After some surreal late-night traffic jams and almost a dozen hours of driving through bits of four states, I’ve made it, one student in tow, to the spring 2016 meeting of the Southern Regional Honors Council, beginning in a few hours in sunny Orlando, Florida.
Still-little-known fact: I plan to bring this conference to my own town next year, my university playing the role of host institution.
Why do this? I’ve thought to myself more than a few times over the past few years, since I got a wild hair and offered to put my school forward.
The most compelling reason, perhaps: because I was asked. In 2013, at the wrap-up of that year’s conference in Louisville, Kentucky, the SRHC powers-that-be, trying to look forward as far as they could, asked if I’d be up for hosting in an upcoming year. I said yes.
Too, it’ll put my school, and thereby my students, on the map. It’s a pretty big conference, with attendance ranging from 400ish to 600ish over the past several years.
And maybe it’ll help me to get a better sense of the purpose of honors conferences. Honestly, to me they’ve always seemed a bit…diffuse? The wide range of student presentations, often dealing with students’ honors projects and scholarship, is refreshing, but little different from the offerings at most interdisciplinary undergraduate research conferences. A dusting of panels on honors pedagogy and administration distinguishes this conference, but these panels, though sometimes helpful, are also generally uncontroversial. They’re normative, in a sense: the ideas they offer may help me manage the day-to-day operations of the program, but they only rarely ask big questions about honors.
The biggest question one might ask (and I want to ask it, again and again): why honors in the first place? The question has come up (in print and in person), but is generally dismissed with fairly facile answers along the lines of “we need to challenge our best and brightest.” Is this enough?
It’s no secret that I’ve wrestled mightily with the essence of honors, especially in terms of its inherent elitism and inequity of access. I’ve lost sleep nights thinking about how to open up honors without sacrificing its challenges and opportunities, rather offering its challenges and opportunities to a wider group of students.
Perhaps by bringing this conference home to me next year and working alongside my students as they create and recreate this meeting of the minds, I’ll develop a better sense of what honors is and can be?