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Letter from the Director: "Forty More"

Submitted by Suzanne St Peter on November 2, 2018 - 3:21pm
Phillip Thurtle at Table

by Phillip Thurtle, CHID Director

Forty years ago, a new program at the University of Washington offered its first class, intent on creating an undergraduate curriculum based on “comparative and interdisciplinary courses”. It was called the Comparative History of Ideas Program, was originally housed in the Comparative Literature Department, and borrowed its instructors from the departments of History, English, Comparative Literature, Art History, and Comparative Religion. Not many students graduated from the program in the early years, but, over time, it grew to become one of the larger programs in the Humanities Division of the College of Arts and Sciences.

In the early afternoon of October 25th, 2018, we were notified that CHID could “proceed” to become a department. The change is significant. It means that for the first time in the history of the program, CHID can have its own faculty and they can be evaluated by the criteria that CHID helps to formulate. The CHID program has supported faculty whose research doesn’t easily fit into disciplines. This is the reason why CHID has helped to nurture initiatives in animal studies; rethought the role of international study; forged links between the humanities, arts, and sciences; and promoted new ways of thinking about the relationship between writing and scholarship. Departmentalization will help CHID support faculty as they shape new educational and research initiatives.

A change this significant comes with challenges. One of the biggest challenges CHID faces is maintaining the close-knit community that marks the students’ experiences of CHID. CHID students form bonds beyond the classroom through international study, departmental events, and the shared adventure of student-lead research. It is crucial that CHID faculty and staff continue to finds ways to support this community development. This will include finding new avenues to support student initiatives in peer education, encouraging new types of students to join the program, and designing ways for CHID staff and students to have a strong voice in departmental decision making.

Yet, changes are not new to CHID. In the 19 years I’ve been involved in the program, I’ve seen CHID go through countless changes. I’ve witnessed three revisions of the CHID curriculum. I’ve seen new initiatives blossom and old ones transform or fade way. And I’ve watched new intellectual interests and individuals transform the program. Despite this constant change, CHID has continued to thrive; or, rather, it is because of these changes that CHID has thrived. CHID has always found a way to shed its skin in order to become, once again, what it was always designed to be: a testament to the importance of interdisciplinary thought and the creativity of undergraduate education.

In fact, watching CHID over the years has given me new insight into the role of growth and change in educational institutions as well as in other parts of my life. We tend to think about change and preservation as opposed to each other, meaning that we usually only focus on doing one or the other. I’m now convinced that this isn’t the case. CHID will remain successful as long as we remain committed to serving our students’ needs. This will allow us to change some aspects of the program while keeping true to the principles that have long guided us.

The most obvious change over the next few quarters will be the introduction of new faculty. At first, their presence will mostly be felt as an increase in cross-listed classes and in their attendance at special events. These new faces in CHID, like the other new faces that have preceded them, will find their own ways to enrich an already rich program. This, in turn, will bring even new ways to offer a cutting-edge interdisciplinary education. This is what CHID has always done best—initiate changes in order to honor a deeply held commitment to support interdisciplinary learning and research.

This commitment will be on show on May 24-25, 2019 at our celebration of CHID’s 40th Anniversary. Come join us as we honor the principles and people that have made us what we are and help us plan what we need to do to keep CHID a vital voice in interdisciplinary education and research for the next 40 years.