1997 Honors Program Reboot

Honors Program students

After thriving for decades and catapulting Swarthmore to its status as an academic powerhouse, Honors began declining in popularity in the early 1990s, to the point that just 10 percent of the graduating class enrolled in Honors in 1996. To revive the program, the Swarthmore faculty instituted a series of changes designed to attract more students, primarily by making it more flexible and responsive to student interest in foreign study, double majors, cross-disciplinary study, and other new directions in the curriculum. In the first year after the program's revision, student participation in Honors doubled, and rose steadily to over 30 percent in 2001, where it largely remains.

The oral exams conclude a two-year process during which the Swarthmore honors students have taken a series of seminars and classes, often combined with an independent thesis, a creative work, and/or foreign study. Their written honors exams - designed by the outside examiners - test material covered during the entire four semesters, as does the oral exam.

The actual experience of sitting down with the oral examiner, many of whom are alumni who went through the program as undergraduates, and exchanging ideas is always challenging and often surprisingly pleasant, as many attest.  "The students sometimes get anxious beforehand, but they come out of these oral exams exhilarated by the exchange," says Craig Williamson, an English literature professor and Chaucer scholar who coordinates the program. "It's a thrill to have the chance to test their ideas against the scholar whose books they've been reading."

"Honors at Swarthmore is one of the few academic programs that gives undergraduates a chance to have a one-on-one interaction with accomplished scholars," says one honors graduate. "I think it's a rare privilege."