Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois

Illinois Department of English Blog

Welcome to the Department of English blog.

My name is Michael Rothberg and I took over as head of the department in August 2013. I'll be using this site to post updates and information of potential interest to our faculty, students, and alumni. As anyone who has ever worked or studied here knows, the Department of English is a bustling place. If you have something you'd like to see posted here, or if you want to contact me about the content of this blog, drop me an email at

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Prendergast and Harjo Win Guggenheims!

Last week I received the very exciting news that two English department colleagues—Catherine Prendergast and Joy Harjo—have been named Fellows of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. They are two of an unprecedented five Illinois faculty members who won this year—Asef Bayat in Sociology, Stephen Taylor in Music, and Deke Weaver in Art and Design are the others. Guggenheim fellowships are about as prestigious as things get in the humanities and they recognize not just a particular project but the shape of a career—these are very impressive and significant awards.

Cathy Prendergast is a long-time member of our department and a leading figure in Writing Studies. Her first book, Literacy and Racial Justice: The Politics of Learning after Brown v. Board of Education, won multiple national awards from the likes of the MLA and the NCTE. Her second book, Buying into English: Language and Investment in the Capitalist New World, was a prominently reviewed study of the efforts of Slovaks to learn English in the wake of the Cold War and in a moment of European unification. Her new book project, which she’ll be working on during the tenure of her Guggenheim fellowship, is a study of writers’ and artists’ colonies like Yaddo and Carmel-by-the Sea. Writer, Painter, Banker, Thief will be an institutional history that brings culture and economics together—it’s an exciting and timely project and I can’t wait to see what Cathy comes up with!

Joy Harjo is a brilliant new addition to the Illinois campus. With a primary appointment in American Indian Studies and an affiliation with English, Joy is a member of the Mvskoke Nation and is one of our most prominent poets. She is the author of numerous award-winning poetry collections, including She Had Some Horses and How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems. But her Guggenheim is actually for nonfiction—a sign of her versatility as a writer. I had the opportunity to hear her read from her very powerful recent memoir Crazy Brave last fall on campus, and I am very much looking forward to the follow-up. Crazy Brave won the PEN USA Literary Award for best creative nonfiction. I should mention that Joy is also an accomplished musician who plays saxophone and tours with a band.

Congratulations, Cathy and Joy—and Asef, Stephen, and Deke! These awards are just one more sign of how vibrant the humanities, arts, and social sciences are on our campus.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Interdisciplinarity, the IPRH, and Us

The humanities at the University of Illinois are truly interdisciplinary. This feature of intellectual life in Champaign-Urbana has always struck me as our greatest asset. Part of that interdisciplinarity is simply the outcome of the broad, border-crossing interests so many of us have; our research leads us naturally into conversations with scholars from other fields and areas both within and far beyond the humanities.

That movement across disciplinary borders characterizes most humanities work these days (not to mention work in the social sciences, natural sciences, etc.); obviously it’s not just something happening in Illinois. But what is special about our campus is that we also have intellectual and institutional infrastructure that enables such research. One of the reasons I came to Illinois was because of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory, a unique interdisciplinary space for high-level research and teaching that cuts across the humanities and social sciences. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to direct the Unit for a time—and a pleasure to see it pass on to my colleague Lauren Goodlad in the following years.

There are many other units on campus that facilitate this kind of work—including our Department of Gender and Women’s Studies and various ethnic studies programs. Today I want to draw particular attention to the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities. The IPRH has had a string of visionary leaders and is now in the very capable hands of director Dianne Harris and associate director Nancy Castro (who also has English department affiliation). Under Dianne, the IPRH has been extraordinarily successful at attracting significant external funding, culminating in a recent $3 million Mellon Foundation grant. That grant—Humanities Without Walls—will help create a new consortium of fifteen humanities centers in the Midwest. The IPRH already sponsors faculty and graduate student fellowships, postdocs, lectures, and interdisciplinary research clusters. It’s an essential part of the fabric of intellectual community on our campus. 

I’m thinking with particular fondness of the IPRH today, because I just found out that—once again—Department of English faculty and students have been recognized in the annual IPRH Prizes for Research in the Humanities. I am very pleased to announce that Christopher Freeburg has been selected for the faculty prize for his essay “James Baldwin and the Unhistoric Life of Race,” which was published in the South Atlantic Quarterly. In addition, Christine Hedlin has received Honorable Mention in the graduate student category for her essay “‘Was There Not Reason to Doubt?’ Wieland and Its Secular Age.” Christine’s essay was written for a graduate seminar with Justine Murison and then revised in a professionalization seminar with Gordon Hutner. Her essay will appear in the Journal of American Studies! Last but not least, Mary Baker has received Honorable Mention in the undergraduate research category. Her paper “The Maintenance of the Mainstream: Policing Difference in Mad Men” was written for Siobhan Somerville’s class English 461: American Narratives of Passing. It will appear in the first issue of Re:Search, our department's new undergraduate journal of literary criticism.

Congratulations, everyone! And thanks to the IPRH for helping make this kind of research more visible!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Gail Hawisher Receives the Exemplar Award!

I am very pleased to report that our colleague Gail Hawisher, Professor Emeritus of English, has received a very impressive award from the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC). Together with her collaborator Cynthia Selfe, Gail has been recognized with the Exemplar Award, which the CCCC calls “its most prestigious honor.”

The Exemplar Award, given this year for the first time ever to a collaborative authoring/editing team, singles out those “whose years of service as an exemplar for our organization represents the highest ideals of scholarship, teaching, and service to the entire profession. The Exemplar Award seeks to recognize individuals whose record is national and international in scope, and who set the best examples for the CCCC membership." 

The citation from the Award Committee notes how Gail and her collaborator “led our field (sometimes kicking and screaming!) into the 21st century, a period marked by a transition for writers and teachers of writing, to digitally-mediated forms of written communication.” It draws particular attention to their editing of the groundbreaking journal Computers and Composition and to the influence of such co-written books as Literate Lives in the Information Age: Narratives of Literacy in the United States (2004) and Transnational Literate Lives in Digital Times (co-authored in 2012 with our own alum Patrick W. Berry!) as well as to their service to the profession over many years. You can read the complete citation here.

Congratulations, Gail, for this well-deserved honor!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Teaching Success

As you know from my recent post, the English department is well represented in college and campus teaching awards. Now, I'm pleased to report, instructors in English courses are, once again, numerous on the List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent By Their Students, which is compiled by the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning.

The usual disclaimers apply--we know that excellence in teaching comes in more forms than can be measured by filling in bubbles on a standardized form--but I am still pleased to see these kinds of results. English courses offer rigorous instruction in writing critically and creatively, in reading closely, and in thinking freely--the fact that our students appreciate what we're offering is always a good sign!

Here then is the list of teachers ranked excellent for courses offered in fall 2013.

Laura Bandy, Jensen Beach, Michael Behrens, Martin Camargo, JB Capino, Sarah Cassinelli, Debojoy Chanda, Jill Clements, John Claborn, Mary Rose Cottingham, Carrie Dickison, Dennis Dullea, Patrick Fadely, Stephanie Foote, Andrew Gaedtke, Shawn Gilmore, Catherine Gray, Nolan Grieve, Joe Grohens, Andrew Hall, Jim Hansen, Justin Hanson, Gail Hapke, William Hechler, Marilyn Holguin, Ann Hubert, DeAvery Irons, Miguel Jimenez, Brigit Kelly, Annie Kelvie, Melissa Larabee, Mary Lindsey, Trish Loughran, Sean MacIntyre, Heather McLeer, Erin McQuiston, Michael Madonick, Calgary Martin, Jessica Mercado, Natalie Mesnard, Matthew Minicucci, Libbie Morley, Dave Morris, Andrew Moss, Justine Murison, John Musser, Hina Nazar, Katherine Norcross, Valerie O’Brien, Michael Odom, Robert Dale Parker, Catherine Prendergast, Julie Price, Paul Prior, Isabel Quintana-Wulf, Scott Ricketts, Anna Robb, Carla Rosell, John Rubins, Rachel Samanie, Ted Sanders, Spencer Schaffner, Jordan Sellers, Michael Shetina, Andrea Stevens, Debora Tienou, Renee Trilling, Kristin Walters, Gregory Webb, Rebecca Weber, Sara Weisweaver, Kirstin Wilcox, Zachary Williams, Gregory Wilson, Charlie Wright, David Wright, Noel Zavala

Well done, all!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Richard Powers joins the Gallery of Excellence!

I am very pleased to report that the novelist Richard Powers has been selected to be part of the College of Liberal Arts and Science's online Gallery of Excellence, where he joins Nina Baym. The Gallery of Excellence is part of the centennial celebrations of the college and is meant to honor "brilliant teachers and researchers who spent their careers on campus [as well as] alumni who left to make their mark elsewhere."

Richard Powers is all that and more: an alumnus of our department, a beloved (former) colleague, a writer of engrossing and brilliant novels. Above all, he's a kind, ethical, and deeply humane person whom I feel fortunate to know and to have worked with for a number of years here at the University of Illinois. 

Congratulations, Rick, for another well deserved honor!

Here is the citation from the Gallery of Excellence:

There was a time, believe it or not, when Richard Powers was known more for his computer prowess than his writing. After graduating from the U of I, he was working as a computer programmer in Boston in the early 1980s when one day he walked into the Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and saw a 1914 photo of three farm boys headed to a dance. Something about it sparked an idea, and within 48 hours he quit his job to write his first novel.
The result was Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, published in 1985 to wide acclaim. Powers has been writing novels ever since, winning the National Book Award in 2006 for The Echo Maker, and named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award prior to his 2006 win.
After the success of his first book, Powers (BA ’78; MA ’80, English) moved to Holland to write without distraction, but he was drawn back to the Midwest, and in 1992 he returned to the U of I as a professor of English and writer-in-residence. During his time at Illinois he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and received a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, among many other honors.
“His generosity to colleagues and students in English is truly legendary,” says Curtis Perry, professor and former head of the Department of English. Powers recently retired from his position, and in fall 2013 he joined the Stanford University Department of English as a professor of creative writing.
Technology is often at the core of his novels, but complex characters and ideas drive the plot.
“The need for knowledge is as passionate as any other human obsession,” he once told The Believer magazine.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Awards Round-Up

(Updated April 1, 2014)

Things have been busy around the English Department during the first weeks of the semester, and this is my first chance to return to the blog! We have three searches going on for positions in Writing Studies, African American Literature, and Global Anglophone Literatures that we hope will bring several wonderful new colleagues to campus next year. I wish I could tell you more, but really all I can say right now is that we’ve had a string of excellent job talks that have provoked stimulating discussions in the English Building. More news to come as the semester continues…

While we’re in the middle of those searches—and much else!—I did want to take a moment to share some good news about various honors that faculty and graduate students have won in recent weeks. (There's been a lot recently, so if I've inadvertently forgotten something, please let me know!)

*Christopher Freeburg won the Hennig Cohen Prize of The Melville Society. The prize is “an annual award for the best article, book chapter, or essay in a book about Herman Melville.” Chris received the award for his chapter "Embodying the 'Assaults of Time': 'The Encantadas,'" from his book Melville and the Idea of Blackness: Race and Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge University Press, 2012). As the award committee wrote in their appraisal: “Freeburg’s insistence that Melville’s representations of race are both historically concrete and philosophically abstract (bearing on questions of ontology and epistemology) makes this book crucial for thinking about how Melville’s writings address the complex relation between literature and history.”

*Sandra Ruiz (English & Latina/Latino Studies) and J.B. Capino have been awarded Faculty Fellowships from the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities (IPRH) for the 2014-2015 academic year.

*Ariana Ruiz and Ben Bascom, two of our excellent graduate students, have also been awarded fellowships from the IPRH—our campus humanities center—that will provide a stipend allowing them to focus on their research during the 2014-2015 academic year.

*Catherine Prendergast and David Wright have both been named Associates of the Center for Advanced Study, our most prestigious cross-campus research unit for the 2014-2015 year.

*Four faculty members received Humanities Released Time awards from the Campus Research Board for 2014-2015: Andrew Gaedtke, Hina Nazar, Lori Newcomb, and Richard T. Rodriguez.

*Jordan Sellers, another excellent graduate student, has won the 2013-2014 LAS Humanities Council Teaching Excellence Award.

*Dale Bauer has won the 2013-2014 Lynn M. Martin Award for Distinguished Women Teachers and the campus Undergraduate Teaching Award.

*Charlie Wright has the won the campus award for Graduate Student Mentoring.

Congratulations to all of these deserving honorees! I hope the number and range of awards will give you a sense of how seriously we in the English department take both research and teaching.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Chicagoan of the Year!

A few months back I blogged about the publication of Audrey Petty's terrific and important book High Rise Stories. Well, on the basis of that book Audrey has just been chosen one of the Chicagoans of the Year by the Chicago Tribune!

Congratulations Audrey for that wholly deserved honor!

Here's the front page of the Tribune's Arts and Entertainment section with a great photo of Audrey: