It’s fair to say that most faculty are honors students. We climbed the hill of academic success, garnered several complicated degrees and certificates, sat through terrifying and difficult exams, and embarked on various research projects.
Our identities as scholars and teachers are often still conflicted, responding to the demands of a product oriented higher education landscape and the liberal arts education many of us cherish. So, too, do our students who seek academic achievement find themselves conflicted when they arrive in an honors program.
Honors programs vary in nature and scope—some emphasizing an enriched liberal arts curriculum, some prizing individual research projects and some asking students to apply research in their communities and through civic engagement. The programs attempt to add depth or breadth to student experience, as well as platforms for innovative teaching and learning.
Likewise, honors students vary in their approach to college and their future goals. The most traditional identity of honors students involves students who seek to explore various disciplines and engage deeply with enduring questions and texts. These students are self-motivated in their learning, and prize curiosity and creativity.
Yet, there are many honors students who focus on grades to the extent that they avoid exploring other disciplines because they see it as a waste of time and too much of a risk to their GPAs. In a study of honors students’ learning orientations, Debbie Storrs and Lynsie Clott label this group, students who are hard-working and competitive, focused on the end goal of graduate programs and secure careers, as “players.” All of us have seen many high achieving students like this.
Honors students walk a tightrope between pragmatism and curious learning, tense with what Bill Cavanaugh (following Barry Schwartz) calls the “tyranny of choice” in contemporary American culture, meaning that the proliferation of choices starts to be “experienced as coercive rather than liberating” (See At This Time and In This Place, 34). The rabbit hole of choice for many honors students is fraught because they are often faced with a large platform of choices (reserved classes, experiences, scholarships, “extra” experiences). Furthermore, they have been told by family, media and even educators that they can be and do anything. Thus, when they fail, are disappointed, or experience confusion and fear, they start to blame themselves for not choosing correctly.
This is where faculty mentors are important voices in the cacophony of an honors student’s world.
First, we can share our own experiences as scholars. It helps to remember that while many faculty climbed up the hill of academic “choice,” we also did a lot of deep inner questioning. We doubt our intellectual chops (are we smart enough to compete among our peers?), question if we can balance the various strands of academic life (can we maintain the commitment to the reading and research load, and cultivate ourselves as scholars and teachers?) and find work that allows us to turn curiosity into a livelihood (can our passion for ideas lead to a professional path?). Honors students need mentors who can help them interpret the complexities of academic work and the ways it relates to other parts of human experience.
Bringing this transparency to honors students is vital because it offers them a way to see that the process of academic achievement involves intellectual but also personal reflection. Jason Mahn writes in his essay “Conflicts in our Callings” that if faculty do not “adequately speak of our own vocations as places of ambiguity and ambivalence” students hear only success stories and not that “grief, disappointment, doubt, sorrow, and patient suffering are human capacities or dispositions that can be learned” (See Vocation Across the Academy, 53; see also Jason’s “The Tragedy of the Road Not Taken”).
Second, we can help students recognize the importance of setting limits. In a recent article on honors student well-being and success (Cuevas et al. 2017), it was found that honors students reported the highest levels of thriving in areas such as goal-setting and achieving academic excellence, but have increased difficulty managing multiple demands and feel overwhelmed.
Ironically, honors students are best suited and least prepared to see how their life’s purpose necessitates setting what Margaret Mohrmann calls “responsible limits.” These students are good—even great—at many kinds of learning and leadership roles. But they have not been regularly asked to make choices because they have managed success in multiple areas of life at the same time. When they arrive at college, it is the first time they may experience failure in their own abilities and confront the notion of limits.
Third, we should recognize that honors students struggle behind the veneer of academic excellence. They struggle with risk taking in life and learning and conversely struggle with identifying career goals because of their wide and varied interests (Cuevas et al). Furthermore, they avoid seeking help and appearing as failures, as Richard Badenhausen, President-elect of the National Collegiate Honors Council observes:
“their self-concept is so grounded in the idea of academic achievement that seeking assistance calls their very identity into question. Asking for help becomes an attack on the notion of the successful self” (2010).
These are very real vocational questions for faculty, who on the one hand can identify with high achievement and love of learning, and the other resisting vulnerability and avoiding risks, especially in high stakes environments like tenure and promotion tracks. How do we support honors students to use their gifts and help them navigate the nuanced path of academic success? How do we help them take risks while understanding limits, and help them make informed choices?
We can mentor honors students by suggesting that responsible choice involves inward reflection and outward listening. The turn inward is scary—mainly because it involves a risk of self-assessment—who am I now and who do I want to be? As in all vocational reflection, this may set students on a foreign path than the one they thought they were on. Furthermore, we should encourage students to listen to mentors, coaches, peers who can see their gifts in new ways. As they become more fully “honors students”—the curious achievers who can problem solve in communities and use their gifts in creative ways—they also become more fully aware of their responsibilities and talents for their lives in college and beyond.
Failure and success are not opposites, but honors students need clarity on this point. Faculty walk a similar tightrope and can shed light on that experience for them. Our own vulnerability can illustrate how the challenges of academia make us more thoughtful in the way we see our purpose at work, at home, and in our communities. Offering a sense of vocational exploration to honors education more fully delivers the experience honors programs seek to offer.
Erin VanLaningham is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. She teaches courses in the British Novel, Spiritual Memoir, and Women’s Writing, and has published in a variety of academic journals. In 2017, she was selected as a participant in NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar.