Today my colleague Nichola and I ran the half-day workshop on teaching in the Honors Program that we’d been planning for a few weeks now. We had a great group of people signed up, a good balance between those who’ve taught in the program before and those who haven’t but are interested in learning more about doing so. There were several good discussions, surrounding everything from grading in Honors (is there grade inflation? If so, what does it signal? and will inflated grades harm untenured-but-tenure-track faculty?) to criteria for Honors admission (how might we achieve the appropriate balance of traditional measures of academic excellence, such as high school GPA and standardized test scores, and less cut-and-dried metrics, like writing samples and performance in interviews?).

The most animated discussion, however, concerned the nature of Honors students: what characteristics, in our view, ought an outstanding Honors student to have? In fact, Nichola asked precisely this question, getting each participant to jot down the qualities their ideal Honors student would possess. You’d best believe I did some analysis of these data!

My 14 colleagues and I (Nichola didn’t take part in the exercise) offered 75 individual attributes between us (for an average of exactly 5 per person), often in the form of a single word (e.g., “respectful” or “bright”) but just as often in the form of a more complicated phrase (e.g., “motivation to learn for learning’s sake”). I compiled these and attempted to group them into disjoint categories; happily, only one of the attributes (namely “able to work independently on challenging problems”) did I deem sufficiently complex to warrant its inclusion in two categories (namely, the “challenging oneself” and “self-direction” categories).

Interestingly (to me, at least), this still left me with 27 categories, several (8) of which contained a single attribute and several more (another 8) of which contain two. Though this gives me a pretty messy data set, I hesitate to aggregate them any further, lest I conflate clearly distinct concepts or descriptors, like “respectful,” “humility,” and “kind.” I did, however, lump together a few “habits of mind,” each of which, namely “common sense,” “scientific understanding,” “think critically,” “objective,” and “logical,” appeared once each. While I acknowledge the thickness of these terms and the ZFG stance I’m taking in putting them in the same place, it simplifies the data a liiiittle bit.

Below are the categories I came up with, given in order from most-often mentioned, “curiosity,” to least (the numbers given after the category name correspond to the identifiers assigned randomly to each respondent):

  1. Curious: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15
  2. Open-minded : 1, 2, 3, 12, 13, 14
  3. Passionate about learning: 1, 2, 3, 10, 14
  4. Intelligent: 5, 8, 10, 12, 13
  5. Willing to be challenged: 1, 4, 8, 12
  6. Engaged/purposeful: 2, 5, 13, 14
  7. Strong habits of mind: 7, 11, 14, 15
  8. Good communication skills: 8, 14, 15
  9. Community member: 2, 10, 11
  10. Conscientious: 5, 6, 9
  11. Ambitious: 8, 9, 11
  12. Empathetic: 14, 15
  13. Reflective: 1, 14
  14. Self-directed: 8, 13
  15. Resilient: 2, 14
  16. Positive: 2, 9
  17. Responsible: 2, 7
  18. Passionate: 7, 9
  19. Innovative: 6, 12
  20. Respectful: 7
  21. Kind: 9
  22. Outspoken: 1
  23. Emotionally mature: 9
  24. Good leader: 10
  25. Big-picture oriented: 13
  26. Humble: 2
  27. Collaborator: 2

This list gives us some idea of the traits folks are looking for, considered individually: curiosity, open-mindedness, a passion for learning, and intelligence are most highly prized. To get a better sense of the interaction between these attributes, we can create a concept map (mathematically, a graph) showing relationships between these traits by linking any two that are mentioned by a single person.


Some care must be taken in interpreting this graph: the number of edges out of a given node doesn’t represent the number of persons mentioning that node’s attribute; rather, as I just mentioned, an edge between two nodes indicates that one person mentioned both of the attributes those nodes represent. Two edges between a pair of nodes indicate that two persons mentioned both of the corresponding attributes, etc. Thus we expect to see the greatest density around those attributes that are mentioned both frequently and frequently in conjunction with one another. Unsurprisingly, the greatest density is achieved around our top vote-getters, curious, open-minded, and passionate about learning. Strongly related to these are engaged/purposeful and good communication skills.

I appreciate this exercise for the insight it gives me into my colleagues’ vision for the program: before we can talk about what the program should look like and what opportunities it should provide, we need to first know what kind of students we want it to serve. It appears we’re looking for curious, open-minded individuals who are intelligent, purposeful, and passionate about learning, and who can articulate their ideas well.

Now to go get ’em! There was pretty widespread agreement among the workshop participants that in reviewing Honors Program applications traditional measures like high school GPA should be given considerably less weight, and all were in favor of scrapping standardized test scores entirely. There was almost unanimous support for replacing résumé-padding lists of AP courses and community service with more in-depth interrogations of single stand-out courses and single meaningful volunteer commitments. These are changes I intend to make in the online application this coming year, in conjunction with the introduction of some sort of interview process.

Next steps in program administration? Finishing up my program assessment for the spring, cleaning up the Honors website, orienting my new assistant (who will begin on June 1), and polishing off that article on the workshop assignment I’m working on with Samuel. You know. The usual.

HB2 update: my provost, unsurprisingly, is hesitant to comment on the university’s official response to the ongoing litigious crossfire between the State of North Carolina and the US Department of Justice. Go figure. More news at eleven.

Equally forthcoming, but disingenuously so, was the UNC system itself, who released a short statement yesterday regarding the false dilemma:

University of North Carolina leaders offered the following comments today after a special meeting of the UNC Board of Governors to consult with legal counsel regarding legal actions regarding federal nondiscrimination law and the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act (HB2):

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Lou Bissette said:

The purpose of today’s Board meeting was to consult with our attorneys concerning the pending litigation involving the Department of Justice. We support all the actions President Spellings has taken thus far in leading the University and responding to HB2. The Board appreciates and values her ongoing leadership. As she said yesterday, the University is in a difficult position — caught in the middle between state and federal law. We are committed to resolving the legal issues in the University’s favor as quickly as possible. In the meantime, we are going to continue to focus on our primary mission of educating students.

UNC President Margaret Spellings added:

The University of North Carolina is about providing high-quality educational opportunities to all. We depend on federal funding to help provide this access. In fact, more than 138,000 of our students — representing all 100 North Carolina counties and all UNC institutions — receive some type of federal aid. Because of this, we take the legal questions surrounding HB2 and the related lawsuits seriously. We intend to remain in close communication with state and federal officials to underscore our shared interest in resolving these difficult issues as quickly as possible so that we can refocus our efforts on educating students.

I have an easy solution: tell the State and its governor where they can stick it and get on the right side of history. This is getting ridiculous.


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