As the end of the 2020 English honors seminar nears, my peers and I find ourselves mulling over the year-long process. This year's honors seminar, "The Power of the Popular (or, All Our Faves Are Problematic)" has been taught by the spectacular Dr. Caroline Hong. In this seminar, we engaged with popular works and analyzed the good, the bad, and the ugly that constitutes their reputation. We learned to abandon our ego and critique the popular works we hold dear. We learned that no work is without its problems but is still worth investigating. Our discourse, both in-class and on twitter, was lively and comprehensive. This was a seminar of awareness, wisdom, and regard.
Cut to early 2019, before we were #HonorsonPop; we were frazzled and intimidated baby English majors signing up for the 2019-20 honors seminar. Some of my #HonorsOnPop cohorts have pondered over this earlier stage of their English major as well as their experiences as English honors students and would like to impart some of their wisdom to prospective English honors students. Together we have compiled a Q&A to address some of the anxieties and qualms prospective English honors students may have. Thank you to my lovely peers for contributing to this article.
Prospective English honors students, before reading the following Q&A, please feel free to refer to the Queens College Department of English website to be informed on the general outline and what is required of you in the English Honors Program. This will put the Honors seminar in context for you. Please be advised that this Q&A does not completely encompass the English Honors experience, only a few. This should not be your only source to determine if the Honors seminar is for you. Please reach out to Professor Léger for any further concerns.
What questions or concerns did you have as a prospective honors student? Were you worried or intimidated by the program? Were you able to address those questions or concerns?
Aidan Mohan: Everyone involved in the program in the 2019-2020 session was very, very communicative and available to answer any questions. Professor Leger and Professor Hong are very quick e-mail repliers.
Emily Shih: If I can remember, my biggest source of anxiety before the start of the seminar was where the bar for success was—I wasn’t sure how different it would be from a “normal” English class, or how much would be expected of us. However, I think this anxiety was just due to unfamiliarity, the screening process, and the “honors” label attached to the course; after meeting the other students and going through the coursework, thesis, and final exam, I would say that although it’s quantitatively demanding and the projects are on a larger scale than in a normal course, it’s nothing you’re not prepared for. And it’s definitely not a high pressure or high stakes environment—especially with the support of the professor and other students, who will all have your interests at heart.
Leila Rosner: The honors program was the reason why I chose to go to Queens College over Hunter College when I transferred from LaGuardia Community College. The expectation of collaborating with other students who shared my love for analysis and questioning things was very exciting to me. Worry was really not a factor because I knew that all I had to do was draw upon the training I received from the amazing professors that I had previously and everything would fall into place. Trusting your own inner intellect is the first key to putting things like worry in the background.
Vallaire Wallace: I was super intimidated–a few of my friends were in the course as seniors, and one of them was barely able to complete their thesis on time. I was scared about the page requirements for the thesis, especially since I was editing my writing sample concurrently (and my writing sample was 25 pages). It was scary! But Professor Hong paced things in such a way that I was able to get everything done, and anything I was overly worried about I addressed through emails or in class or in meetings (I’m a very vocal person when I’m upset about something, lmao).
Cara Rafferty: Prior to our first class in the fall semester, I was intimidated of going into the honors program. I knew of past students who had taken the course and often heard from them how challenging the course could be at times. However, I have to say that while extremely stressful at times, the honors program was a great experience. Dr. Hong made the readings interesting and the workload manageable, which I will forever be grateful about.
Kaitlyn Heniges: I was concerned about managing a large workload. I knew there would be a lot of reading and I wasn’t sure if the class would take up huge amounts of time or if I would be able to handle it. I think there ended up being less work than I expected, and it was definitely manageable.
Reena Alter: I think we all pretty much have the same question in the beginning and that’s, how hard is this class, really? Then, probably how much work do we have to do? Lol I definitely got my answers but it's all relative now that we’ve gone through the process. In the end, is it a lot of work? Yes. Is it hard work? Yes. But is it impossible? Not at all. And the support you get from your classmates and your professor and other professors from the English department changes everything. You are really supported when you’re in this program and everyone just wants to see you win.
Vanessa Mangru: Before I started the program, I was incredibly intimidated. It took me a while to work up the courage to fill out the application and submit it because I had heard from other students who had been through the program about how intense it was. I had so many questions about what the program was going to be like. I wanted to know how many assignments we’d have to do, what those assignments were, and the process of getting through each of them. Professor Hong and Professor Orchard were, and continue to be, so helpful in answering each and every one of those questions for me. They really know how to assuage those concerns and help you take it one step at a time and before you know it, you have all your answers and you get through the entire thing pretty manageable!
How did you plan out your semester’s schedule? Did your overall schedule accommodate your honors course schedule?
Aidan Mohan: I could only go to school on Tuesday and Thursday because I was working the other days of the week. It being a weekly course makes it very easy to slot into a schedule.
Emily Shih: I think the course being offered in two sections makes it easy enough to fit into your schedule, especially since it only meets once a week—I ended up switching the section I was in due to a scheduling conflict with another mandatory class, but making that transition was easy enough since both sections are relatively synced with one another. Though I would say, try to attend class as much as possible, since the pace of the class moves more quickly when it meets only once a week.
Leila Rosner: I knew that the honors program was going to test my capabilities as a scholar and I planned accordingly taking only one other course (which was a master’s degree course I was able to take early). Being confident should never turn into arrogance that you will be able to handle the honors course along with three other writing courses. The ones who think that their intelligence is boundless and that they can handle the honors program along with multiples of other hard writing courses (like ENGL 241, 242, 243, and 244) will be given a reality check. A student must know that the honors program by itself is unlike any other course in the program and plan accordingly.
Vallaire Wallace: I knew going into the major that I wanted to take the Honors seminar, especially because I had a friend during my sophomore year that had taken it. That being said, I made sure that my schedule senior year was as light as possible–in the fall, I took honors and some fun courses (Introduction to LGBTQ Studies, which were mostly screenings and discussion and Directing, where I got to act and stage scenes…they were so good for taking my mind off things!) Unfortunately, despite all the prep and precaution I took, my overall schedule still didn’t accommodate my honors course–I was applying to 13 grad programs, and running a newspaper, so a lot of obstacles ate up my time to give the course the full attention that it needed. I’d advise people looking to take it on to have as light a load as manageable, to do all you can to succeed!
Cara Rafferty: I planned out my semester’s schedule around which courses I needed in order to graduate in May! In both the fall and spring semesters, I found that the honors seminar fit perfectly into my schedule.
Kaitlyn Heniges: I always try to crowd my classes into Tuesdays and Thursdays because I work Monday/Wednesday/Friday. Because the class was only held on Tuesdays, I was able to use the free time chunk on Thursdays to get a lot of work done, so yes.
Reena Alter: Honestly, I had been talked into this program by a professor I really trust and so I planned my schedule around the honors class. I was one of the last students to sign up so the Tuesday afternoon class was already full and I had to take the Wednesday night class. It ended up being the smaller class out of the two and to be honest I preferred it that way. We got a lot of attention and we had plenty of time to think through our work which is really important to me. I never felt like I had to sound like I knew what I was talking about or that anyone in the room was judging me when I said something that wasn’t quite right. It helps, too, being in a night class and everyone just understanding that it's been a long day so some days I would talk more and other days someone else would carry me on their backs during discussions.
Vanessa Mangru: I planned out my semester’s schedule kind of with equal accommodation to other classes. If I could find most of my classes to fit around the honors seminar one day instead of the other, I’d choose to take the seminar for that day. By the second semester, I found that I was actually willing to take the honors seminar on a different day than my other classes just because I appreciated the class and what it brought to me so much.
Was the seminar and discussion format of this course beneficial to you? What advice would you give students who have a shyer disposition?
Aidan Mohan: Tweet frequently! Take good notes of what other people say because they will give you a new perspective on the text. You’re going to kill it.
Emily Shih: I would say most weeks I found it generative and engaging, especially when group energy levels and enthusiasm were high—though I also feel like open discussion formats have a tendency to become imbalanced and generalized, often when the topic or text being discussed might be sensational or provocative.
My biggest piece of advice for shyer students (in any class, not just the seminar) would be that, as a general rule, no one in the classroom is any more of an expert in English than you are—least of all any person who insists they are. The point of the open discussion format is to work with your peers collaboratively, so be interested in others’ contributions and have faith in them to be equally interested in what you have to say. In this class, as in any other, you should be thinking about and addressing questions that are interesting and valuable to you, which means sometimes being the one to start conversations or direct discussion—even if you’re generally a listener.
Leila Rosner: Discussion and discourse are the roots of all discovery. Discourse allows for the constrictions of reality to be suspended and to find a new way to look at literature and the world itself. If this new way of thinking gets adopted or not, that is a different story. The discussion in the course is crucial to understanding literature and to find new ways of looking at yourself in the process. That is the true understanding that allows you to project yourself and to change others. In this, shyness should never be an excuse for holding back yourself and your capabilities. Being that nothing said within discourse is “wrong” per se (except for any uses of language that degrade people), then you need to tell yourself that being shy in a room of other scholars like yourself is a useless proposition. A real shame in any life is an intellect that is held back.
Vallaire Wallace: They were beneficial to me as a soon to be PhD student, lmao. If you’re looking to go to graduate school after getting your Bachelors, I’d highly advise taking the honors seminar. The workload and requirements (in both the fall and spring) are similar to things you’d be doing as a grad student (reading a book a week, plus theory), so if you want a taste of that, definitely do it. I’m not as scared about the fall because I already know what a seminar is like, and what the expectations are of me. Having done visits and talking to first- and second-year doctoral students and letting them know what my coursework is like, they were very reassuring–I’ve also actually sat in on a PhD class and it was so similar to the honors seminar it calmed my nerves about grad school immediately.
Discussions have always been easy for me (even though I do have public speaking anxiety! Palms weak, knees weak, arms are heavy, the whole Eminem deal). I think if you’re shy, think of seminars/classes less so as “Ahhhh I have to say things that people have to listen to, Am I even smart, Should I even say these things, AHHHHH” and more so of you in a space where you’re here to learn! You’re sharing what you know with others, and others are sharing what they know with you. Class discussion is just so much better and more fruitful if everyone speaks – everyone has a different perspective, a different opinion on a reading, on life! Getting over your fear of taking space in a room is no easy task, but take it step by step. Start by saying one thing: it could be a question about the reading, a statement. But definitely say something! Your voice deserves to be heard.
Honors seminar has its ups and downs–sometimes everyone got a chance to speak, and we’d have a great discussion and a new light on the reading, or sometimes we’d be staring at each other waiting for someone to talk. Either way, you’re in that room for hours whether you like it or not, so you might as well speak.
Cara Rafferty: As someone who can be quiet at times, I found the seminar to be a welcoming space. If you’re worried about speaking up in class, I recommend placing a (bright-colored!) post-it on any passages you found especially compelling/complex. On the post-it you could write a point about the passage that you’d like to discuss so you already have your talking point in front of you. For our seminar, we also used twitter, which I thought was a great way to not only share your own thoughts, but also see what your fellow honors students had to say.
Kaitlyn Heniges: Yeah, I love discussion classes. I love hearing what people think, and how they interpret things differently from me. I wouldn’t consider myself shy, but based on our class I think shy people can be assured that their classmates will be kind in discussions.
Reena Alter: Yeah for me, I’m definitely not shy to talk through my work so the seminar and discussion format worked for me. I totally get not wanting to talk too much and there were days where I didn’t feel like talking either, but I felt like our class was the most fun and beneficial when everyone participated. I will say that right before class someone might come in and be, like, “I didn’t finish the reading I only got up to this chapter,” or “I did not understand that at all,” and we might give them a quick break down, or just be, like, “no worries I’ll talk about the ending you talk about the beginning.” We’re human and sometimes we don’t finish everything; it is a lot of work but we all just wanted to see each other win and there was not one point in time where I didn’t feel comfortable enough to say “I’m overwhelmed,” or “what the fuck did we just read.” The environment was always welcoming and the conversations seemed to happen naturally.
Vanessa Mangru: I really enjoyed the discussion format of the course. It felt like a really intelligent book club! The dynamic was so equalizing and it didn’t feel like a class where there was this immense pressure to say smart things or have the right answer all the time. I think those thoughts just came to everyone the more we talked and heard each other’s perspectives. I learned so much from hearing everyone else be so open with their own thoughts and I can’t express enough appreciation for how non-judgmental and supportive everyone was. For students that have a shyer disposition, I think a good strategy is to really find a thought or a concept every week that you can identify with because I think that that makes it easier to talk about. It feels harder to talk about things you don’t necessarily connect with, so you can let other people in the class who do connect with that stuff kick it off for you while you soak it in. That way, you bring something else to the table for discussion and it doesn’t feel intimidating to talk about something you know you understand well.
How is this honors course different from other English courses? What course(s) can you compare this to?
Cara Rafferty: The biggest difference between this course and other English courses I have taken here at Queens College is the readings. Each week, we essentially read a full work, which could at times be difficult. However, I also found that our class never ran out of discussion. Each week, we were able to keep the conversation going, something that can sometimes be challenging in other courses.
Kaitlyn Heniges: There was more discussions and less lecturing. It was most similar to the Genre class for me, because that class was heavy on discussion.
Reena Alter: Whew child! I would compare it to a mix of Theory and Creative Writing workshops. It is simultaneously the hardest experience but at the same time so fun. I don’t know if we just got lucky with our topic this year or that Dr. Hong is just a literal angel but I entered every class bursting with questions or comments and left every class feeling like I learned something significant. Every single night, without exceptions.
Emily Shih: I think the biggest difference between this course and other English courses is its scale. While the difficulty level isn’t any higher than the other English survey courses, I don’t think many of us are used to organizing and preparing for long-term projects or cumulative exams like the thesis and final. It’s basically like all of the English 240 classes got mushed together—it’s not harder than any of its individual components, but it requires some extra planning ahead and commitment. Also, because there are more texts to process than in a standard course; another difference I noticed was that we did less guided detail work (question/answer format lectures, close reading, etc.) than you might be used to in a “normal” English class—the class will largely be comprised of what you and your classmates make of it.
Leila Rosner: The honors course becomes an amalgamation of the four main English courses that you take at Queens College (ENGL 241,242,243 and 244). The need to draw upon elements from each of these classes becomes crucial to developing an eventual honors thesis that develops new scholarship that can become a seed to new ideas and new ways of looking at any text. Without the amalgamation of these core English courses, any thesis that is written will lack the potentiality that is necessary to change people’s perceptions. For instance, with my thesis on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the need to understand the historical context of Stowe’s life and the historical period where people were enslaved is only a first step in truly understanding the book. The need to understand things like genre became important to unravel why Stowe was portraying characters the way she did and that it may not have been a novel that fit the genre of “abolitionist novel.” This is where the uncovering takes place and where minds can be changed.
Vallaire Wallace: I’ve always taken reading-heavy and discussion-heavy English courses, but the course this compares greatly to is Theory. We had a lot of discussion in that class, a lot of theory and books, and much commiserating amongst classmates over the difficulty of the coursework. The biggest difference, really is the creation of a cohort–a group of people taking the same load of work as you over the course of a year. It’s very graduate-school like, where you have a group of people who know exactly what you’re going through at all times, rather than the typical semester long course where you’re really close with people for 6 months and then that’s it.
Vanessa Mangru: One way that this honors course is different from other English courses is because of the breakdown of the assignments. While you may have a bunch of small assignments and a midterm paper and a final paper for other classes, this one emphasized the thesis and the honors exam the most. We had so much time to develop our thoughts and work out strategies for those two big chunks of our course. I really can’t think of another course this one compares to! The energy is so liberating and personalized that I don’t really think there’s another class like it since they all tend to teach strictly through the lens of the course subject. Of course, the honors course had a subject lens, too, but it was more of a broad concept that we were able to apply to several genres of works across several media.
What did you struggle the most with? What did you have an affinity with?
Cara Rafferty: I found that the most challenging aspect of the honors seminar for me was the honors exam. However, I do believe this was due to both the coronavirus and personal matters that happened to occur during the week of the exam. The best part of the honors seminar has to be your fellow students! I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by brilliant, kind, creative people who always introduced me to ideas that I had not thought of myself. Besides this, I really enjoyed writing my honors thesis. Dr. Hong made it so that we essentially were more than halfway done with the thesis by the end of the fall semester, so that in the spring it was just adding finishing touches.
Kaitlyn Heniges: I struggled the most with the presentation, I like discussions but I hate standing in front of people and presenting. Horrible.
Reena Alter: The first semester is by far the easiest part of the entire course. You’re going along reading a bunch of books as fast as you can and doing a couple of homework assignments. But when you get to the second semester all the work in the first semester is like kindergarten homework at that point. For the readings, I would say I struggled most with the Middle English texts we were assigned and overall the exam is the hardest exam I’ve ever taken (I don’t know if this is because we had to take it in isolation or not, but I was stressed). I had an affinity with just coming into class and talking it out. Thankfully, Dr. Hong really let us talk in our own voices and I could literally come into class and be like “I feel like this character doesn’t give a fuck” or “I don’t remember the word in English” and everyone would help me figure out what I was picking up on in the text and we had so much fun in our discussions even when it got heated sometimes.
Vanessa Mangru: Something I struggled with was the meticulousness of the mechanics of writing. It started off with the thesis and then I found myself trying to be just as careful when writing my essays for the exam, too. There’s so much emphasis on being as specific and clear as absolutely possible and really finding a way to ground every claim you make so that every single word holds so much importance for your arguments. That made me pretty anxious, but it was definitely good pressure that I think helped me develop my writing skills more. Something I had an affinity with was actually the selection of required texts for the course. On first glance and reading blurbs, so many of them didn’t really seem like they’d be something I would pick up and read on my own time. I’m so glad that this course required me to, though! It helped me step outside my comfort zone and explore different genres and writing styles that I’ve found a great appreciation for. A few of the works have actually become some of my favorite pieces of literature!
Emily Shih: I think my biggest struggle this past year has been putting too much pressure on myself to perform. I’m sure most of us struggled with that—especially with the amount of work, the scale of the projects, and the fact that we were being doubly judged: for a grade and by the honors committee. There were definitely times where I lost sight of what was realistic and expected of us, placing the bar much higher than was attainable given our experience levels and our workloads. But that pressure doesn’t reflect reality—I think, more likely than not, both the professor teaching the seminar and the honors committee try to give the students benefit of the doubt and understand our limitations; they expect us to make mistakes, and would certainly have that over us not learning.
What I enjoyed the most, though, and which ultimately is the best way to do well in this (or any other) class, was the opportunity to explore lines of thought and readings of texts that I was personally invested and interested in. This is the class where I felt I had the most control over what I could focus on and dedicate time to, both in my own personal work as well as during class. It was also inspiring to get that same energy from the other students—at its best, the class made it clear that we were all genuinely interested in the ideas we brought to class, and interested in processing and responding to others’ ideas.
Leila Rosner: The ability to read 200 or so pages in a week became challenging when analysis becomes linked to the text you are reading. The amount of pages itself is not a challenge to an intelligent person but when the goal is to think critically about the text, a balance must be found to analyze the text but only to a certain extent. This is where the proverbial “lens” must be put on. The text must be read within a very specific context only so that it can be analyzed but not to the point where every page is annotated and described. After much practice, I am able to look at a text within a lens of analysis based on the ultimate goal of the reading. For example, some texts can be read just as much for a commentary on class as they could for being a commentary on race. Specificity is crucial here to provide analysis but not to the point where assignments cannot be completed within the allotted time.
Vallaire Wallace: Girl………reading the literature, doing the work, participating in class, while also writing a statement of purposes and a writing sample for 13 grad programs at the same time was the worst experience of my life thus far, I’m not going to lie. It’s hard to highlight and annotate and throw yourself into the work when you have a million other things to do. I was working early in the mornings (5:30 AM until 8 AM), running a newspaper (Editor-in-Chief of The Knight News), and then whatever time I had left was for schoolwork. Or graduate school prep. It became a choice of knowledge over my next career choice, and it was painful.
I most enjoyed the discussions! I loved hearing people’s perspectives on the texts we read, or close reading things in groups with people. I also loved the Powerpoint presentations Prof. Hong made us do, where I was introduced to everyone’s fandoms (Transformers, The Office, etc.) and it was so fun! I had an affinity for it mostly because talking about texts is comfortable for me.
What was something that you found not as difficult as you assumed it to be?
Aidan Mohan: The entire course is seminar-based and weekly so I think the course is easygoing. If you’re paying attention during the seminar and pacing yourself well with the (infrequent) written assignments, you will be okay.
Emily Shih: Originally (like many of my classmates, I’d assume) I thought the thesis would be one of the most difficult parts of the honors seminar. After all, at this point in our undergrad careers, the longest papers we’re used to writing top out around 15 pages (if that), and don’t often require independent research at this scale or depth—it makes sense that this is one of the most intimidating parts of the class.
However, I think it’s more helpful (and fun!) to think about it as a yearlong experiment. That is, you are under no pressure to produce something polished, professional, publishable, or perfect. That’s simply unrealistic and unfair to expect of students who will largely be new to this kind of large scale writing and research (and probably an impossible goal to meet within a few months and a 20 page limit, anyway). Instead, it’s more like a free “what if?”—a chance to really buckle down and commit to something you’re interested in thinking about. So, what if you wrote about that story you always liked, but never took a class about? What if you took the time to study an area of literature you’ve previously overlooked? What if you paired two seemingly incompatible, unrelated texts and tried to prove their connection?
If you’re interested in your thesis, and you have fun doing it, I’m sure your professor and the honors committee will recognize that over its flaws—no one’s project will be perfect, so you might as well have fun and do something you won’t get the chance to do in another class.
Leila Rosner: When faced with the prospect of having to know over twenty texts, I initially was a little nervous about how I could possibly know them all to the point where integral connections could be made and a final honors exam essay could be written. You must be resigned to the fact that you will not know all of the texts assigned for the course with the same level of understanding. If you know four main texts very well, then maybe four more moderately well you will be ok. Expectation can be a killer. Do not expect to know each text to the level where you could write a dissertation on it. Concentrate on the principles behind the text first and the details will fall into place. Also, the ability to know the elements of the honors curriculum related to critical theory becomes very important.
Vallaire Wallace: The thesis, surprisingly! It was very much a last minute idea–I was originally going to write about The Hunger Games, and then I went to New York Comic Con for the first time. They have a million booksellers there, and I stumbled across a book called Black Panther Psychology: Hidden Kingdoms by Travis Langley. Right then and there, I decided I wanted to write about Black Panther, and the project flowed naturally from there–the writing was difficult as always, but I loved what I was writing about. That makes all the difference, really!
Cara Rafferty: The thesis! Going into the seminar, I had seen with my own eyes the stress of honors students as they furiously typed on their keyboards during free hour, wishing that their page count would magically go up to page twenty. Thankfully, I already had fifteen pages done by the end of the fall semester (thank you, Dr. Hong!). I found that setting page goals for myself at the end of each week helped me write my thesis without feeling overtly stressed.
Kaitlyn Heniges: The Honors exam–because I didn’t take it.
Reena Alter: I thought picking a thesis topic was going to be a lot harder than it was. I knew what I wanted to talk about but once Dr. Hong worked with me a bit and helped me focus on a text I was really able to pick a topic I was excited about. I definitely over thought it for a while and felt I needed to pick something that sounded impressive or something that (to me) was super academic and that wasn’t necessarily the case.
Vanessa Mangru: Putting together the thesis! When first hearing about the requirements at the beginning of the semester, I was incredibly overwhelmed. 24 pages of writing on one topic is absolutely not easy to do and I remember feeling really worried about how I could ever get that done. I found that because I got to choose the topic of my thesis and it was something I genuinely enjoyed talking about and researching that it wasn’t nearly as painful as I thought it would be. There was still a lot of hard work and energy that went into writing, but you find that you have a lot to say once you get going. It also really helped that we had a spaced out schedule for about how many pages we should have by certain points in the semester so that we weren’t writing all of it at one time.
What was your favorite text to read/watch (on either the class or faculty reading list) and why?
Aidan Mohan: Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits or John Keene’s Counternarratives or Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. All three of these works are big and complex in their own way. I loved and admired their density.
Emily Shih: I had a few, but I think my favorite text this year was Boxers and Saints. I don’t know if it’s the “best” thing we read, but both its successes and its failures made it something I continued to think about long after we finished it, and I’m really excited about how Yang puts genre and medium in conversation with history. It just felt compelling and unique (and at its best, inspiring), and it’s something I don’t think I would’ve gotten to read if not for this class.
Leila Rosner: My favorite text to read was Uncle Tom’s Cabin for many reasons. I may be a bit biased in this respect being that I wrote a thesis on the book, but it became important for me because it opened the door to a new understanding of both the author herself and of the historical period that it was written in. The ability to potentially unravel the very nature of understanding is a very interesting proposition. The ability to uncover hidden truths to a book that was considered as a unilaterally abolitionist text allows for everything else that occurred after this to be questioned. Where did the modern term “Uncle Tom” come from and is it really valid within its modern context? Is Stowe who we think she is, regardless of the text itself (and there are many other examples of this)? It allows for introspection and questioning. A close second was the brilliant Fefu and her Friends by Maria Irene Fornes who used a post-humanist perspective to unravel gender norms and gender performance. All of these things are crucial to not only school, but for life.
Vallaire Wallace: My favorite text was The Bluest Eye–up until we read it, I had only read Toni Morrison’s intellectual work (Playing in the Dark, various other essays and interviews, etc.). The Bluest Eye was the first time I read her actual texts and it cracked me open in the best of ways. There are some texts that you read to get it over with, or to get to that part everyone’s talking about. Morrison made me look at myself and the world around me in a way that felt like a reflection: sometimes it’s nice to read a book and see a mirror.
Cara Rafferty: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints. Morrison’s novel was a powerful piece that I could not put down until I reached the final page. It left me with a lot to think about, and will forever be a work that I remember. The style of Boxers & Saints is what first drew me in. I loved how Yang used the comic form to illustrate key themes.
Kaitlyn Heniges: Get Out!! It’s just so good. I also liked The House of the Spirits and The Bluest Eye.
Reena Alter: This is a complicated question, lol.
To read, my favorite text was N.K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season but I didn’t use this on the exam because I was so attached to it and it was difficult for me to break it up and dissect it analytically.
My favorite text that I was able to use on the exam was Jordan Peele’s Get Out. I could probably write 50 essays on this text alone. It’s just one of those texts that really make you think and since it is so current it was easy to work through it.
And my favorite faculty pick was John Keene’s Counternarratives but because of isolation and all the craziness, I was only able to get through half of it before the exam. It’s such a dense book that’s really thinking about some complicated issues and I was really upset I didn’t get a chance to talk this one through in class.
Vanessa Mangru: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende was hands-down my favorite text to read. Even though parts of the novel are historical fiction, which isn’t really a genre I’m too interested in, I couldn’t put this book down! The novel also introduced me to the genre called magical realism which is so fresh and underrated in my opinion. Allende’s words have this enchantment to them and she crafted this interesting, heartwarming, unique, painfully real story that inspires so much thought. Reading it was such an emotional experience for me and actually kind of served as a reminder of why I fell in love with reading so much since that appreciation can sometimes get lost in the academia of being an English major.
If you are a prospective graduate student, how do you think this course has prepared you?
Cara Rafferty: As someone who is starting the accelerated MA program in the fall semester, I found that the honors seminar helped prepare me for the workload. I am currently taking two graduate courses alongside the honors seminar. Thanks to the honors seminar, I find it easier to manage the readings and writing assignments.
Leila Rosner: The course prepared me to not only analyze texts but to question them. It does this through the brilliance of the professors of course but through forcing the students to look at the texts side-by-side and to see how they relate to one another. Modern history informs itself from the past most exquisitely and the ability to see that is the cure to all evils of the present. The ability to see how Fornes in Fefu and her Friends was informed by historical texts of the past that called for gender equality is the ability to see that modern critique is informed by past critique and so on. Each level of critique informs itself on some other work that occurred at some point in the past. The ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, did not just occur out of thin air. She prefaced her call for female rights by looking at Rousseau and the ideas of reason to see that it was unreasonable to allow for gender inequity to continue. With the volume of texts that we read, and the inevitable call to link them together in any way possible, it allowed me to see that connections are there for identification as long as you are willing to see them.
Vallaire Wallace: The course work, doing multiple things and juggling life while also expected to be your very best intelligent self when you step into that classroom–I feel over-prepared, actually, lol. A lot of the texts we’ve read in our seminar over the course of the year…I would not be surprised if I’ll be revisiting them again in my future classes!
Emily Shih: As an undergraduate course tailored to undergraduate students, I think there’s a necessary limit on how much it can accurately prepare us for grad school—and there are many factors specific to this course alone, like the mandatory number of texts and the cumulative exam, that don’t necessarily prepare us for future courses. However, I think it’s a good opportunity to play with concepts and skills we might exercise in the future, like drafting large scale essays, consulting others on research, developing a personal academic voice, and managing/negotiating large amounts of reading and different texts at once. It’s definitely worthwhile and valuable to get to try some of this stuff with relatively low stakes and tons of guidance before committing to larger projects in the future.
Reena Alter: There is definitely a feeling that if you can get through this with your sanity intact then you can get through anything. If anything you’re graduating with honors at least so you’re already a step ahead of a lot of people.
Vanessa Mangru: This course has taught me about responsibility and the importance of focusing and being able to stay on track on your own time, which graduate courses are all about. Graduate courses also require that fine-tuned writing and ability to argue specifically which this course emphasizes at every turn. So much of this course is reliant on you, your decision-making, your confidence, your effort. Graduate courses require that self-sufficiency so this was a great segue into that kind of work.
If you are comfortable in saying so, what was your thesis on? Please provide a brief description of your thesis process (i.e., thought-process, physical preparation).
Cara Rafferty: For my thesis, I chose to focus on the character of the Joker and how his popularity is tied to his instability. I took four different portrayals of the character and analyzed each one while also challenging 2019’s Joker and how it attempts to turn an iconic villain into a tragic hero, a decision that is extremely problematic.
The writing process itself was not too grueling. For my thesis, I used different headings to break up my argument. I would open up separate documents and break up my essay (ex. one document titled “Blah Blah Part One” and another document “Blah Blah Part Two”). This made the overall thesis seem less intimidating and also kept me from constantly looking at the page count. Having one document solely dedicated to a certain point also kept me from going off topic in that section of the essay.
Kaitlyn Heniges: My thesis was on the function of female hunger in horror. I’d say my process was: 1: Figure out a text I liked and had thoughts about. 2: Figure out an idea/thesis that could be viable. 3: Research. 4: Write.
Reena Alter: I wrote my thesis on Julia Alvarez’s How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and how for Latinx youth that come to the United States they are faced with a system that aims to replace their Spanish language for the American English and in that process they are forced to create language. This sort of third gray area where their broken English and underdeveloped Spanish meet. My process was all over the place. The hardest bit for me was research but once I had a primary theoretical source and realized I just needed information that backed that up and connected my main text I was on a roll. I think my first draft was like 21 pages of just me working through what I wanted to do and trying everything I could think of. I mean I had anecdotes, I tried writing in my own voice, writing in that academic voice (we all know and love, lol), and even just playing with ideas that weren’t fully formed. Once I was able to get that down, I met with Dr. Hong and she really had me focus on the bits of my essay that she saw I was really interested in and helped me attack questions I was sidestepping. I think finalizing the essay was the hardest because you always feel like if you had another week or another month you could do more but also you’re just exhausted by it so you want to just hand it in and forget about it. It’s a wild ride but once you hand it in you really feel super proud at being able to do something so impressive.
Vanessa Mangru: My thesis was on the problematic portrayal of romance in Harley Quinn and Joker’s relationship. I made the argument that even though they’re meant to be funny and almost a power couple in the superhero world, their relationship is abusive and toxic and thus, inappropriate content for a medium targeted at a younger demographic. The first step of the thesis process for me was picking a subject or medium that I am really passionate about, which is superheroes and comic books. From then, it’s about noticing something that is worth talking about and that you feel like you have a lot to say about. From then, the rest is kind of finding a way to eloquently put those intelligent, unique thoughts that you’ve got going on! The editing was tough because at times I felt like it was as simplified as possible or I didn’t have much more to say. This is where getting feedback from other people really helps since they will notice things you might not have.
Emily Shih: My thesis was on the aesthetics employed in children’s media, and how this changes between different mediums—especially mediums that demand “belief” from the viewer (in this case, animation and puppetry). Specifically, I proposed that children’s media induces in the audience a sort of “pretend-play” with a similar function as when we’re children ourselves—teaching people, against all odds, how to believe in and empathize with others.
My process was largely informed by my conception of the thesis as an experiment, a chance to write about something I felt was neglected in my other classes. Because it’s something I would have to commit to for several months, I brainstormed kinds of fiction I was already enduringly interested in, and tried to think about why it was interesting to me. It’s also helpful to look to friends, other teachers, or your past essays if you’re stumped on topics—the people who listen to you speak or write about literature are likely to have an idea of what you’re invested in and where your interests lie. Also, I think it’s crucial during the research phase to look to professors you trust for suggestions—there’s way too much stuff out there to read, and not enough time to properly parse through all of it.
Leila Rosner: AS I mentioned previously, my thesis was a repudiation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the fact that Stowe and the text itself was an allusion to cultish religious practice rather than a call for the abolition of slavery in nineteenth-century America. In reading the novel initially, I was struck by the references to the word “nature” where it looked at the nature of being and the natures of man and how, according to Stowe, enslaved people had a different nature than their owners. At first, I thought this was a reference to the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson who, in his essay “Nature” looked at our relationship with the natural world and our relationship to some divine being that created what was around us. Through research, however, I was informed of Stowe’s link to a preacher named Alexander Kinmont who was living in Cincinnati at the same time Stowe was, and who followed the edicts of the New Church of Jerusalem who read and followed the works of infamous Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg. This opened the door to looking at Swedenborg and to see if his works could be applied to Stowe’s work directly. In doing so, it allowed me to conclude that Stowe was writing the book as a form of cultish religious conversion of people deemed lowly rather than a call for an abolition of slavery that was rooted in the belief that enslaved people had the same capacities as other people. This then opened the door to look at existentialists like Heidegger who studied the objectification of things and people in society. Within this was a reclassification in what Stowe was attempting to accomplish in the serial novel and the ultimate goal of the objectification of enslaved people based on a racist perception of servility.
Vallaire Wallace: My thesis was on the paradox of Wakanda as a country with Pan-Africanist sentiments yet actually functioning on xenophobia, and analyzing Killmonger as a Wakandan-American colonizer. I dunno! I saw the psychology book and I thought, what are people thinking when they say “Killmonger was right”? Nakia was right there, sharing similar ideals but without the violence, without the idea of ruling other people the “right way.” I wanted to attack my own thoughts of Black Panther and Wakanda as this great space, but to do so in a way that showed respect to Coogler and the film, and also to me two years ago who saw the movie and fell in love with it.
How did you prep for the exam? Optional: What are some essential study-tips for future honors exam takers?
Aidan Mohan: Here’s the most important takeaway: it’s really not that bad. I promise. But, it is a beefy exam. There’s a lot to do and a lot to cover in a pretty slim amount of time. It’s not unlike a Regents exam, if you remember taking those or if you did take those, it’s not a bad comparison. You’re going to be sitting down in one place and writing a lot. But, again, you can do it. It’s not that bad. Get to know the material really well and you’ll be okay.
Emily Shih: I think the few things I kept in mind while preparing for the exam were: 1: The essays you will be writing are not normal essays. The time constraints and breadth of the material make it so that there’s no way you can produce something polished, thorough, or lengthy; inevitably, you’ll feel like you should have said more or explained yourself better—that’s what “done” looks like for this exam, and it’s perfectly fine to feel that way. 2: The essays, like I said of the thesis, are largely experimental. That is, you’re not looking to give a “correct” answer—just an interesting one. You should write about the texts on the exam list that you think are interesting and that you want to hear about, even at the expense of saying something odd; your reader will probably appreciate it, too! I bet there’s a column on the grading rubric that gives bonus points for not being boring.
So I guess my biggest study tip is to look at the list of exam texts and try to find something interesting about as many of them as you can—something that motivates you to talk about them, or return to them. And if there are texts where you come up dry… don’t bother studying them! If it wasn’t interesting to you then, it won’t be interesting when you write about it later. So direct your energy to something that feels true.
Reena Alter: I think the best advice I could give is to think about the ways in which the texts are connected beforehand and also don’t be afraid to use a text that you absolutely hated because you’ll have so much to say about it. Once the exam comes, I would suggest trying to vary your texts as much as possible, use texts from different time periods, and don’t repeat texts. Dr. Hong also gave us the brilliant advice of crossing out three or four texts that you absolutely will not touch and just forgetting about those and studying the rest. It really helped to take the stress off.
Cara Rafferty: Looking at everybody’s study guides reminded me of important passages and key themes from each work we looked at. I also went back through all of my notes and created my own mini study guides for each work.
Leila Rosner: To prep for the exam, you have to find ways to link texts together. This is crucial in not only an understanding of the overarching themes related to the text but how it can be applied universally to societal norms and to other texts within different historical periods. In this, true understanding lies within the connections rather than through internal textual analysis. In one question on the exam, I was able to find a link between two texts that were written centuries apart. This kind of analysis is only possible by looking at both the historical period that the text was written in and how the text affected the people who read/listened to it. To study for the exam, you have to make study guides in MS Word for each text that you want to use and then think of links with other cited sections of other texts. Even if this link is not used, it opens your mind to the possibilities that a text can have with the world. The text now becomes infinite and relatable in so many ways.
Vanessa Mangru: As a class, we each picked a text and made study guides for them. This helped a lot as the days closest to the exam came really quickly and didn't allow a re-read for each book. It helps to mark certain quotes or pages that are vital that you can use to flesh out different sorts of arguments that you might need to make about the texts. Also, keep in mind that you won’t need to fully understand every single quote or theme from every single text, but it is good to know a few really really well from varying time periods and genres. Whenever you can make a connection between at least two texts, write it down! You never know what the exam questions could ask of you, so the more options you have to answer, the better!
Vallaire Wallace: I AIN’T DO SHIT SKHDLKSHDLKSHLD IT’S MOST LIKELY WHY I HAVE HIGH HONORS INSTEAD OF HIGHEST…..
I know we haven’t gotten to discussing the honors conference yet, but any remarks/tips on that?
Aidan Mohan: If you have a big fear of public speaking, try to use the in-class presentations throughout the year to polish that skill. You can do this and you have something worthwhile to add to the conversation. Do your best to contribute to that conversation with as much grace as you can. You got this.
Emily Shih: I would assume (hope) that next year’s conference happens in person, in which case, I think my earlier advice about open discussion classes largely applies. It should be a collaborative, supportive, celebratory space among friends—be interested in your classmates, and have faith in them to be interested in you.
Though one positive thing that could carry over from our pandemic conference is the open-endedness of the conference—it’s probably more interesting if everyone presents their theses in a way that feels personal, interesting, and relevant for them, so if you have an idea, it’s worth running by your professor!
Leila Rosner: The honors conference is a time of celebration. Not of your achievements per se but of the achievements of the whole. A celebration of ideas that broke through walls of oppressive norms and transformed thought. This is something that can never be claimed individually. You must prepare a presentation that celebrates this fact and leaves things like vanity and arrogance in the background. The honors conference is a testament to the power of thought and not for your ego.
Kaitlyn Heniges: I don’t know. I don’t really know what we are going to have to do for that given the situation but I think it’s important to try to have fun with it. This is an opportunity to be creative and do something we are interested in so we should try not to take all of the fun out of it.
Reena Alter: I feel like we’ve been left out from the actual experience, but I’ll say just be confident in the work you’ve done and be proud to share it. I’m super excited to see what my other classmates have been working on for a year and to celebrate the end of this crazy experience.
Vallaire Wallace: Conferences are opportunities to present your work in front of like-minded individuals. It can be awesome, because you meet said like-minded individuals, but it can also be stressful as hell because said like-minded individuals know their shit and will grill you about their work. Be prepared for anything, but also remember you deserve this! Your work is amazing and you deserve to tell everyone about your work–ten times out of ten, everyone will be looking forward to hear about the work you’ve been chipping away at over the course of a year!
We couldn't have done this without you, Dr. Hong. Thank you!
Aidan Mohan: I could say a lot. I could name specific examples of your wit and graciousness. But to put it simply and briefly, I will not soon forget your decency and kindness. Thank you.
Emily Shih: Hi Professor Hong–I’m so thankful that, of all the teachers in QC’s English department, we all had the honor of being your students this year. I couldn’t think of a better person to guide us through this rollercoaster of a class, and a more sensitive and loving person to continue doing so during a pandemic. There are so many moving pieces to this course–anyone could teach the material, I’m sure, but to consider your students as a cohesive group, as colleagues, and as individuals is something that takes far more time, dedication, and skill.
I don’t know how many other teachers I’ve had in my life that so deeply pay attention to, and cherish, their students as human beings separate from an institution–but it’s clear to me and all of us that this is where your priorities lie, and it’s something I deeply admire about you. Thanks for taking such good care of us this past year, and for always inspiring us to find joy in our work and the world–and please continue to do the same for yourself; I can’t think of someone who deserves it more!
Leila Rosner: Dr. Hong–from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much for making this honors seminar experience something that has been both fun and thought consuming at the same time. The texts chosen for the first half of the course allowed me to see that similar ideas and themes are not confined to one particular period or to a particular race of people. This is a gift that I will keep with me for a long time. The variation in the texts allowed me to see that human beings all want the same things and that works of literature, regardless of genre and form, can allow us to transcend ourselves.
I also wanted to thank you for your universal understanding that you showed to me. It allowed me to be myself (to my own detriment at times) and to be able to express my opinions in a way that opened the door for my future understanding of myself. In a period where I am just now finding who I am both personally and academically, it means the world to me to have this place where I can allow myself to be open. I will remember the things I accomplished and the people I had the honor of meeting and sharing a classroom with for a long time.
Warmest Regards, Leila Rosner
Vallaire Wallace: DR. HONG! Would not be going to grad school without you, would not be graduating with high honors without you, would not give two shits about my writing without you calling it beautiful. You’re part of why I got to where I am and part of who I am now, and I am eternally grateful to you for that. You’re the kindest professor around, and your soul continues to shine through the work you do and the work you do for others! Thankful to have been around you, and here’s hoping we get to see each other again!!!
Cara Rafferty: Thank you, Dr. Hong! I could not imagine the honors seminar without you. You were always kind and considerate, encouraging us to do our best and making the seminar a fun class. #Honorsonpop will always be a great experience for me, and it was in large part thanks to having you as a professor!
Kaitlyn Heniges: Dr. Hong–thank you for being one of the kindest professors and people I have ever met. You are everything a teacher should be– creative, intelligent, flexible, and compassionate. I look up to you and can’t wait to read your book.
Reena Alter: Dr. Hong,
I want to thank you for all your help, motivation, and guidance throughout this entire crazy experience. I started this process unsure of myself but I walked into each and every class excited and constantly feeling supported by you and the atmosphere you created. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, and we’ve worked our butts off and the only thing that upsets me is we didn’t get to have our big celebration bash. All that we’ve been able to accomplish this school year has been a testament to how amazing you’ve been as a professor. I feel lucky to have been able to study under you and I will never forget this experience for the rest of my life.
You are the best!
Vanessa Mangru: Dr. Hong, I literally don’t think I would have survived this whole experience without you. There is no language I could possibly use that could convey how grateful I am to have been your student. You made me remember why I loved reading and writing enough to pursue an English degree in the first place! I have learned so much just from you expressing your own thoughts and your way of teaching each text. Thank you a thousand times over for being such a kind, gentle, understanding, open-minded, admirable human being that I look up to and aspire to be more like. Thank you for caring about each one of us, both in and out of class. It really has been an honor to have been a part of your class and it’s an experience that I’ll never take for granted.
The ultimate #HonorsOnPop playlist that got us through our thesis and exam process!
Featured Image: From Spongebob Squarepants Season One, Episode 3b, "Plankton!" 13:27. Aired July 31, 1999.