UW Today

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December 1, 2010

Gulf oil spill offers central discussion point for Honors 100 class

The Gulf oil spill, seen here in a NASA photo, has been the central topic in Honors 100.

The Gulf oil spill, seen here in a NASA photo, has been the central topic in Honors 100.

What does a philosopher, or a creative writer, have to say about an oil spill?  Thats what a group of honors students have been finding out this quarter as they take Honors 100, the required first course in the new honors curriculum.

“Weve offered the course for several years,” said Julie Villegas, associate director of the Honors Program, “but this year were approaching it differently.”

This is the first year the class has been required, for starters, so there are two sections of 130 students each — the entire freshman class in the Honors Program. And though there have always been speakers, this year their subject matter has been consolidated.

Honors 100s title is Honors at the UW: Knowledge across the Disciplines. Therefore, the program has traditionally invited faculty members from a variety of fields to come and speak to the students.

“These were people who were going to be teaching honors courses,” Villegas said. “The course provided  the students with an introduction to a range  of disciplines offered at the UW— and gave them a chance to put a face to the names of some key people.”

But students said they wanted more focus in the class, and program leaders wanted to find a way to introduce the idea of interdisciplinarity to the students. As a result, this years speakers — regardless of their fields — are all addressing the Gulf oil spill.

So, for example, two of the earlier speakers were Tom Leschine, a professor of marine affairs, and Bob Pavia, who works at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric  Administration, who spoke about oil spills in general. But the students also heard from Frances McCue, who is writer-in-residence for the Honors Program.

“She put up images of the oil spill,” Villegas said. “Then she said, ‘Look at these images and write what you see without using these words: oil, black, spill… and a few other words. So the students free wrote on that. We discussed it. Then she said, ‘Write a piece from the perspective of either a kid whose dad is a fisherman, a scientist or a bureaucrat. Each student had to write from each of those perspectives.

“Frances talked about being desensitized by language, and by visuals,” Villegas continued. “She noted that when you get outside of the rhetoric, when you get outside of the images youre being blasted with, you ask,  ‘Whats the humanity in this picture?  Frances led the class to see that you need to have the science, to understand the facts, to see the contradictions, to pay attention to what the politicians are saying and you have to be critical. Youve got to see, feel and care. This is where humanity enters.  So that session really, in a nutshell, showcased what honors 100 is all about

Other speakers in the series have included Ken Clatterbaugh, philosophy; David Battisti, atmospheric sciences; Iain Robertson, landscape architecture; Jennifer Turns, human design & engineering; John Toews, comparative history of ideas; Howard Chizeck, electrical engineering; Doug Helton, NOAA; and Shawn Wong, English.

Danny Gibson, one of the Honors 100 students, said he appreciated the class as an opportunity to simply learn. “So often in our lives we approach the hour with expectations of what we will get and how we will process it,” he said. “In Honors 100 I am unaware of the class plans. I value the opportunity to just sit and listen.”

He added that he enjoys having the chance to talk with the presenters and ask questions after the session is over.

This quarter for the first time, the students also have librarians to address questions to. All the incoming students have been assigned a librarian mentor —  about 20 students per librarian. Students meet with their librarian mentors both in and outside the class. Librarians also send their students e-mails.

“The idea is for students to understand what the library system offers and learn about opportunities,” Villegas said. “Its also a chance to meet each other in smaller groups and talk about Honors 100.”

Students are assigned to librarians randomly; the idea is that when students choose a major, their mentor librarians will introduce them to the subject librarian in their fields.

As they go through the class, the students are going to be compiling an “interdisciplinary dictionary,” an idea Villegas said came from Professor of English Anis Bawarshi.

“For each class they are writing down two words from either the reading or the speakers and theyre defining that word and putting it in a Google doc as part of their honors learning portfolio,” Villegas said. “Then were going to consider how, for example, research is used differently by Tom Leschine vs. Shawn Wong. Then theyre going to do an overview when they do their final project.”

The overview, Villegas said, will consider not only the differences between fields but also the connections and what those connections mean. The idea is to learn to see the overlaps between different disciplines and how people in those disciplines can work together.

“We want to help them become better communicators across the disciplines,” Villegas said. “What the world needs now is for people to not be in camps like Democrat and Republican, holding their stance and not able to dialogue or to hear people. We hope that students will realize that seeing these connections and working collaboratively is really the most beneficial and productive way to move along in the world and make a difference.”