what i said at visitation day

Good morning. I am Dr. Kevin Knudson and I'm the director of the University of Florida Honors Program. On behalf of the students and staff of the program I would like to welcome you to UF. I tend to wring my hands over speaking in public, not because I'm nervous about getting up in front of a crowd, but because I want to say something substantial. So forgive me if this is a little heavier than you were expecting; maybe I'll tell you a joke at the end.

I'm here today to tell you some things about the program and my general philosophy of honors education. I am a graduate of an honors program and as a professor I've been involved with honors for most of my career, first as an instructor at several institutions, then as an associate director at my previous university, and now as the director here at UF. I've seen a lot of changes in honors over the last 20 years, but the core principles remain the same.

I am a mathematician, which by default means that I love numbers and algorithms and things that can be quantified. As the director of a program that chooses students based on various numerical data---SAT, ACT, numbers of AP or IB courses, GPA (way too many acronyms here)---I can easily get absorbed in studying the numbers, looking at averages, developing algorithms to reduce an application to a single number that can be put on a list and ordered. After all, that is what mathematicians do; we look for order where it isn't always apparent.

But I am also a poet. Not good enough to quit my day job, or even to devote too much time to it, but it lingers in the background. It's this side of me that wants to cast aside all the data and ignore the lists of credentials as long as my arm, and curl up with some essays in an attempt to figure out what makes our potential students tick, to read between the lines of data to find the essence underneath. As proud as you should be of all your accomplishments so far, they are not what you are; not even close.

So much of our educational system today is tied to quantitative measurements of so-called student achievement. What this usually comes down to is tracking how well students perform on certain standardized tests and labeling schools and teachers as succeeding or failing based on the results. I don't disagree that it's important to keep track of these things. Tests can be a useful piece of information when trying to find order in the complicated system of education. I suppose it's not completely illogical to hold schools accountable if the majority of their students fail these competency tests. But the unintended consequence of this, as we are all becoming painfully aware, is that students are taught to pass the test. Some students are better at this than others. Every student in this room is quite adept at passing tests; indeed, it's one reason you were invited here today. You've successfully jumped through every hoop put before you.

The Honors Program is not a series of hoops. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it is the antithesis of that. A modern university education requires certain cold algorithmic activities. During your time at UF you will become intimately familiar with terms like "universal tracking" and become quite adept at navigating what is sometimes a rather complicated place. You will probably spend a great deal of time thinking about your GPA and figuring out ways to make yourself more competitive for graduate or professional school. You will wonder if you're doing all the right things because, frankly, the educational system has led you to believe that's the only way to proceed.

But I'd like to think there's another way to approach your four years in college, some poetry to offset the mathematics, and that's what the Honors Program is about. An honors student comes to college to take an education, not to receive a schooling. To do this, you must open your mind to the endless possibilities in the world around you. Don't treat college like a vocational school with a job waiting at the end. Don't treat each class simply as a collection of facts to be memorized, regurgitated, and forgotten; think about how each builds on the ones that came before it. Ask questions. Challenge unproven theories if you think you have a better one (but make sure you can back yours up with real evidence).

You also need to learn to sit still and quietly ponder. Watch a spider make its web, and not just for five minutes. Take an hour. Notice the precision with which she works, the way she formulates a plan and follows it through to the end like her life depends on it (because it does).  Spend a whole morning on your next trip to the beach looking for shells. Not the big, obvious cockles, but the small, colorful spirals of snail shell that you find only after sifting through handfuls of sand. Hike up a mountain (or in Florida, a hill), and when you get to the top sit down and listen to the wind blow. And while you're doing so, give yourself permission to think about nothing at all. That's important, too.

So how does the Honors Program help you with this? In the classroom, we offer you smaller, more intimate classes with some of the best faculty at UF. Some of these are fairly standard---calculus, physics, etc.---but others are on specialized or interdisciplinary topics you won't find anywhere else on campus. You will be challenged to think and push your intellectual boundaries. Socially, we provide you the opportunity to live in the Honors residential college in Hume Hall. It's the newest and nicest dorm on campus, and the Student Honors Organization sponsors all kinds of activities and service opportunities. You will be surrounded by people who want to engage fully in their educations, and I promise you their enthusiasm will rub off on you. In terms of academic support, you will have access to our exceptional staff of advisors in addition to your major department or college advisor. You can drop by in the afternoons or make an appointment to talk to someone about just about anything; we handle everything from solving scheduling problems to helping you navigate your existential crises. And when it's time to think about the future and internships and graduate school, we can help with that, too. Never be afraid to come and talk to us about an idea that you think might sound crazy or impossible to achieve. You will most likely be met with the response I heard from my honors advisors as an undergraduate: "Why the hell not?"

I'm often asked, "What will I get from Honors?"  The best answer I have for you can be summed up in one word: opportunity. That is what we have to give: opportunity to learn, grow, and mature. But it is up to you to take it.

That's all I wanted to say today. I'd be happy to answer any questions you may have.