Honors classes make learning AWESOME

July 30, 2019

Honors classes make learning AWESOME

UW Honors grads often joke about having the word “interdisciplinary” drummed into their heads. After meeting UW’s general education requirements through our dynamic Honors curriculum, they are know how this style of learning works and can articulate why it’s so important. But for the rest of us it’s a little harder to imagine.

It’s more than the simple advantage of smaller classes with passionate teachers. It’s more lively discussions with other curious students from different majors, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Honors curriculum starts with big questions that draw from many areas of knowledge. Students develop more nuanced and effective ways of thinking that can adapt and entertain multiple points of view. 

UW’s general education is a gift for students, allowing them grow in unexpected ways. See how students complete general education requirements through our Honors prefix courses with this quick glimpse into three very different examples.

Tending the Garden

Inside the poetry reading event.

Tending the Garden

Inside the poetry reading event.

Tending the Garden

Inside the poetry reading event.

Tending the Garden

Inside the poetry reading event.

Tending the Garden

Inside the poetry reading event.

Tending the Garden

Inside the poetry reading event.

Tending the Garden

Inside the poetry reading event.

The Brain and the Healing Power of Poetry (VLPA)

Taught by: Arthur Ginsberg (Professor of Classics, retired neurologist)

Arthur Ginsberg is an accomplished neuroscientist whose passion for the arts is rooted in his deep understanding of how our brains work. SPOILER ALERT: brains work much better when regularly infused with doses of art and creative processing.

How it worked

Students explored brain anatomy, physiology and MR imaging to understand creativity as a force of healing and transformation in the human brain. It’s one thing to read about how poetry changes your brain, quite another to do it yourself. So students also wrote poems about personal, socio-political and ecological grief.

Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of being creative is the fear of presenting your creation to the public. Ginsberg gently ushered students (most of whom had never written a poem or made anything they considered to be “art”) through this necessary step in the healing process. Not only did they come to know the place of creativity in rewiring our brains, students compiled their poetry into a limited-run chapbook, Tending the Garden, published by UW press. And when the book was ready, the class read their poems to a live audience. 

In his welcoming remarks at the reading, Ginsberg explained the philosophical pretext of his course: “The arts and sciences aren’t antithetical. There are many mysteries which dance and art and poetry and music address. Without them, our culture would die.”

Ten very different voices emerged from the project, each bearing its own special gifts and hooks. There were lyrical family histories of immigration, explorations of fear and insecurity, a painful accounting of the impacts of carelessness in nature. As they read, they continued building their own resilience and improving the imaginations and empathic muscles of everyone in the room.

The experience changed the students’ minds and, arguably, their actual brains. STEM majors seemed especially transformed and excited to explore this unexpected, vital connection between artistic practice and analytical problem solving. One student remarked, “I discovered I think differently when I rhyme.” Most students said they felt like this course made them better learners and probably better people, too.

What next?

The Brain and the Healing Power of Poetry has become a vital offering for Interdisciplinary Honors students, and Ginsberg says he will continue to teach it as long as there is enough interest. Students can register for the 2-credit elective next spring. In the meantime, check out the class chapbook.

Maybe get inspired to write some poetry of your own?

Read Tending the Garden here

The Science, History and Politics of Nuclear Weapons course image

The Science, History and Politics of Nuclear Weapons: How they work, how they came into existence and why they remain an existential threat (I&S)

Taught by: Richard Freeman (Visiting Professor of Physics, [Unofficial] Honors Professor of Existential Threats)

Brought to you by a former Dean of Physics at Ohio State University (and devoted Honors Program alumnus): an intro to the harsh reality of mutually-assured destruction for a new generation. Most young people have no memory of the once all-consuming U.S. societal terror of an Armageddon from a nuclear weapons exchange with the then Soviet Union. Their perceived danger has diminished but the actual threat to our existence remains as real today as it seemed at its peak in the late twentieth century.

Overheard in class:

Student A: “I had a nightmare somebody handed me a bunch of Plutonium and I didn’t know what to do with it.”

Student B: “But you should have.”

How it worked

Students explored the historical context of the development and deployment of nuclear weapons as well as their physical, economic and cultural effects. They also considered together how the cold war begat our present-day experience of terrorism. Learning was accomplished mainly through research, readings, class discussions, presentations and screenings of classic cold war films (with pizza).

Oh, and everyone who took the class now understands the basic physics of nuclear weapon design.

Nuclear weapons, in addition to creating nearly unimaginable death and human misery for millions, have a very real prospect of drawing the U.S. into an all out attack/response scenario with Russia and/or China (just for starters). Although this technology may have contributed to globalization and prevented an almost immediate manifestation of WWIII on the heels of WWII, its potential to malfunction or be employed to end billions of lives (and to poison our planet for more than a century) remains as potent as ever. 

Now that students have a clearer sense of the role nuclear weapons have played, and continue to play, in political, economic, cultural and environmental forces, they will have a better chance of guarding against nuclear disaster. They have a more sophisticated framework to consider how seemingly inevitable “emerging” technologies (like artificial intelligence) might rapidly advance the interests of some while introducing untenable risks for all of humanity.

What next?

Freeman is teaching again this fall with HONORS 220 C: Artificial Intelligence: It’s Your Future, Ready or Not (NW). The course is full, but stay tuned for more opportunities to connect with these concepts in more interdisciplinary courses.

Learn more about this and other upcoming Honors courses

The UW for the Future course image

The UW for the Future: What could and should it become? (I&S)

Taught by: Joe Janes (Information School) and Thaisa Way (Landscape Architecture)

What role do public research universities have in shaping society? What can they or should they be doing to serve humanity as a whole? In this seminar, Honors students developed a broader and deeper understanding of the University of Washington not only as a place where they take classes, but as a large and complex public-serving organization attempting to honor its vision and values within constantly shifting economic, political and societal shifts through internal student, staff and faculty initiatives. For starters.

How it worked

Students chose articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education to learn about national trends and met with many of UW’s leaders and doers who shared insider perspectives on how things work at the UW. Reading and writing assignments prepared students for robust discussions with these class speakers whose roles at the University ranged from public-facing initiatives to deep operational responsibilities.

The course explored recent initiatives such as UW’s “direct to college” admissions changes, diversity blueprint and billion dollar fundraising campaign in direct conversation with the people behind the scenes.

Perhaps the most intriguing component of the seminar was activating the students to participate in UW’s future. Students asked insightful questions and offered up their suggestions to key players on campus. The final project was a proposal for an important change at UW that would improve the student experience. Students took up the challenge with ideas for how to explore disciplines, select a major, and tend to their mental health.

By understanding how UW’s constituencies and players, history, mission, objectives, priorities, and resources interact and influence each other, students can more effectively shape the future of UW. The course can also serve as a template of inquiry to more easily comprehend and make an impact on similarly complex institutions, systems and organizations they’ll encounter well beyond graduation.

What next?

This is a staple of the Honors Program’s interdisciplinary curriculum and will be offered again. 

In the meantime, students can register for a similarly engaging course to develop their own academic and practical action framework of community organizing to effect policy change. Honors 394A (VLPA/I&S, DIV, “W”) Critical Community Organizing will be taught this fall by Third Andresen, Comparative History of Ideas & Velma Veloria, Honors Scholar in Residence. There are some spots available for incoming freshmen!

Want more? Check out upcoming Honors courses