Pursuing an ideal education

By Wendi Wheeler ’06

Imagine your ideal college education. What classes would you take? Who would teach them? What kind of students would you study with? What activities would you take part in? Where would you travel?

When Robert Groven set out to restructure the Augsburg College Honors program, he asked faculty and students these sorts of questions. At first, he said, they were silent.

“They had just accepted that college is the way it is,” Groven said. But then, they flooded him with ideas.

Students wanted more academic challenge and to be pushed by faculty. They wanted courses to include more content and classroom experiences to be more active and engaging than in high school. They wanted to learn outside the classroom and to have opportunities for unconventional learning experiences— the exact sort of education that a small college in the city can provide.

The result of all that questioning was a student-centered program where students take responsibility for their own learning, with the full support of the faculty and the resources they need to achieve their goals.

“We believe that an ideal education will be different for every student,” Groven says. “We know no one can reach an ideal goal, but we believe the process of exploring and pursuing ideals is essential to college education.”

By striving for the ideal, the program has become one where students routinely go above and beyond the requirements outlined in their syllabi. “We set a very high bar, and we insist that they get there. But they set a much higher bar for themselves than we ever would.”

UNCONVENTIONAL COURSES

Three aspects of Augsburg’s Honors courses distinguish them from courses in other college honors programs. First, each class is specifically created for the Honors program. In other words, it’s not a matter of adding an assignment or text to an existing course or simply creating a new title, Groven says. The content of Honors courses is enriched and the pace is accelerated as well.

Second, Honors courses are intentionally interdisciplinary—multiple faculty from different departments teach in each class. This spring, for example, the senior keystone course was taught by faculty whose disciplines include sociology, social work, metro-urban studies, art, English, and theatre. Augsburg’s president, Paul Pribbenow, is one of the lead instructors, focusing on his study of Jane Addams, founder of the settlement house movement.

The course, Legacies of Chicago: Ideas and Action in Place, was conceived by Lars Christiansen of the sociology and metrourban studies departments. The course examines how particular places are incubators for unique ideas and actions. In addition to studying about the traditions and concepts that originated in Chicago, the class traveled to the Windy City to experience the “place” firsthand.

Finally, each course has a “signature” experience— an unconventional way of learning that involves a high level of effort and also includes a public display of what the students have learned. Students are usually enthusiastic about these experiences, Groven says, because the tasks are generally open-ended and students have more freedom to make decisions about what they learn and how they learn it.

In Liberating Letters, a first-year humanities course, students put texts, authors, or fictional characters on trial, serving as judge, jury, prosecution, and defense. But before this class begins, students have to pass a test. In fact, in order to gain admission into the first session, they are required to recite the first stanza of Homer’s Odyssey from memory, solve a riddle about Greek mythology, and present the “prophecies” of three different people who know them well concerning where that student will be in 10 years.

A second type of course, which is likely more-than-ideal for many students, is the Student Created Learning Experience, or SCLE. Aptly named, these are classes created by students based on their interests. SCLEs can essentially become an independent study course for one student or 20 students and can be open to all Augsburg students.

One of the more popular SCLEs, which generated a great deal of interest when it was first introduced and again this year, was The Art, Science, and History of Brewing. In addition to learning about brewing from the perspective of different disciplines, students also brew two batches of beer and invite guest judges to evaluate the fruits of their labors.

This year senior theatre arts major David Ishida created an SCLE on swordplay to fulfill a physical education credit but also to explore his interest in medieval history and culture.

STUDENTS WHO LOVE TO LEARN

Interesting classes and outstanding faculty certainly can combine for a compelling honors program, but the character and quality of the students make Augsburg’s program unique. “We are trying to look beyond good grades and test scores,” Groven comments. “We want intrinsically motivated learners—students who see ideas as living vehicles for human expression and change.”

Computer science professor Larry Crockett, who was once the Honors program director, has taught in the program for many years. While he says Honors students are pushed to rise above expectations and challenge each other, he is especially enthusiastic about the extraordinary energy coming from this year’s incoming class.

“These students are willing to dig into issues and are very receptive and energized,” Crockett says, “ … not just in the classroom but on campus.” Crockett has engaged 14 current students as research assistants who will read and critique work that he is presenting at an international conference. “I hope they really come at me,” he says. “I’m counting on them to find fresh answers.”

EXPERIENCE LIKE NO OTHER

There’s more to Honors at Augsburg than fun classes and energetic students. Honors also provides leadership and scholarship opportunities and fosters an environment where students often start their own activities or groups. “Part of our philosophy is that as much learning should happen outside the classroom as inside,” Groven says.

Students are organized into houses, each of which focuses on a different area: scholarship, social justice and service, stewardship, and citizenship. Each house plans and promotes activities and also elects two house presidents who serve on the Honors Council. With faculty advisers, the council sets the policy for the program and helps solve problems.

One officially organized non-classroom learning opportunity is the Honors Review, a student-run, student-edited interdisciplinary journal of undergraduate scholarship. Taylor Norman, a senior English major and Honors student, is the current editor-in-chief.

This year the Review extended its reach and received 43 submissions from undergraduates all across the country. After articles are selected for publication, Norman and her editorial staff check citations, verify research, and then engage the author to revise and edit. “We wanted to create a scholarly environment with lots of dialogue,” Norman says.

All Honors activities and programs serve to support students so they can pursue their academic goals. “Honors tries to show students what amazing talents and abilities they have,” Groven says, and they find countless ways to apply their academic learning. For example, senior Jessica Spanswick, who majored in international relations and minored in peace and global studies, studied in Namibia for a semester and served as a Peace Scholar in connection with the Nobel Peace Prize Forum. Her opportunities to volunteer for World AIDS Day in Namibia and to travel as a scholar to Chiapas, Mexico, gave her valuable hands-on global experience.

Honors program students have received many of the highest national and international academic awards available; they have been Fulbright scholars, Goldwater scholars, the College’s first Rhodes scholar, and students who have won National Science Foundation grants—and that’s still just the tip of the iceberg. Part of the program’s mission is to encourage students, many who never thought of themselves as award-winning scholars, to apply for scholarships and publication so that their work can be recognized.

These courses, the faculty who teach them, the students who take them, and the learning opportunities that happen outside the classroom all come together to try to create an ideal education for Augsburg Honors program students.

“I never think of the Honors program as being done,” Groven says. “The best program will always be different because we are constantly adapting to new technologies, new students, and new problems.”

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