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Letter from the Chair: Autumn Quarter 2021

Submitted by Lenan Choto on November 16, 2021 - 1:11pm
Phillip Thurtle

by Phillip Thurtle

This last year challenged CHID unlike any year I’ve ever experienced. Together, we navigated a global pandemic, exacerbated social inequities, an economic slump, and the loss of human contact. Due to the care, hard work, and daily sacrifices of those within the department, CHID has remained the dynamic center for interdisciplinary thought that drew me to the program 20 years ago. In a future “Letter from the Chair,” I will return to talking about the department’s accomplishments in research and learning. In this letter, however, I want to spend a few moments recognizing the efforts of those who ensured that CHID flourished, despite the recent challenges posed by the pandemic. For the CHID office, the pandemic could not have happened at a more difficult time.

CHID had lost two treasured members of our staff, Administrator Alix Furness (who now administrates the Department of Marketing and International Business at the UW’s Foster School of Business) and Outreach Coordinator Sasha Duttchoudhury (who now is a graduate student at UW’s School of Social Work). This meant that we had to interview and train their replacements. Hiring during the pandemic proved to be an especially
disembodied endeavor as it occurred exclusively over Zoom. Still, we were able to hire Torie Reed as our new Administrator and Lenan Choto as our new Outreach Coordinator. Torie came to her position with a knowledge of the department and a proven expertise with managing budgets and working with the UW central administration. We would not have survived this past year without her hard work. Lenan brings a tested media savvy and refreshing ideas on the use of social media to build community to their position. Please join our virtual community by following CHID’s Instagram account, https://www.instagram.com/chidatuw/.

The pandemic also threatened a foundation of the CHID department—our study abroad and study away programs. These programs have long shaped the lives of participating students and enriched CHID’s intellectual culture. CHID helped to pioneer an approach to international education that centered justice-oriented themes, self-reflective practices, and interdisciplinary methods. Pandemic-driven restrictions to international travel threatened this important part of CHID’s pedagogy. It’s only through the innovation and flexibility of CHID’s Director of Study Abroad, Nick Barr, and the budgetary magic of Torie Reed, that this integral part of a CHID education is beginning to thrive once again.

Also, this was Cynthia Anderson’s first full year in her position as Director of Learning Communities. Cynthia spent this year listening to students’ problems and finding much-needed resources. Her role as our primary resource for students increased in importance as students navigated the practical challenges of online education and the emotional challenges of life in social isolation. Remarkably, Cynthia’s hard work ensured that CHID had even more majors at the start of this school year then at the same time last year.

Despite CHID’s innovative, study abroad programs, much education at the UW still happens in classrooms. Or did happen in classrooms. In Spring Quarter 2020, CHID faculty quickly adopted the tools and strategies needed to lead successful online classes. This meant re-conceptualizing assignments, using new study materials, adapting class activities, and finding new ways to facilitate class discussion. Faculty conversed in new ways about teaching (emphasizing terms like “synchronous” and “asynchronous”) as they faced old pedagogical challenges in starkly new environments. This could have been a disaster. For instance, facilitating challenging classroom discussions can be difficult under the best circumstances; facilitating challenging discussions while online and while learning new instructional technologies is immeasurably more difficult. Our faculty met this challenge by reaching out to each other. They shared resources, offered stories about what worked and what didn’t, and brainstormed emergent issues. And while it is much too glib to suggest that we became better teachers because of these challenges, the experience did provide insights into the important role of education during an emergency. Many of our students noticed our efforts. They often told me that their CHID classes were the most intellectually engaging and personally encouraging classes that they took last year. We owe this accomplishment to CHID faculty’s commitment to teaching.

Finally, and most importantly, there are our students. Student life is almost always hard. Most students work long hours to support themselves, while tuition, supplies, and the cost of living have dramatically increased. Add to this the psychic and emotional toll of the pandemic, and these challenges can prove unbearable. The reason why our department remains popular with students, however, is the sense of community we build. And it is this sense of community that pulled us through the most difficult year in memory. In CHID, we believe that learning best happens when a diverse group of students come together, exchange ideas and insights, and work toward shared goals. This commitment creates a more engaged, more critically informed, and more imaginative group of students, faculty, and staff. We also value growth and development in our students that isn’t easily measured or mapped by the traditional yardsticks of success. This is why Lenan Choto initiated a video series of student stories (which can be found on our Instagram feed), as these stories help to illuminate the accomplishments of each student on their own terms. Still, many of our students excel in ways that the university recognizes. For instance, every year, CHID students win Mary Gates Research and Leadership awards, while in many years one of our students wins one of the few scholarships available to students in the humanities. In some years our students win even more prestigious awards. Last year, for instance, Sophia Carey  won the internationally prestigious Beinecke Scholarship, and graduating senior Lindsey Muszkiewicz won the highest honor for any graduating student in the humanities, the Humanities Dean’s Medal. Our students win awards because they combine academic excellence and innovative thinking. And most importantly, they win awards because they care about others.

We’ve begun yet another year of learning during the coronavirus pandemic. Students, faculty, staff, and parents are anxious about what may happen this year. And while the most extreme scenarios are the ones that most easily come to mind, it’s really the hard work, commitment to others, and the ability to creatively problem-solve that make the livable differences for a learning community. This will be true in 2021-2022, just as it was true in 2020-2021—and the many years before that.

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