English MATTERS — SPRING 2010

Noted by the Chair

From my perspective, the past eighteen months have brought to many of us changes as fundamental as any I have experienced in my lifetime, changes that I think we have barely begun to grasp in either intellectual or visceral terms. The lingering economic crisis is a large piece of this—not wholly unfamiliar to someone brought up, as I was, by parents profoundly marked by living through the Great Depression—but far from the only piece. As that precedent reminds us, however, change is rarely easy, and successful change almost always long sought and hard won. For all of our storied commitment as Americans to the value of change, the reality as we live through transitional eras can often be quite different.[Handwerk photo]

What can ease the process is staying ahead of the curves that history throws at us—noting the ways in which the world around us is already changing and trying to maximize the positive aspects of those developments. This issue of English Matters looks at several such cases, places where people in the humanities at the University of Washington have been doing some of their most forward-looking work.

Many of these efforts have been accomplished thanks to support provided by the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities. As you can see from the articles that follow, the Simpson Center (and its Director, Kathleen Woodward) has from its inception sought to foster innovatively collaborative and broadly public work in the humanities. The research groups they have sponsored have produced amazing projects; the Modern Girl Project is one of the most powerful and long-lived of these, but every year the Center sponsors a number of faculty and student groups that give their participants a chance to collaborate more fully in the long-term conversations that make research and teaching more effective. The Simpson Center has also been in the forefront of encouraging the linking of the humanities to the possibilities offered by modern technology—from digital resource projects such as Míċeál Vaughan’s on-line Piers Plowman edition to their recent, NEH-funded digital humanities initiative.

Other changes are more routine, but no less important—among those, the recent appointment of several new administrators to our ranks and the retirement of much-valued colleagues. Some have been painful—closing our departmental writing center and reducing or eliminating some staff positions, while asking everyone to work harder as our numbers diminish. As we go through these more difficult processes of change, though, I have been intensely gratified to see how deep the support for our educational and intellectual mission runs among our alumni and supporters. Contributions to our department are up over the past year and have been incredibly valuable to us in navigating necessary transitions. I am particularly glad that we can highlight this year the role played by one member of that group, Nan Ketcham, who has for many years been the best of friends that any department could wish to have.

At the center, as always, are the students. If readiness for change is part of what we try to teach, it is hard to imagine a better example among our students than Lt. Anastacia Thorsson, whose Coast Guard career since her graduation is a wonderful story of opportunities embraced. I hope that you find reading about her life, and about the other activities we highlight this year, a pleasure.

—Gary Handwerk, Chair

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