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Great Questions Essay

The Concept

The Great Questions Essay gives Honors students the opportunity to explore a “big question” of particular interest to them. By "Great Questions," we mean the big questions every discipline addresses in some way, but that no one discipline can fully answer on its own. Some of these are old, perennial questions for which the answer has proven maddeningly elusive (e.g., the question of justice, of human agency and freedom, of our relationships with and obligations toward each other, other forms of life, and the physical world in which we live.) Others have emerged more recently, often provoked by new discoveries and a changing world (e.g., questions of medical ethics, use of natural resources, the role of technology, etc.). These kinds of questions lie behind many, if not all, of the more focused questions that drive our research and teaching.

The Basic Details

Students spend a full semester researching and writing this interdisciplinary, creative non-fiction essay. We require that the essay combine at least three different disciplinary perspectives, one from each of the following three disciplinary groupings (broadly conceived):

  • Interpretive Approach: Arts, Communications, and Humanities
  • Behavioral Approach: Social Sciences, Business, and Education
  • Empirical Approach: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

Students do not treat these disciplinary perspectives as isolated from each other -- that is, as separate sub-sections in the essay. We want them to integrate as much as possible the understanding that each has contributed to their question. The unity of the essay lies in the understanding the student gains, not in a summation of different discipline-based takes on the question. 

The Essay Genre

We’ve called this the Great Question Essay for a reason. We use the term essay at the university to talk about a variety of academic writing genres. Perhaps the most familiar is the 5-paragraph essay: the introductory paragraph that narrows down to a definite thesis statement, then discussed or “proven” in the body of the paper, and finally a concluding paragraph or section.  This is NOT the kind of essay we mean here.

By “essay” we want to signal that this form of writing is more about exploring a question or topic than proving an answer. The essay is an old genre, often traced back to the great French writer Michel de Montaigne who, in the late 16th century, wrote a treasure trove of “essais”—“attempts” at thinking through a variety of issues, both timely and timeless. But we can also see this type of writing-as-exploring in the kind of meditative writing that philosophers and religious thinkers were doing long before Montaigne. Like Montaigne, we see writing as a form of thinking — as a genuine attempt to reason intelligently through a question in pursuit of understanding and insight. The Great Question Essay is a search for meaning and truth. The key term here is search.

This essay is neither a research paper, nor a personal journey entry. It is both. On a scale between these two extremes, it should fall somewhere in the middle:

“To my mind, the best essays are deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process—reflecting, trying-out, essaying.” (Robert Atwan)


Prerequisites: HONRS 110, 120, and at least 2 Unexpected Connections Courses (22x).
GE Credit: Together with HONRS 499R, this course is certified to meet the University GE Advanced Writing & Oral Communication requirement.

In HONRS 320, the capstone to the Honors Program coursework, students receive group and individual instruction in researching and writing the Great Question Essay. The course is designed to encourage independent inquiry through instruction, group discussions, and individual research. Instruction focuses on developing a great question, applying an interdisciplinary research approach using empirical, behavioral, and interpretive perspectives, the writing and revision process, and understanding the creative, non-fiction essay genre.

Crafting a Great Questions Essay is a process that requires hard work, dedication, and introspection; independence is the heart of this course. Students enrolled in the course will meet regularly with the instructor and peers for consultation, but the bulk of their time is spent researching, writing, and revising this substantial essay (20-25 pages + bibliography).

“The essay is your personal exploration, in writing, of an issue or a question you have. That’s what essaying is all about: learning about that process, going forth, a journey. So this essay really is a description of your personal journey with your own question. The class focuses on teaching how to communicate your journey, and to do it persuasively.” (Bryan Samuelsen, Honors Graduate)

Honors students must complete HONRS 110, 120 and at least two Unexpected Connections courses before taking HONRS 320 and writing their essay. These courses provide instruction and practice in interdisciplinary learning, essential to the Great Question essay experience. Typically, students enroll in HONRS 320 their junior year.

“In Honors 120 we see other professors asking great questions in their field. In the 200 level classes students experience the research of great questions that professors in two different fields are asking, and then in 320 you get to ask your own question and look at it from the perspective of three different disciplines.”(Bayleigh Cragun, Honors Graduate)

Tips from Your Peers

  • Write about something that matters to you. “Choose something you really care about, and not just something you think will resonate with the class. If you choose something you care about, you will put in so much more effort.” 
  • Use your strengths; start with a field you are passionate about. “You can use what you know!  You can use your major or a field you are familiar with to build the foundation, and then find the other connections.”
  • Put in effort at the beginning, and it will pay off.  “Treat your first draft like your final. Submit as much as you can for your first draft because your later drafts will be infinitely better.”
  • Start researching early. “Research as soon as possible. I mean hitting books and talking to professors.  If you don’t have a stack of books on your desk that make your roommates worried by their titles, you are doing something wrong.”
  • Use your own voice; be yourself.   “Don’t try to write in a way that is similar to anyone else’s style; write like yourself. You will be most successful if you find your own voice.” 
  • Work smart.  “Get enough sleep! We are Honors students and are more likely to run ourselves into the ground and do too much. Understand when you need to take care of yourself.”
  • Find a friend to swap papers with. “I found a friend in the class, started chatting about our papers after class, and then started trading our papers back and forth. Use your fellow Honors students, take advantage of their brains, they have things to teach you!”

Sample Student Essays

Am I Shy? (shyness, introversion, and socialization)
Prudentia (the nature of justice and prudence)
Changing Our Nature (environmental exploitation and progress)
Can Distance Make Us Closer? (space, distance, and connection)
Entropic Stochasticism and Human Value: A Reconciliation (worth, existence, and self-awareness)
Is It Really That Simple? (simplicity and complexity)
Pieces of the Same Puzzle (purpose and taking measure)
Questioning Knowledge (the problem of knowing)
The Mahler Moment (music and emotion)
Discovering Implicit Bias (conscious versus unconscious beliefs)
Free to Speak (restricting and liberating speech)