I’ll start with an excerpt from the course description:

HONORS 205 is a thinking class masquerading as a writing class. Well, no, not quite. HONORS 205 is an action class concealing a thinking class masquerading as a writing class. That’s better, but let’s try again. 205 is a reflecting and understanding class operating through an action and production class revealing a thinking and discussing class expressed in writing. There, that’s about write.

I recall reading this and noting that it was at once fairly ambiguous and extraordinarily intriguing. Looking back, I now see that it did in fact describe what we did. Ambiguity became our constant companion during the class, as we each grappled with intentionally minimalist instructions to make something of our own in response to them. It was a writing-based class, but it was also much more than that.

The unofficial title for the course was “Design Thinking.” We used writing as a means to explore the subject, and we in turn used the subject to think about writing in a new way. Here are some of the main themes (components of design thinking, per se) we explored during the quarter:

  • Ambiguity. Unlike many homework assignments, the real world is full of uncertainty, and it is our job as designers to deal with it and make it our own.
  • Sorting. We as human beings are always sorting and making sense of our world. Writers sort words to make sense of them. Sorting’s close cousin is connecting: we take disparate ideas and we put them together in our own ways.
  • Constraints. The design process requires identifying self-imposed constraints, breaking out of constraints, and self-imposing constraints to narrow a huge problem space down to something tractable. Writing, for instance, is a huge problem space, and we need to be conscious of how we work with it.
  • Imagination. We have the power to make stories out of anything. The more one looks, the more one sees, and the more one sees, the more one imagines. Words are lyrical, beautiful, and musical.
  • Getting to the essence. As designers, we must focus on what is important in the design space and ensure our designs get to the heart of the problem at hand; as writers, we must focus on what is important to say about our topic and ensure our writing gets to the point.
  • Cross-cultural connections and empathy. There is an element of selflessness in design: a need to put aside our preconceptions to better connect with each other, understand who we are designing for, and focus on the subject of our attention.
  • Transcending academic disciplines. It is worthwhile to break out of the bubbles in which we usually reside, understanding how other disciplines think and bringing the best of others’ work into our own. We should not simply absorb information passively, but instead have a conversation with its author, connecting and contrasting it with our own worldviews.
  • Educational purpose. We do not reap the full benefit of our education if we have not thought through why we are here. On a smaller scale, we get the most out of this class when we understand what drew us here and what we hope to learn.
  • Collaboration. The whole is more than the sum of its parts; each of us brings something valuable to the projects we work on. This class cannot simply be done alone.

To this end, we scribbled on large sheets of paper, doodled on the large classroom whiteboard, ripped up books, snipped up newspaper pages, snapped dozens of photographs, sifted through collections of postage stamps and bottles and more, scooted the tables and chairs in the classroom into multifarious configurations, and of course wrote – introductions, reflections, expositions, conversations, inventions, narrations, interpretations, culminations.

I regularly become quite invested in all my classes. For Honors 205, though, I felt an investment that was deeper than usual and that encompassed my classmates as well. And it seemed I wasn’t the only one in the class who felt that: for our final project, which we all put together as a class, the outpouring of effort was remarkable. The assignment was to create a “course publication” documenting our activities and reflections during the quarter; we wrote chapters in groups of two and three, as well as assembling additional teams like Editing and Layout. We all kept each other on track, completing the full-fledged publication in a tight three-week timeline. One of our classmates has a parent with a bookbinding machine, so we were even able to keep physical copies of the project we’d all put together. Here’s a link to the full PDF and an image of the front and back cover:

This was the most out-of-the-box class I’ve taken thus far at UW, and I mean that in the very best of ways. I know the themes from the course will stick with me long after the quarter has ended.