As second semester approaches its halfway point, many members of the Class of 2014 find themselves in the throes of their honors projects.
Professor James Higginbotham, who is currently serving as Interim Registrar, shared the departmental breakdown of honors projects.
In general, somewhere between 80 to 100 seniors complete honors projects each year. The total number of students pursuing projects in 2014 is still in flux, but in the list of the historically most popular departments—see infographic—there are at least 85. Typically, more students complete projects in the life sciences than in other departments, leaving humanities projects in the minority.
“In the humanities, an honors project isn’t the culminating experience, but in science classes it often is,” Higginbotham said. “There is a much more credentialing aspect of honors projects with life sciences.”
Working in a lab for an honors project can be a truly rewarding experience, and Jenn Stauffer ’14, a neuroscience major, has been assisting in Associate Professor of Biology Michael Palopoli’s lab ever since her first year.
“My independent research at Bowdoin has been one of the highlights of my Bowdoin experience,” she said.
Stauffer was placed in Palopoli’s lab through a Bowdoin Science Experience work-study and who has since spent every summer working in this lab, studying the function of highly conserved, non-coding elements in the fruit fly’s genome.
As far as her honors project is concerned, Stauffer spends about 20 hours per week in the lab. On top of the bench work, Stauffer also reads a couple of papers every week and works on her actual thesis.
While departments like biology and biochemistry consistently attract a number of students to pursue honors projects, the earth and oceanographic studies (EOS) department has seen a jump in the number of students this year. For the past three years, two students have completed honors projects in EOS, but this year there are 10 students pursuing honors.
Walt Wuthmann ’14, an environmental studies and English coordinate major, is working on an environmental studies project with a creative spin.
“I wanted to do a project that combined my interests,” Wuthmann said in an email to the Orient.
“I wanted to explore an environmental issue, a pressing and immediate and divisive one, through creative nonfiction, a form that has the ability to synthesize, investigate, and raise questions about things that on the surface can feel like noise,” he added.
For his project, Wuthmann is exploring the East-West Highway conflict in Maine, which would be a private road running across the state. Wuthmann is tracking bills related to the road, and investigating the controversy surrounding it.
His project consists of writing a lot of papers, which he turned in after winter break. He is currently meeting with the readers of his project to figure out what he needs to revise while also writing about 10 pages of new material a week. He also plans to seriously revise over spring break.
Though she’s working on a different type of writing, Emily Powers ’14 is also working on an honors project for her English major.
“I’m writing a short story collection, which is the form of the honors project for students with a creative writing concentration. Like a normal English honors project, you have to pick a topic or theme to work [with], so it’s not just a free form project,” Powers said.
For her 80 to 100 pages of stories, Powers is working on the theme of grotesque fiction, which is a fantastical genre which takes place in the real world but things that happen are not explainable by conventional laws of nature.
“This is very different from other honors projects,” Powers said. “The vast differences between what we’re doing is very strange to me, as I’m not putting in lab or library time like others. It’s weird to work on this with the same constructs of deadlines. It’s difficult to produce something creatively in this same sort of format.”
Instead of writing stories based on her own inspiration, she must complete stories to meet certain deadlines mandated by the English department.
In general, about five students complete projects in English, either working on creative pieces like Powers or completing a more traditional essay project.
Although certain departments in the humanities and social sciences, like English, government, and history, attract several students to complete honors every year, others may have only one student. For example, many students describe the parameters for honors projects in the art history department to be particularly difficult.
James Denison ’14, an art history and French double major, is the only student working on a project in the art history department this year. For his research, he is both conducting a case study on American realist artist George Bellows’ “The Big Dory” and also initiating a discussion on important parts of the artist’s career.
Denison worked on his project over the summer, spending his time brainstorming and going through his reading list. He has also been to the New Britain Museum of American Art, Monhegan Island, the Maine Historical Society and Amherst College to enhance his research.
While Denison has found his experience to be rewarding, he also expressed some frustration.
“No one is encouraged to do an art history project. You have to take the initiative to do so,” he said.
As about one student completes an honors project every two years within this department, there are not many students to consult with while working on a project. Denison has had to rely on his advisor, Professor Dana Byrd, for all of his advice.
Small departments, like religion and philosophy, also typically have only one student working on honors. This is likely the case not because of systematic rejection on the parts of these departments, but because there are many other capstone experiences in which students can culminate their education, like exhibiting their work.
Further, what may be viewed as an imbalance between departments may be something else.
“The number of students completing honors really depends on departmental cultures,” Higginbotham said.
Correction, February 28, 3:40 p.m. : The original online infographic and print article stated that 85 students in the Class of 2014 are completing honors projects, but this number is still in flux and accounts only for those projects in the historically most popular departments. The Registrar did not release more conclusive data.