U of A Honors Catalyst Program Critique: Sign to Express Discontent

U of A Honors Catalyst Program Critique: Sign to Express Discontent

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Robin Asad started this petition to U of A Honors College Faculty

OVERVIEW:


We, the signers of this petition, believe that the time Honors students spend in the University of Arizona’s Honors Catalyst program can be better used to engage with the Tucson community and still both encourage familiarity with interdisciplinary styles of thinking and strengthen the interactions between honors students. We propose to achieve this effect through a change in the approach of the class curriculum, making the Honors Catalyst more oriented towards community service initiatives instead of limited theoretical discussion. We will also voice our current concerns with the Catalyst program’s current approach to interdisciplinary concepts in terms of student engagement and retention of targeted skills.

Within the past few days, there has been a survey released by the U of A to gauge student reactions to the Catalyst course and receive their feedback. However, many students do not have the time to articulate a response to the flaws they perceive in the program. This petition seeks to synthesize the complaints offered by some students and allow others to easily express their agreement with the following criticisms.

Please refrain from signing this petition if you are not either an Honors student at the University of Arizona or a prospective Honors student. The purpose of this petition is to gauge the response of students to the Catalyst class only if they have reason to be interested in its improvement.

Thank you for your consideration!

 

PROBLEMS WITH THE CURRENT CATALYST PROGRAM:

 

In terms of getting students to embrace interdisciplinary approaches, the current curriculum is somewhat sufficient. However, in our experience with the Catalyst program, current instruction can be repetitive and frustrating, especially because most students are already basically familiar with interdisciplinary approaches (with some even already embracing this idea in their studies with multiple majors and/or minors).

Keeping this in mind, while we understand that the objective of educating students on interdisciplinary approaches is a noble and valuable use of class time, we believe that the time and effort expended on this effort in the current Catalyst program is in excess. We hold that the course can be utilized for better purposes.

Additionally, the themes identified in the Honors common reading book (for this semester, they were identity, resilience, and power) are a bit superfluous if the analysis of the book through the class is present as little as it has been this semester. We recognize that the idea of themes makes it easier to design out-of-class activities, but to our knowledge, this approach has not generally benefited students in helping them to understand interdisciplinary studies. The Campus Soundwalk in particular did a poor job of maintaining student interest in the course content and many students did not complete the activity as assigned, instead using resources like Google Maps or copying work from their group members. In contrast, the Urban Renewal project was highly effective in maintaining student interest and related well to the focus of the course through helping students to understand mechanisms of power, resilience, and identity as they appear close to home, so to speak; it simultaneously helped students to gain experience in studying within economics and the humanities.

At the beginning of the semester, our class identified different disciplines from which to approach the classwork. While sticking to these fields throughout the semester may make discussion within each class more uniform, the fact that the disciplines examined may not be changed by students at any point in the course makes it difficult to obtain a transferable understanding of the connections between disciplines. The nature of the disciplines studies is such that much of the overlap in different fields is consistent across issues, and so keeping the disciplines observed static is essentially getting students to identify the same academic relationships over and over again rather than teaching them how to identify connections between any given fields of study.


ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES: 


The signers of this petition seek to indicate their strong interest in doing more with the time spent in Honors Seminar classes, especially in areas beyond interdisciplinary training. We are especially interested in curriculum-related community service in place of some out-of-class activities. 

We believe that this will improve the value of the class to social cohesion within the Honors program through a program-wide effort to solve a common set of problems. This approach will also encourage intensive involvement with the greater Tucson community. If the thousands of Honors students enrolled in Catalyst mobilized to engage in community service, the positive impact on the greater Tucson area would be immense. Community service could also actively help students to practice interdisciplinary approaches in real situations because community service operations often combine perspectives from (for example) economics and the social sciences by their very nature.

We also wish to express our interest in doing more with the assigned book, especially as inspiration for greater community involvement. This summer's reading was well-liked by first-year students and many people were very excited to hear that Dr. Mona would be visiting the U of A. If future books also focus on specific people using interdisciplinary approaches to effect change in their community, part of the classes' training could be on how to engage in research and community service in the specific area discussed in the assigned reading.


A PARALLEL REALITY: WHAT COULD CATALYST LOOK LIKE? WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL BENEFITS?


This is an example of the type of curriculum we would like to see in the Honors Catalyst course. This example is based on this semester’s assigned reading, the book What the Eyes Don’t See by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, but differs in its approach to teaching interdisciplinary styles of thinking.

In this semester of the Honors Catalyst program, students will work together to design and execute an initiative to improve the education of Tucson residents about the dangers of lead and how to prevent lead poisoning in children. Tucson is an old city, and thus has some residential districts where citizens are at high risk of lead poisoning from sources like (for example) leadened paint.

In the first week, students will work with their professors to compile research about which areas in Tucson are at high risk for lead poisoning, and from which sources lead may be introduced. Subsequent weeks will focus on constructing a common curriculum for teaching Tucson citizens about lead poisoning and designing an informed method for disseminating this knowledge through research. For example, students could visit schools in high risk areas to educate children about how to avoid lead poisoning, since children stand to suffer particularly severe injury from this issue. Alternatively, the U of A could host free student-led workshops on-campus for parents to educate families about this important issue; there are many possible approaches to this problem. Students will have the most influence over the design of this community service initiative, but should be allowed to seek the guidance of their professors. Overall, using the ideas put forward by students, the professors in the Catalyst program will choose a specific design to act on within the resources of the U of A. The final weeks of the class would be given as time to implement this initiative, and may involve work off-campus if the design so requires.

In this curriculum model, interdisciplinary training is achieved through a hands-on approach to a real-world problem. For this specific What the Eyes Don’t See-based curriculum, disciplines covered may include education, health sciences/biology, anthropology, and history (among others). This also teaches students to apply interdisciplinary learning to a purpose that is not purely theoretical (like in the current Catalyst program), which can help to increase the retention of strategies involving an interdisciplinary approach. Compared to the current rigid approach to different fields of study, this also teaches a more transferable understanding of relationships between disciplines.

Students are also able to connect with each other as budding professionals. In cooperating with others, Honors students can practice working in groups on issues with real-world impacts. This group approach can also encourage discussion between students in different majors-- an important precursor to interdisciplinary work in the students’ prospective careers.

Furthermore, under this model, the U of A could use the initiative designed by students to better the school’s publicity. The Honors College at the U of A is in direct competition with the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University, which is sometimes considered to be one of the best honors colleges nationwide. Such a wide-scale initiative, as made possible by repurposing the Honors Catalyst and involving thousands of committed students, is a highly visible way to demonstrate the value of our honors college at the U of A. U of A’s status as a so-called “Public Ivy” can be better maintained by helping students to get involved in community service initiatives, a common point of advertisement for other high-performing schools. One such school is the Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, which houses the Office of Active Citizenship and is renowned for its community outreach, or the University of California-- San Diego, which encourages its students to engage in the surrounding community under the philosophy that when a community is strengthened, students in a community can share in that benefit.

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