Inviting Students to Continue Conversations from 3000 B.C.
The air was unusually warm and mild on an early December night at the University of Mobile. Students wearing intricate Greek clothes and bearing homemade Greek foods were congregating on campus to present their final project for the semester in the UMobile Honors Program, where grand presentations are normal for those who make the virtues of learning a habit.
“You don’t go into class and memorize material. You join a conversation that stretches back to 3000 B.C. and you engage that conversation along the way,” said Dr. Ted Mashburn, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
The Honors Program represents the academic heart of the University of Mobile, according to Honors professors. It presents talented students with the opportunity to explore challenging questions and deep academic topics while uniting students from every field of study at UMobile.
“Honors has taught me to find joy in everything that I do,” said Amanda Gaster, class of 2015. Students scurried behind her, working together to clean the remnants of the Greek marketplace that had existed minutes before. “When I am in a situation that is overwhelming or mundane, I look back on times when I put everything I had into seeking answers in Honors.”
Mallory Searcy, class of 2014, agrees that the Honors Program has a unique impact on the lives of students.
“Honors has taught me something incredible,” she said. “We can ask questions that every great mind has asked, and have the doubts that they have experienced, and we can come out still believing in God with a stronger faith in Him.”
The Honors Program provides that opportunity to students through a diverse community from all disciplines. Drs. Doug Mitchell and Katherine Abernathy, associate professors of English, lead the program while professors from various fields instruct the class each semester.
The UMobile Honors Program is a four-semester seminar that conditions students for further academic pursuits. The seminar replaces the students’ four required English core courses.
The program accepts students from all majors. Students who enroll with a 27 or higher ACT score are automatically placed in the Honors Program. Other motivated students may apply.
The seminar covers academic movements from the ancient world, Medieval and Renaissance periods, the Enlightenment and Romanticism, and modernism in the 20th century. The classes are interdisciplinary, encompassing many subjects within each movement. Multiple professors teach the course each semester, and the Honors Program selects professors based on their specializations, pairing the instructor with the movement in which he or she is most skilled.
After the seminar, students complete nine additional hours of Honors study in their respective disciplines. Every two years, UMobile offers Honors core courses in history, political science, philosophy, English, biology, and Christian studies in addition to upper-level specialty courses.
The 12-semester-hour seminar also generates a unique class structure. When a student arrives, he or she joins the active seminar course. The sophomore group that completed two semesters of the seminar the previous year shares this course with the freshmen.
Additionally, five elected sophomores serve on the Honors Council. The Council facilitates online student blogs and journal responses throughout the year. They also determine the topic for the final project.
“There are other people there to support [the new students]. The community provides that. We emphasize that you are there to help each other,” said Abernathy.
The seminar provides ample time and a friendly environment for students who want to think deeply and discuss difficult questions.
“The relationships are different. They bond around ideas,” said Mashburn.
The class will often divide into smaller groups to discuss, explore, and debate ideas that arise through study. The professors guide students both inside and outside class, aiding the students on research papers and supplying them with feedback on topics of interest.
“We would struggle through the questions that cause people to change their lives completely, and we learn to love,” said Gaster. Learning to care for other humans and to love like God drives the Honors program to treat students as people with a purpose rather than lifeless statistics.
Learning opportunities also thrive outside the classroom. Students organize educational events like the seminar final project, a formal class-wide presentation of a topic covered during the semester. The Greek marketplace was one such project; another resulted in construction of a Trojan horse.
“People really asked ‘why?’ They wanted to know why we spent all our time building a Trojan horse,” said former Honors president Jeremy Crews ‘13. “We do these things for the sake of learning. There are people in the program who won’t study English or philosophy or sociology for the rest of their lives, and we do these things so that we understand what it is like to come together and accomplish something, beginning with a work that we don’t understand, and uniting in that.”
The horse was constructed completely by seminar students during a three-week period. When assembled, the horse stood 25 feet tall.
“We didn’t know how to start or how to build. We took a chance that could have resulted in failure, but we reached our goal as a group. We learned through that struggle,” said Crews.
The students delivered the horse to the front of the university the evening of the final project. They then reenacted the Aeneid under the looming horse, sharing their minds and hearts with passing students and faculty.
“Most universities don’t have that,” continued Searcy. “They have this idea that we are limited because we are a Christian school. But here, with these professors and this program, we actually have more freedom. We know that we are seeking truth together. We can be honest with these questions.”
Monumental projects are not a unique event for Honors students even after they have completed the seminar. They become self-motivated in their search for truth and will often propose grand ideas to their professors.
“In Honors, one is not allowed to read a text and be tested over the material,” said Kala Holt ‘12. “The first step is to immerse oneself in the text – to live it. If it does not affect how you wake up in the morning and go about the day—if the readings that week do not bother you at least once—then you’ve missed it. You’ve only read the text. You haven’t lived the ideas.”
One group of Honors students lived the Honors mindset, deciding that performing Shakespeare is essential to learning it. Before the semester had even begun, they asked their Shakespeare professor, Dr. Stephen Schuler, if they could present the full play for the final grade in the course. He happily granted their request.
The students prepared the play with no outside involvement. They spent their time throughout the summer and time outside class preparing to present the play for the next semester.
“Much Ado required weeks where the average night’s sleep was four-and-a-half to five hours. The play required multiple Saturdays of not sleeping in, but showing up to rehearse – all day long,” said Holt. “It required constant thought, consistent prayer, and multiple failures. Much Ado required the very message it portrays: redemption.”
The play filled the auditorium and had to be expanded to three production nights rather than the original one-night show. The students proved the ability and initiative they had learned in the Honors Program.
“You see, education begins with strict discipline and labor, but it ends in freedom. The Honors Program allows us to turn students loose on texts and ideas and guide them as they make things their own,” said Honors professor Schuler. “It’s not just the ‘Iliad’ anymore, but our ‘Iliad,’ not just the ‘Republic,’ but our ‘Republic,’ not just the ‘Comedia,’ but our ‘Comedia.’”
For more information about the Honors Program at the University of Mobile, contact program director Dr. Douglas Mitchell at email@example.com or 251.442.2308.