Honors

Procedures - Independent Work

Independent work in Politics consists of research and writing under the direction of a Politics Department faculty member. Independent work can take a variety of forms and need not lead to the production of an honors essay. Some projects have involved reading and writing tutorials; others have involved the preparation of critical bibliographies. Independent work may be done for credit as either Politics 295 or Politics 395.

For Politics majors, four credits of Politics 395 may be counted as one of the three 300-level courses required for the major. For non-majors, 300-level independent work in Politics may count toward the minor. Politics majors should be aware that they may do independent work in other departments and programs besides Politics, even with a view towards producing an honors essay.

Choosing a topic for independent work can rarely be separated from choosing a faculty director. If the project is undertaken with a view towards honors, the student should probably select a topic that taps into the director’s competence and interests. Few faculty members have the time to learn a new topic along with a student, much as they would like to. And the student and faculty member should also come to an early understanding of how they expect to proceed, how often they plan on meeting, and what work will be expected and by when.

With a View Towards Honors

For honors, College rules require that a student complete 8 credits of independent work over two semesters. (The grade for each semester is usually not awarded by the director of the independent work until the end of the second semester when the entire effort can be assessed.)

In order to have her independent work later considered for honors in Politics, a student must submit by mid-October a prospectus describing her project. (The Politics Department will announce in September the deadline for the prospectus and the other deadlines that follow.) This prospectus should include a statement of the subject matter or analytical problem to be investigated, a discussion, albeit tentative, of the issues she wishes to explore, and a tentative bibliography, possibly organized topically or annotated. The prospectus should be about three, double-spaced typewritten pages in length, exclusive of bibliography.

The purpose of requiring a prospectus is to help the student organize and define her topic and to inform Politics faculty about who is working with whom and on what subjects. The Department neither approves nor disapproves such projects. The student who is thinking of doing honors work should design her prospectus in consultation with the director of her independent work. The Politics Department will absorb the cost of duplicating a sufficient number of copies (usually 12) for distribution to Politics faculty.

In order to have her independent work eligible for honors consideration, the student must submit, by one week before the beginning of spring semester classes, a first draft of her independent work to the director of her independent work and to the faculty member who would serve as the second reader of an essay later submitted to the Politics Department for honors consideration. (For a general discussion of honors work in Politics, see below, “An Honors Essay.”)

The director and the second reader shall evaluate this first draft in order to determine whether or not this draft shows promise of honors quality. By the beginning of spring semester classes, the Chair of the Politics Department must obtain the evaluation of the director and the second reader and must then report to the Politics Department faculty the names of students whose independent work, on the basis of first drafts, remains eligible for honors consideration.

By the end of March, the student, the director of the independent work, and the second reader must decide whether the independent work should be submitted for honors consideration. If the independent work is to be submitted for honors consideration, the director must so notify the faculty of the Politics Department by the end of March, indicating the title of the essay and the composition of the examining committee.

An essay to be considered for honors must be submitted by the end of the last full week in April. At this time, two copies of the essay are due in the Department office, in addition to the three copies distributed to members of the examining committee.

Essays submitted for honors in Politics shall not exceed 75 pages in length, exclusive of references and bibliography, and are sometimes shorter in length. An essay submitted for honors consideration must conform to the College requirements regarding format, documentation, style, and paper. (The Dean of the College sends a memorandum outlining these requirements to all seniors enrolled in Independent Work 395.)

The Honors Examination and After

An examining committee shall consist of the director, a second reader from within the Politics Department, and an outside reader from either another department at Mount Holyoke College or from another institution in the Valley. The Chair of the Politics Department also attends honors examinations. An honors candidate may invite additional faculty members or classmates to attend the honors oral examination or to participate in the examination. The honors examination, which normally lasts about an hour, usually occurs during the reading period and the week of final examinations.

This examination is meant to be more of a conversation than an interrogation. That is to say, an honors essay representing work done over two semesters shall not be held hostage to an hour’s examination. A student’s examination will not detract from her committee’s evaluation of her essay, but a good examination can enhance the committee’s evaluation of her essay.

A student must wait for several days after the examination, or perhaps for as long as a week or more, to learn the outcome. In conformity with College rules, the examining committee makes a recommendation to the Politics Department, and the Department in turn makes a recommendation to the Academic Administrative Board. The Registrar will notify a student of the actual degree of honors awarded.

By July 1, a corrected copy of an honors essay must be sent by the student to the Library for permanent binding and cataloguing. The contribution of a second copy of the honors essay for the Politics Department will be appreciated.

An Honors Essay

The following remarks about an honors essay are necessarily general in order to allow for the variety of both subject and method of treatment in different fields of Politics. These remarks concern some irresistible characteristics of all good honors essays which can be briefly indicated.

The overriding consideration is that an honors essay be primarily analytical, not descriptive or reportorial. That is to say, a good honors essay exhibits the quality and active presence of the writer’s mind—her ability at reflective judgment and sustained analysis or argument—rather than simply her industriousness, her dexterity and physical endurance, at passively accumulating and then dutifully recording the materials of her chosen subject.

Of course, it is not always possible, especially for single portions of an essay, to distinguish analysis from descriptive narrative. And every honors essay, taken in its entirety, will necessarily contain both. This alternative of description or analysis nevertheless remains distinctive in principle. Can one detect and follow a penetrating intelligence at work in the essay or is the essay itself merely reportorial? Has the writer employed pertinent materials in a thoughtful and often original manner, or has she merely gathered and then arranged them in a chronological or obviously topical manner?

An honors essay, then, relies upon the writer’s reading in original sources and in the writings of other students of her subject, the taking of notes, and the like—the “research.” But this research is only a necessary rather than a sufficient condition of her work because an honors essay does more than summarize inert research. Significant understanding of a subject always awaits analysis. Until one has kneaded the pertinent materials in one’s own hands by assigning and demonstrating significance and by exploring relationships and formulating arguments, the subject has not been encountered.

A number of considerations, related to the initial selection of a subject, can enhance the likelihood that a completed essay will be primarily analytical. The subject of an honors essay should be generally familiar to the student before work commences, manageable in its scope, and whenever possible problematic in its intellectual formulation. If a topic is either unfamiliar or too broad, the writer is not apt to know what she is writing about or indeed, during her research, what she is looking for and may later include. A student soon drowns under the enormous quantity of note-cards resulting from this directionless accumulation of hesitantly relevant material. And the essay written under these circumstances is unavoidably descriptive: when everything about a given subject is apparently relevant, then nothing is truly relevant.

It will also create difficulties if mere curiosity, however intense and enduring, is permitted to determine the selection of a subject. For an honors essay on a subject in which a student is only beginning to find her way about can scarcely escape being a descriptive introduction to the subject, a preliminary mapping of the terrain which would better serve as the preparatory occasion for honors work rather than its culmination. In short, one ought to plan to write on a subject about which one already knows something and has something to say. It is only possible to pursue and emphasize some relationships while modulating or discarding others when one has some notion of what one is looking for, some analytical focus that invites or rather demands, on the basis of reflective intellectual concerns, the inclusion and exclusion of materials.

Often the simplest way to obtain and sustain an analytical focus is to conceive of one’s work (including perhaps the actual composition or organization of the paper) as an intellectual problem or task in which a hypothetical reader is to be persuaded of your arguments. And it is in this sense that the length of the essay or of the bibliography is not an automatic index to its quality as an analysis; the writer who develops and sustains an analytical focus always “knows’” more, or is familiar with more of both her materials and her sources, than the essay itself can explicitly proclaim.

There are a number of indirect indications that suggest whether an essay is predominantly analytical or descriptive in character. Often a writer can be confident her essay exhibits an analytical involvement with her materials if she can recall from earlier drafts having had to discard materials and ideas for reasons other than constraints of space and time. (This need not involve a wastebasket full of rejected sections.) Moreover, an analysis has a conclusion. That is to say, the essay has demonstrated something in a persuasive, documented manner; and this something could be and often is summarized at the beginning or the end of the essay. An honors essay therefore imparts a cumulative sense in its reading: there is an intellectual order to its constituent portions, so that each section is not a fresh beginning. Nor could successive sections, following some preliminary remarks, be shuffled and then read at random without difficulty: the presence and position of various sections, and specific materials within each section, convey the intellectual purpose of their presence.

Finally, one can ask oneself if a reasonably well-informed and well-intentioned reader could quarrel with the essay. Essays that are primarily descriptive in character have little if anything at stake intellectually; discussions about such essays, not surprisingly, are brief, matter-of-fact, and dull. But a tight, intellectually disciplined analysis does not permit a reader who is interested in the subject to adopt an indifferent attitude—any more than it has permitted its writer.

Independent/Honors Work in Politics: Deadlines

The deadlines for honors work in Politics during 2013-2014 are as follows:

  • Friday, October 11, 2014 at 3 pm:
    Submission of prospectus to Department. The prospectus should be sent to Patricia Ware (pware@mtholyoke.edu) in Microsoft Word document or Adobe pdf format.
  • Tuesday, January 14, 2014:
    In order to have her independent work eligible for honors consideration, the student must submit, by one week before the beginning of spring semester classes, a first draft of her independent work to the director of her independent work and to the faculty member who would serve as the second reader of an essay later submitted to the Politics Department for honors consideration.
  • Tuesday, January 21, 2014:
    By the beginning of spring semester classes, the Chair of the Politics Department must obtain the evaluation of the director and the second reader and must then report to the Politics Department faculty the names of students whose independent work, on the basis of first drafts, remains eligible for honors consideration.
  • Monday, March 31, 2014:
    By the end of March, the student, the director of the independent work, and the second reader must decide whether the independent work should be submitted for honors consideration. If the independent work is to be submitted for honors consideration, the director must so notify the faculty of the Politics Department by the end of March, indicating the title of the essay and the composition of the examining committee.
  • Friday, April 25, 2014:
    An essay to be considered for honors must be submitted by the end of the last full week in April. At this time, two copies of the essay are due in the Department office, in addition to the three copies distributed to members of the examining committee.
  • Thursday, May 1, 2014 at 7 pm - Monday, May 5, 2014 at noon
    Honors examinations held; see Faculty Legislation handbook details below.
  • Friday, June 27, 2014:
    Corrected copy of honors essay must be submitted to the Library in electronic format.

If faculty and students do not meet these deadlines, it will not be possible to submit independent work for honors consideration.

*From Handbook of Faculty Legislation:

  • Honor: two-thirds of examining committee and majority of department;
  • High Honor: unanimous examining committee and two-thirds of department;
  • Summa cum laude: cumulative GPA 3.75, unanimous examining committee, and two-thirds of department.