What CHID means to Emily Nitz-Ritter (alum '14)

Submitted by Cynthia Anderson on

"I graduated with a degree in English and the Comparative History of Ideas." 

 I'm sure we are all well aware of this scenario and the polite, if not slightly perplexed, smiles that typically follow this statement. Most people are too polite to ask what the "Comparative History of Ideas" actually is. For those who are gregarious enough to inquire, I usually provide this cursory explanation: "It's a pedagogically creative and interdisciplinary program that uses project-based and self-guided learning to unpack complex social problems in context." Most people, upon hearing that answer, are even more confused than before. 

 And while I spend a great deal of time explaining what CHID is, I have never once apologized for or questioned my decision to be a CHID major. In fact, I usually end up telling skeptical relatives and curious colleagues that CHID was my intellectual home on campus and that I attribute a significant portion of my decision to attend graduate school (and my preparation for graduate work) to my learning experiences in CHID. CHID’s academic flexibility allowed me to pursue my interests both broadly and in great detail. The relationships with my fellow CHID students and my CHID faculty were absolutely central in the development of, and confidence in, my intellectual identity. In CHID, I was encouraged to think critically, given the tools to do so effectively, and supported in intellectual risk-taking.

 Particularly, I applaud the department’s commitment to the thesis requirement. As a student, the idea of writing a thesis was daunting, and at times, seemed impossible. Trust me, there were more than a handful of times while writing my thesis that I was sure I had gone off the rails and was “doing it wrong.” I ended up writing a final thesis paper that directly challenged my original hypothesis at the beginning of the quarter. But, instead of classifying that as a mistake, my thesis advisor, CHID faculty, and CHID peers helped me see that my research was not a failure but had pushed me to undergo a transformative process. The academic had become political – the process of creating knowledge had changed my understanding of what I thought I knew.

 I have carried this learning experience with me ever since. It is a constant reminder that knowledge is never objective, the process of knowledge acquisition is never neutral, and that theoretical or conceptual work should never be fully divorced from experience. Philosophically and technically, the CHID program is responsible for a relatively smooth transition into graduate school. My decision to study education policy can be traced back to my interests in educational leadership that I developed in CHID classes. My acceptance to the Master’s in Education Policy program at the UW can be traced back to my experiences writing an undergraduate thesis on educational administrators (I even ended up interviewing one of my MEP faculty for my CHID thesis! The world is a small place!). I was also recently selected as a research assistant for a Gates-funded research project on instructional leadership practices based on my experience with qualitative data collection and exposure to leadership theories – thanks yet again, CHID thesis!

 Not only has CHID opened doors for me professionally, it has also prepared me academically for graduate-level coursework. I spent countless hours, late at night, reading, struggling, and re-reading dense theoretical material in my CHID classes. So, when I was asked to engage with tough texts in graduate school, I had strategies for unpacking the material. Also, since my CHID coursework typically included a heavy emphasis on group discussion and group presentations, I was amply prepared for graduate work in a policy program. The connections, experiences, and skills I developed in the CHID program – often completely unknowingly – have been invaluable to my success in life since graduation last June.

Post-graduate life has been a roller coaster, and in many ways, considerably more challenging than I had anticipated. But, when I take a moment to remember where I’ve come from, and the people who helped me get here, the Comparative History of Ideas is always my very first thought.

And when folks ask me what my undergraduate degree was in, I could not be more grateful or more proud to say that I am a CHID alum.