A Progressive, Productive Model for Honors and Equity

Honors Project Faculty Coordinator, College of San Mateo

Note: The following article is not an official statement of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. The article is intended to engender discussion and consideration by local colleges but should not be seen as the endorsement of any position or practice by the ASCCC.

“Math is everywhere” is a saying that I have heard on multiple occasions from my previous math teachers. But where exactly is it? Most people would not say they encounter math outside of school. However, they are not looking close enough, because math is a mystery, after all. I am hopeful the outcome of my research will open the eyes of my readers to notice the math mysteries around them.

While Asian Americans may fall into the trap of believing we are immune to racism due to our perceived proximity to whiteness, it is both unethical and unwise that we remain silent about any discrimination and dehumanization faced by ourselves and by our fellow POC. It is therefore essential for Asian Americans to join a unified resistance against the inherent racism of white supremacist America.

Using a phenomenological approach, I draw upon my experiences as a hafekasi—half-white, half-Oceanian—living in a diaspora, as well as the experiences of several other members of the Pasifika diaspora, to argue for the decolonization and indigenization of mindsets in order to recognize Oceania as a transnational community.

The statements above are not from master’s thesis descriptors or book proposals, though perhaps they could be. Rather, they are excerpts from community college student honors research proposals. Slightly paraphrased, such samples capture the spirit of the College of San Mateo’s Honors Project. More importantly, they offer a window into the honors program model at College of San Mateo, uniquely innovative for how it ambitiously addresses issues of equity, productivity, and new progressive pedagogies. The model is presented here not so much as a polished remedy but rather to invite reflection.

Part of the inspiration for developing this model came from wanting to better engage the distinctly lower-division context of community college students. On one hand, the honors model was envisioned to respect and accommodate the wide-ranging diversity of students from all varieties of ethnicity, socio-economic background, and learning styles, including first generation, international, and returning students. On the other hand, the intent is to offer an academically rigorous and intensive experience, one that will prepare students for upper division coursework, graduate school, and the professional workplace.

The heart and soul of the model is interdisciplinary seminars. These two-unit courses meet once per week for two hours; all students admitted to the program are required to take them. In the seminar, each student works through a research project for a transfer course the student is taking.  Thus, the seminar is process-oriented rather than content-oriented, though plenty of content is also discussed. Students work collaboratively in a learning community environment, but they also work independently on each of their respective research projects. While the seminar introduces students to basic interdisciplinary theories and research methods, it also encourages students to generate their own interdisciplinary flow from the ground up: they bring their own homegrown research topics to the table from diverse disciplines, helping and learning from each other.

The model thus flips the more traditional honors approach, where students are told what classes to take and what papers to write. Rather, San Mateo invites students to decide which courses they want to receive honors credit for and which area of the course they want to investigate. Such student-centered flexibility honors what students bring forward while guiding them to build academic muscle. Success, completion, persistence, and transfer rates are all 25% to 40% higher than respective college-wide averages. Moreover, since the program launched eight years ago, students have consistently presented their work at statewide conferences held at Stanford, UC Berkeley, and UC Irvine.

Crucially related to this ground-up rather than top-down dynamic is another major advantage, where equity becomes a real living force, not just a lofty aspirational concept. The program is primed to accommodate students with varying backgrounds of academic preparedness and experience. San Mateo does its best to start from each student’s point of departure in terms of academic level and topic, guiding the students outward and upward. This goal, of course, is one key underlying aim of all education. At College of San Mateo, this aim becomes honors for how it goes above and beyond the assigned coursework in a way that is flexible and collaborative; this practice, in turn, renders the honors experience more equitable. Like student-instructor collaboration, diversity is explicitly built into the very structure of the model, with the seminar serving as a safe extended family zone for each student’s distinct academic journey. Though student demographics generally mirror the college as a whole, the honors program draws lower percentages of Hispanic and first-generation students. Thus, more proactive outreach needs to enhance the model. Additionally, as inclusive as it is intended and promoted to be, an interdisciplinary honors seminar may not be the right fit for some students. The program is thus in no way an absolute solution to equity, but the pedagogical approach is nevertheless a concrete step in the right direction.

Another benefit is the model’s implications for productivity, which may appeal to the budgetary concerns of administrators. In the classic honors scenario, programs often bump against the problem of sustaining designated course sections with requisite enrollment. The widespread fix of contracts is not reliable and is susceptible to resulting in a merely additive, potentially flimsy experience. Striking a happy medium between sections and contracts, the San Mateo model proves to be cost-effective, since the main expenses are the two-unit seminar instructor salaries and modest, token compensation offered to the transfer course instructors for their time and efforts. Of course, if the program continues to grow, expenses too will balloon. At that point, the college administration will have to decide whether and how to continue supporting the program. 

Not everything in the program runs smoothly. Getting students to regularly communicate and share progress with their transfer course instructors can be daunting. Likewise, getting instructors to respond to students, with at least minimal input, can prove thorny. Sometimes the seminar and transfer course instructors do not see eye to eye on expectations, with students at times feeling caught in the middle.This potential disconnect in turn reflects the tension between equity and academic rigor: the model aims to meet the students where they are but also to lift them up. Being an open access community college complicates this tension further. In welcoming such a wide range of academic levels of preparedness, the program also welcomes an equally wide range of honors parameters according to instructors and courses. This situation can lead to problematic variations in what determines honors, which can be challenging for students and instructors to negotiate.

Thus, as the program celebrates the sometimes-difficult scholarly process students go through, the college continues to push and refine the program model. The model is itself therefore an ongoing exploration.