By Dr. Tim Berg

Dr. Timothy Berg is an artist and educator.  He teaches courses in the humanities, global studies, and colloquia on photography theory and other subjects (Honors 201, 202, 203 189, and 390).  In all of his collaborative, discussion-intensive courses he focuses on the history of ideas, working with students to better understand themselves and the broader human condition.  He’s led a number of domestic and international field studies with students to New York City and to Rome and Florence, Italy.  In 2013 he was the director of Worcester Center Study Abroad Program in Worcester, England.  In 2014 he was a fellow at the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry which created The Infinite Museum web application for the David Owsley Museum of Art.

How do Honors courses relate to my life, both personally and professionally?

When you tell someone you’re taking “honors” courses, what does that really mean? What is the purpose of our curriculum? How does it all fit together? The word, “honors,” on its own, doesn’t necessarily mean much. Yes, we have an honors core curriculum, a series of courses students must complete to earn the honors diploma, but what are we really doing?

In my honors humanities courses, we grapple with what it means to be human, to understand the human condition, and to encounter and think about some of the biggest questions we humans face. We do this by reading philosophy, literature, looking at art, and other such humanistic productions. We think about things that will help us live our best lives. All of my classes are really about this one same thing, living a good life. But as we work with these ideas, we work on building ourselves and also on a variety of skills that are transferable to anything you might do in the future. Whether it’s reading, discussing, writing, doing projects, or whatever, we are building skills. We do, however, have to work on articulating what those skills are and how they might apply. We have to see them before we can know them.

So, we need to think about something I call…


What is the under-curriculum?

The curriculum is the content of the course, the readings and activities we do, the subject we’re studying, etc. All classes have this, but they vary. The curriculum in English differs from the curriculum in Geology. Each honors course has a different curriculum, one that adheres to a master syllabus but is also the unique expression of the professor teaching it. In my Honors 201 course, our curriculum is about ancient ideas, about the big questions of being human, and living the good life. But underneath those differences, we’re working on deeper skills that transcend any one course or academic discipline.

This is the magical world of the under-curriculum. Welcome! Come in!

The under-curriculum contains those skills and processes that you practice while engaging the curriculum. The under-curriculum supports the curriculum, because if you don’t learn to do the things in the under-curriculum, well, you won’t be able to learn the curriculum very well. And, the curriculum presents challenging texts and ideas that give the under-curriculum a workout – each text and activity or assignment is like a workout machine at the gym; they exercise your brain in unique ways. It’s also kind of like that category of clothing that most of us wear underneath our other clothes. “Under where?” you say? Right. Or, if you prefer, think of supporting actresses. Without them the lead actresses can’t do their jobs very well. Football lineman and quarterbacks. I could go on and on.

What skills do we gain from Honors courses?

In the under-curriculum drawer of this dresser you will find many things, such as:

  • Learning to read and look closely.
  • Learning to take good notes and collect data.
  • Learning to manipulate materials to create new learning.
  • Working with others politely and collaboratively.
  • Developing professional attitudes towards creative work.
  • Practicing delivering professional-level end products (writing, reports, physical products, etc.)
  • Accomplishing goals on time and with excellence.
  • Practicing the art of discussion of complex subjects.
  • Practicing the art of drawing conclusions from data.
  • Learning to fail without giving up. Also known as “grit”.
  • Practice in being honest with yourselves and others.
  • Practice in playing in order to discover new things.
  • Practice in seeing things from multiple perspectives.
  • Practice in the art of being comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty, and not knowing.
  • Practice in being open minded.
  • Practice in seeing what others don’t see.
  • Practice in realizing you don’t know everything (and neither does anyone else!).
  • And more!

Let’s take a quiz: 

Name a field or profession that doesn’t use these things. You can’t do it.  English does. Geology does. Nursing does. Business does. Honors does. I could go on and on. All the fields and jobs have them because they couldn’t do what they do without them. The list above includes just a few of the many things that live in the under-curriculum drawer in your academic and life dresser. These are skills for living a good life, not just doing a particular thing well.

That is why we study the liberal arts – to take this evolving set of skills with us wherever we go, no matter what we do. That is what we are doing in the Honors College. Once ya got ‘em, no one can take them from you, though you have to keep cultivating them to keep them in shape. Jobs change. The under-curriculum doesn’t. Plato used it. Emily Dickinson used it. Jesus and Muhammad used it. Your little sister uses it. We all have the capacity to do this stuff. The trick is to develop these skills, bring them out, and give ‘em a workout. Most jobs won’t ask you to know what Plato said, but the skills you practice while reading and discussing his work will make you better at that job – and at life! That’s what we do in the Honors College.

Over the next year or so, you’re going to start seeing articulations of these kinds of skills in all of your courses at Ball State, not just in the Honors College, but everywhere. We call this “skills infusion,” and it’s a program run by the Career Center. The purpose is to help us all articulate the kinds of skills you are working on in all of your courses and to help you articulate those skills to your future employers.

Now, you try!

Here’s an exercise I have my students do that you can do, too. Imagine you are applying for a job in your chosen career field and the only things you can talk about, the only experience you have, is what you’ve learned in your honors course. How would you talk about the skills you learned, developed, and practiced in that course and apply them to your intended job? The answers you come up with may surprise you. So, as you continue with your honors curriculum, think about all the skills you are working on as you do so. We are practicing different ways of thinking, and the curriculum of a course gives us fresh ways to practice and develop these under-curriculum life skills.

Let’s go!