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Around the Columns

Stepping down from Honors

Polansky

Stuart Palonsky, outgoing Honors College director, administered the program and taught honors students for 20 years. Photo by Rob Hill

As director of MU’s Honors College for the past 20 years, Stuart Palonsky has seen to the recruiting, advising and special course offerings geared to the top 10 percent of students on campus. It might sound like an administrative post, but Palonsky is also a hands-on educator who personally has advised and taught thousands of honors students. In fall 2011, he leaves this position and, after a sabbatical, returns to his academic home in the College of Education, which hired him in 1985 to teach research methods.

The required methods of teaching were something of a puzzle to him back in 1991, when his courses shifted from education to honors sections of the Humanities Sequence. He knew the sequence’s “great books,” but leading the high-ability students — many of whom were planning to study journalism, law or medicine — forced him to climb a learning curve of his own. 

Crafting a course for academically gifted students is as much art as it is science, Palonsky says. “I knew they were smart, but it’s a matter of experience to determine what is beneath them, what is beyond them and what is an appropriate challenge.” So, he turned to faculty in various disciplines for advice. In the end, the students themselves made it easy. “They’re eager to talk in class, give feedback and criticism, and play a bigger role in organizing and running the class, and even introducing themes and ideas when the time is right. They are so eager to learn.”

Some of Palonsky’s biggest thrills as an academic are when he sees the learning happen. “The special moment is when a student has read a poem or a passage from a novel or philosophy, and somebody in class says, ‘Look at page 47, that third paragraph.’ Then someone says, ‘Oh, I get it now.’ 

“It’s the sense that we are working together to unlock some meaning in the text, and it wouldn’t have occurred outside of class because they’d already read it on their own and didn’t see it. But now they’re talking about the text with classmates and with me, and all of a sudden they’re thinking, ‘I see something I hadn’t seen before; I see some beauty I hadn’t known existed.’ ”