will feature a prominent "with honors."

But the lasting impression, for many students and faculty, may well be the spontaneous moments of discovery they shared.

"Honors College is a unique opportunity to create as you go, based on the dynamics of a small, intimate group of rather intense and creative students," said David Palumbo-Liu, associate professor of comparative literature, who supervised that department's program for the second year. "There are common points to touch upon ­ the usual interests, exuberances, frustrations of writing a long-term essay ­ but also there is the unpredictable and exciting chemistry that the group generates.

"For faculty members specifically, it provides a great chance to get to know students outside the sometimes chaotic world of the academic year."


By Diane Manuel

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