Departmental Honors Program Offers Unique Experience

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Courtesy of UW Admissions

What do the American dream in 1920s literature, the evolution of America’s policy of constructive engagement with South Africa, and India’s educational programming have in common? They are all topics of departmental honors theses authored this past year by participants in the Department of Political Science’s Honors Program. Created in 1979 by Professor Daniel S. Lev the program provides a unique educational opportunity for both faculty and students characterized by individual attention and in-depth scholarship.

Each year, after a rigorous application and interview process, a committee of faculty members selects approximately fifteen students to take three seminars together over the course of the year and also complete an independent research project. The 2013-14 cohort, selected during Spring 2013, began their experience with current Honors Program director Professor Michael McCann in a seminar entitled “The Politics of Rights.”

Professor. Jack Turner praises the ability of these classes to provide students “the experience of a small college in the midst of this giant university. Moreover, the small seminars allow us to emphasize depth over breadth, and to invite students into the ambiguity and uncertainty and adventure of political analysis at the cutting edge.”  Professor Jamie Mayerfeld, former director of the program, notes that the seminars put all participants “on our mettle – me [as the instructor] no less than the students, since fortunately they showed no hesitation to challenge my views. I learned a lot.”

In addition to the seminars, each student conducts an independent research project, with the support of a faculty adviser, which results in a honors thesis that they must defend in front of a committee of faculty members.  Professor Turner emphasizes the rewarding nature of this project as it allows students “to experience the process of scholarship: working from hunches into disciplined research into synthesis of that research into cogent and compelling story line.” 

Members of the department’s Honors Program are among the UW’s best and the program offers a challenging, satisfying academic experience for these students. Shelby Woods, a member of the 2011-12 cohort, found “the opportunity to write 40 pages on a topic that I might not have learned much about otherwise” particularly rewarding. Shelby’s thesis, “The Greek Sovereign Debt Crisis: Politics and Economics in the Eurozone,” explores the causes, proposed solutions, and implications of the Greek debt crisis. Asked about his favorite part of the program, Willie Brenc, a member of the 2012-13 cohort, noted both the experience of writing the thesis and the opportunity to work with “a kind and insightful group of students who were all really engaged in the discipline.”

In just the past few years, our honors students have gone on to pursue graduate degrees in political science at top programs including Harvard, University of California – Berkeley, Brown, and the London School of Economics. Simon Ridell, a former political science honors student currently pursuing a Master’s of Science in political science and political economy at the London School of Economics, credits the program for providing him “better preparation than many of my peers, many of whom went to top universities. My exposure to graduate-level expectations and literature was higher than many other students.”

We are excited to see the work this year’s honors students produce and look forward to following their careers. They join a long list of alumni of the honors program who have had notable careers in business, government, public service, and with non-profit entities, including many of our department's distinguished alumni awardees.

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