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The End of an Era: Q&A with Retiring Associate Dean Ann Sumner Holmes

Dr. Ann Sumner Holmes is an Ogden Honors College institution. For more than three decades she has taught, advised, and helped lead the college as an instructor, assistant dean, and, since 1999, Associate Dean. After a long and fulfilling career in honors education, Dr. Holmes is retiring at the end of 2020. She kindly agreed to share some of her reflections and memories for us to share.

If you could just start from the beginning, kind of how you got started with Honors College and your time at LSU, that might be helpful for people who don’t know much about your career. 

I taught my first Honors seminar in 1989, as a member of the history department. In 1995, I came full time to the Honors College, to teach classes and to serve as an advisor and do other administrative work. In 1997 I became Assistant Dean and in 1999 Associate Dean. I've been the Associate Dean for 20 years.

I was the Interim Dean from 2002 to 2003.  Billy Seay was the first Dean of the Honors College. When he stepped down, the University conducted a national search and hired Nancy Clark.  Her existing commitments prevented her from accepting the appointment at LSU until 2003, and I served as Interim Dean from 2002 to 2003.   

I served as advisor to the Honors College Student Council for over 10 years.  As Interim Dean I participated in the University’s annual recognition ceremony when each college would choose the outstanding student in the freshman, sophomore, junior and senior classes.  I have a picture taken after that year’s ceremony.  The six students in the picture were all officers in the Honors College Student Council, and they had all been selected as outstanding students in their respective colleges.  The recognition indicated to me that the leaders in the Honors College were also outstanding across campus.  Among those students was Sanaz Aghazadeh, who is now on the faculty at LSU in the College of Business. She's also on our faculty advisory board.  Also in the picture is Michael Tipton, who is now the president of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation, and Jake Landry, who was among the first Truman Scholars from the Honors College and is now the Founder/President of Urban South Brewery.  I regularly see Sanaz, Michael, and Jake at Honors College events, and I am so glad that they have maintained their connection with the College.  Jake’s brewery even supplies the beer for our picnics!

When you taught your first seminar in 1989, was the Honors College established then, or was that when they were just starting?

It was the Honors Program then. And it was part of what was at that time, the College of Arts and Sciences, which is now HSS. The courses that were offered as Honors seminars were basically in the humanities and the liberal arts.  The core courses, the courses the students took as first-year students, were Classical Civilization in the fall and Medieval Civilization in the spring. If students wanted to continue beyond the first year, they would take Early Modern and then Modern in a European sequence.  Those were basically all of the HNRS seminars at that time.  

Then in 1992 the Honors Program became a college. I was there for that change.  Since then I have seen remarkable shifts in the diversity of majors among students in the Honors College.   In the early nineties, most of the students were from the College of Arts and Sciences.  Now we have majors from Engineering, Science, Agriculture, Mass Comm—from almost every college on campus.  In teaching HNRS seminars, I have come to value that diversity.  It is rewarding to sit at a seminar table with students from so many different fields and to hear them discuss complicated topics.  They have different perspectives, and they learn from one another.  Not everyone sees the world the same way.  They learn to respect those who may disagree with them.

Then, after she became Dean in 2003, Nancy Clark guided us through curriculum reform, which has two major parts to it. One is the development of Honors 2000 as the gateway course for entering students.   Since it is an interdisciplinary, team-taught course, we can recruit faculty from different colleges and not just faculty from Arts and Sciences, who traditionally taught the Classical Civilization course. This fall we offered 28 sections of HNRS 2000.  We had faculty from the Colleges of Coast and the Environment, Mass Comm, Agriculture, and Science, as well as HSS.  Another important part of curriculum reform was the development of special topics courses, which enable faculty to teach on a topic of special interest to them within larger categories, such as the twentieth century, the humanities, social sciences, life science, and physical science.  The Honors College can now offer a much wider variety of courses. 

And so did, so did the shared read come out of Honors 2000 or did you all start Honors 2000 because of the shared read?

This is what happened originally. A provost named Risa Palm instituted a summer reading program for the entire campus about 15 years ago.  The University would buy books for all students, and they would bring the author to campus for a lecture at the beginning of the fall semester.  Granger Babcock, who is now the other Associate Dean in the Honors College, played a central role in organizing that summer reading program. When Risa Palm left, the University dropped the program, and the Honors College adopted it.  We started what we call the Shared Read just for students in the Honors College. And it became linked to Honors 2000.

Speaking of books, I see that you have written your own book. Do you want to talk a bit about what that was like?

I spent most of my adult life working on that book. I had published a number of articles in various refereed journals, and that research led me to the topic of the Church of England and divorce.  It proved to be timely. The Church of England did not recognize remarriage after divorce.  King Edward VIII had to abdicate because he wanted to marry a divorced woman.  Prince Charles could not marry Camilla Parker-Bowles in church because she was divorced and had a living husband.  They were married in a civil ceremony, and then the Archbishop of Canterbury blessed the marriage. The related question of same sex marriage is now an issue. Same-sex marriage is legal in the UK, but the Church of England will still not allow those marriages to take place in church.  It was interesting to study the debates and to see how such prohibitions developed and then how social changes helped the church to move away from strict rules to become more accepting. That's why the subtitle is legalism and grace, representing a movement from strict rules to a much more forgiving policy. Since the Church of England is still involved in a similar debate, I think that the research is meaningful.  I was very glad to see the book published.  

Did you get to spend any time abroad working on it? 

I spent a lot of time abroad working on it. In fact, LSU gave me two sabbaticals. I spent a lot of time in London, especially, doing research for the book, but also in Durham and various other places. 

What is one of your fondest or proudest memories here at the Honors College?

I did want to talk about Les Amis. Again, I was the advisor to the student council and the students would want to have parties and dances, and there was no money for social events.  And I also, as a mother, wanted the students to have good, nutritious food to eat during finals. I was worried that students were just existing on caffeine and sugar.  When I asked myself who could finance such projects, I thought of the parents.  In 1999, I contacted some of my friends who had children in the Honors College, and we organized a friends organization. We named it Les Amis des Etudiants, which in French means the friends of the students. We took the French name because that was the same year that the Honors College moved to the French House, and there was a close connection with French Studies. The parents contributed to Les Amis, and the Student Council could plan social events.  During finals, we would take home cooked meals to the residence hall. I remember driving over there with casseroles in the back of my car.  I wanted the students to have fresh fruit for breakfast.  When I told the student council officers that, one responded that the closest they came to fruit was Pop-Tarts. That’s not what I had in mind! Now, Residential Life provides the students with food for finals, but years ago it was the parents.  

Do you feel like the Honors College has always been a campus within a campus, or do you think that started when you all got to the French House and you all were able to have your own space and do things specifically for Honors students?

I think it was much clearer when we moved to the French House because we have the Lavilles right behind us. In the 1990s, the Honors College was located in the old president's house, which is where the bookstore is now. It's still there, but they tore part of it down to put in the Barnes and Noble.  Having everything right here, physically, created the idea of the campus within a campus. 

How has COVID-19 affected your plans for this semester? 

It has been so important to me to help the students.  They are working under very difficult circumstances and it's a very stressful situation.  I am sympathetic to them, and I have tried to offer them all the help and the support and the encouragement that I can. I've told them often, part of my job is to enable them to do their best work under extraordinary circumstances.  I want HNRS 2000 to be a meaningful class and I worked very hard with the faculty last spring and summer to develop a good course that we could teach remotely. And so we've worked hard to make that happen.  Although I'm teaching remotely, I really feel that I have this personal connection with the students and that I'm able to offer them this help and encouragement.

Do you feel like in higher education we are more prepared now than we ever could have been having not gone through COVID?

I think we have learned a lot.  The first topic for HNRS 2000 in 2007 was “Disasters and Disease.”  We studied plagues and disasters from the past and reflected upon how humans have responded to those challenges.  This fall, in Louisiana, in addition to COVID, we had direct experience with such disasters when so many hurricanes hit us. These experiences will help us react to the next disaster.  It may not be exactly the same, but experiencing a disaster can make us more resilient.  You learn how to cope. Not just to cope, but to flourish. That's what I want my students to do. It's not just coping, but, I hope, flourishing.  We can do this.

My last question for you, Ann, what is something on your wishlist for retirement?

I'm looking forward to having time to do a lot of things that I haven't had time to do. I would like to take piano lessons. I played the piano when I was a child, but I haven't recently. I'm not a musician at all, but I did enjoy playing.  I would also like to improve my French, which is not very good. I would like to do more gardening than I've had a chance to do, so those are some of the hobbies that I would like to pursue.  I am also looking forward to having time to read more novels.

Most importantly, I’d like to spend more time with friends and family. I have two grandchildren who live in Baton Rouge.  My granddaughter was born in April and my husband and I completely isolated ourselves so that when she was born, we would be able to hold her. We’ve been very careful and they've been very careful, so we are able to see them occasionally.  I look forward to the day when we can gather friends and family at our dinner table again.