Four Honors Courses That Can Change the World

Explore four small and discussion-based honors courses that cover subjects close to the professors’ intellectual pursuits and are often shaped by student input. It’s in these classes where community is truly forged.

Image of Bowne Hall from the outside.

A dozen students gather in a classroom with a sweeping view of campus. Outside, there’s the chill and grey of early spring but in this room it’s warm and the mood is jovial. One student, a junior, is majoring in chemistry with a minor in French and plans to study abroad in West Africa. Another is in the geography program and working on a multimedia project exploring how landscape influences cultural identity. Next to her sits a sophomore who came to Syracuse for broadcast journalism and recently started a dance troupe for children in the community.

Their academic inclinations vary, but it’s what they have in common that matters. They have distinguished themselves with their academic aptitude, intellectual curiosity and sincere passion for applying knowledge to address societal issues And that’s why they’re in the Renée Crown University Honors Program.

The honors program is designed to give scholars of this caliber support, opportunities and the invigorating company of equally engaged peers. “An important benefit of the honors program is that it provides a space where students who are very curious about the world we live in, and who are lifelong learners, can blossom as they learn and work within a community,” says Danielle Smith, professor of African American Studies and the program’s director.

Syracuse University first launched an honors program in 1963. In 2002, a major gift from trustee emerita and esteemed alumnae Renée Schine Crown allowed for a re-envisioning of the program. Under the guidance of the founding director, Samuel Gorovitz, the renamed Renée Crown University Honors Program was designed around the core values of academic depth, breadth, global awareness, command of language, collaborative capacity and commitment to civic engagement. Honors students take courses in disciplines other than their majors, are held to high standards of expression and collaboration, commit to service in the community for at least three semesters and consider subjects in a global context. Honors studies culminate in a thesis required of all students. This research project is expected to demonstrate academic rigor; and creative expression and interdisciplinary exploration are encouraged. The program aims to support high achieving students in their aspirations and give them space to take risks and form rewarding relationships.

Three hundred students enter the program each year; most are admitted as incoming freshmen, and some join later through an application process. Many choose to live together in honors housing, and all use the welcoming honors office at Bowne Hall where it has become a tradition that hot chocolate and popcorn are always available in the lounge.

It’s in the classes, however, where community is truly forged. Small and discussion-based, honors courses cover subjects close to the professors’ intellectual pursuits and are often shaped by student input. “This is my favorite class to teach,” Harriet Brown, professor in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, says of her course, Fat and Feminism. “I love the challenging conversations.”

The diversity of academic backgrounds characteristic of honors courses is one of the most appreciated features. “Everyone can contribute in such different ways,” says Liz Gostev, a junior. “We are all teaching one another.” A look at four current courses invites us to join the discussion.

Conceptualizing Human Rights

Aerial image of a peace sign made by students on the Shaw Quadrangle.

For Matthew Ambalavanar ’20, the draw to this course was personal. His father’s family is Tamil, and his grandparents fled Sri Lanka to escape civil conflict and possible persecution. Ambalavanar grew up hearing family stories of oppression and loss.

In Conceptualizing Human Rights, taught by Smith, students consider the concept of human rights in historical perspective and study the range and scope of violations. They also wrestle with knotty dilemmas: For example, should we give aid to countries with corrupt governments? And, how do we balance respect for culture and tradition when they contradict the ideals of universal rights?

Conceptualizing Human Rights inspired Ambalavanar to research Sri Lankan history—an exercise that will enrich a family trip to Sri Lanka planned for this summer—and it changed Ambalavanar’s learning style. He used to hold back from participating in class discussions, but this course changed him as a student, he says. He was impressed by how fellow students navigated sensitive topics and productively shared different perspectives. “It changed how I engaged with the material,” Ambalavanar says. “I wanted to be able to have an educated opinion and to show why I think what I do. You have to be able to back your opinions with facts, but be willing to change your views if new facts emerge.”

Fat and Feminism

Harriet Brown and Taylor Krzeminski look at a book together.

Sometimes you learn something that shifts your perspective and fundamentally alters how you see yourself. This is a common experience in Fat and Feminism, and that is why this course plays a pivotal role in junior Taylor Krzeminski’s ambitions. She has wanted to advocate for fat positivity for some time, and Fat and Feminism, taught by Brown, both fortified her resolve and armed her with the material she needs.

In Fat and Feminism, students examine the history of and data behind contemporary views of beauty, health and fat. The material calls into question the correlation between fat and health that’s often taught as fact. Class discussions delve into issues of identity and the relationship between self-image and body. Brown says cultural attitudes toward fat account for the miasma of self-critique many people live in, regardless of their body shapes. And, contrary to popular opinion, these attitudes are not supported by science.

Combining her honors thesis with the thesis for her major in citizenship and civic engagement, Krzeminski’s goal is to make the subject matter of Fat and Feminism available to a broader group of her peers. Krzeminski believes that what’s revealed in Fat and Feminism could be transformative for many more than those who have the opportunity to take the course. “Eating disorders are not the only way that social messages about body shape have been internalized,” she says. “I want to help more people access this discourse.”

Writing, Scripture, Law

Profile of a statue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collections of ancient texts and artifacts is a highlight
for just about everyone who takes Writing, Scripture, Law. The display of the tablets and scrolls provides a vivid example of an important class topic: the power of texts, as physical objects, to denote status, authority and legitimacy. The course, taught by Jim Watts, professor of religion in the College of Arts and Sciences, explores how the technology of writing and texts channel power and shape society.

Marcus Lane Jr., a senior, applied to the honors program in large part because he wanted the opportunity to complete a thesis. He is a policy studies major and sociology minor and he’s passionate about his field.
He volunteers as a consultant for a Syracuse-based nonprofit that supports people through the process
of home ownership and building revitalization. The insights gleaned from Writing, Scripture, Law cast new light on the landscape he helps clients navigate. “I got to see how much of what we take for granted is actually constructed,” he says.

Another salient takeaway was the power wielded by texts. For example, the law or currency can be used to oppress or to liberate. “The technology of writing can be a tool of exploitation,” he says, “or it can be repurposed to resist exploitation.”

Working in the Digital Economy

Students smiling in a working in the digital economy class.

Your job has not yet been invented, Steve Sawyer, professor in the School of Information Studies, tells his students. Their job is to prepare for the unknown.

How? Well, a critical examination of the past is good place to start. Students in Working in the Digital Economy study the history of work and, in particular, the radical social changes triggered by the Industrial Revolution. They consider the consequences, sometimes troubling, of automation and artificial intelligence, commodification of human labor, jobs as identities and the psychological impact of various work structures. Sawyer, who builds his syllabus collaboratively with students in order to address their interests, hopes his students will emerge able to recognize social and economic realities of the work force and be adaptable as they move into a future where collaboration with technology will be increasingly common and increasingly nuanced.

Inspired by this class, Whitney Wertheimer, a junior, added information management and technology as a second minor to her already busy schedule (she’s majoring in policy studies with a minor in public health). “Change is coming in all industries, thanks to modern technology. The possibility of having the skills to interact with new technologies was too good an opportunity to pass up!” she says.

Sarah H. Griffin

This story was published on .


Also of Interest

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