Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois

Illinois Department of English Blog


Welcome to the Department of English blog.

My name is Vicki Mahaffey and I took over as
head of the department on July 1, 2016. I'll be using this site to post updates and information of interest to our faculty, students, and alumni,
along with reflections about our discipline(s) in particular and the humanities in general. As anyone who has ever worked or studied here knows, the Department of English is a vibrant 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

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Winter Convocation

This morning, I attended the Winter Convocation held by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Hardboiled though I may be in other regards, I'm a total softie for these events--I always enjoy them and find them moving. First, the faculty attendees gather in a staging area, adjusting their robes and hoods and trying to stand as straight as possible so as to keep their mortarboards from tipping off of their heads. We all feel a little silly, I suppose, with our tassels dangling in our peripheral vision and dolled-up like medieval scholars in our robes and hoods, but one sees friends from other departments and the dress-up aspect actually ensures that everyone is amused and in good spirits. Then, we process in and see the families in the audience, and the students enter, nervous and grinning and proud all at once, and the ceremony begins.

One by one students, in their robes, come up onto the stage, hear their name read out over the PA system, and walk across the stage to shake the dean's hand. At first, everyone is formal, but then--usually before we're done with the A's--somebody breaks the ice and shouts out when their brother or sister or partner or friend is called. "Wooo hoo," someone calls. Then "you did it, sweetie!" or "hallelujah!" and the lid is off. As the ceremony progresses, audience members get more and more demonstrative in support of their loved ones. "Sweet Pea!" someone shouts from the balcony." Another yells "That's my wife!" Everyone laughs, everyone settles in.

For me at least, the essence of the graduation ceremony lies in this unusual combination of formality and raucousness. Graduation is a major achievement and a major life threshold, and it should be marked both with formal dignity and wild celebration! By the end, I want to shout out too--it is great to feel the pride that so many families take in the achievements of our students, and as a faculty member you can't help but feel pride too in being part of the whole endeavor.

Congratulations to all of our newly-minted graduates! Wooo hoo!


Advance copies of Cary Nelson's new book No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom have arrived from NYU Press. Cary is both a professor emeritus in our department and president of the American Association of University Professors.

The book description provided by the press reads:

"The modern university is sustained by academic freedom; it guarantees higher education’s independence, its quality, and its success in educating students. The need to uphold those values would seem obvious. Yet the university is presently under siege from all corners; workers are being exploited with paltry salaries for full-time work, politics and profit rather than intellectual freedom govern decision-making, and professors are being monitored for the topics they teach.

No University Is an Island offers a comprehensive account of the social, political, and cultural forces undermining academic freedom. At once witty and devastating, it confronts these threats with exceptional frankness, then offers a prescription for higher education’s renewal. In an insider’s account of how the primary organization for faculty members nationwide has fought the culture wars, Cary Nelson, the current President of the American Association of University Professors, unveils struggles over governance and unionization and the increasing corporatization of higher education. Peppered throughout with previously unreported, and sometimes incendiary, higher education anecdotes, Nelson is at his flame-throwing best.

The book calls on higher education’s advocates of both the Left and the Right to temper conviction with tolerance and focus on higher education’s real injustices. Nelson demands we stop denying teachers, student workers, and other employees a living wage and basic rights. He urges unions to take up the larger cause of justice. And he challenges his own and other academic organizations to embrace greater democracy.

With broad and crucial implications for the future, No University Is an Island will be the benchmark against which we measure the current definitive struggle for academic freedom."

Friday, December 18, 2009

John Griswold stikes again!

The indefatigable John Griswold, whose novel A Democracy of Ghosts was published by Wordcraft earlier this year, has just published Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City with The History Press, an interesting publishing venture that is dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of local US history.

A Democracy of Ghosts (just in case some readers of this blog have not already read it!) is a historical novel set against the backdrop of Herrin ca. 1922, the time of the infamous Herrin Massacre. This book tells that history, but as one chapter of a more comprehensive look at the city's history.

Here is the book description: "Herrin, Illinois, has seen many dramatic events unfold in the nearly two hundred years since it was a bell-shaped prairie on the frontier. Now, Herrin native John Griswold, a writer and teacher at the University of Illinois, provides the first comprehensive history of this most American city, a place that in its time became not just a melting pot but also a cauldron. Discover why the coal was so good in the 'Quality Circle' and what happened to the boom that followed its discovery. Explore the roots of the vicious Herrin Massacre of 1922 and learn why the entire nation has focused its gaze on this small midwestern city so many times.

Incorporating the most recent scholarship, interviews and classic histories and narratives, this brief and entertaining history is illustrated with more than seventy-five archival photos that help tell this important American story."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday, December 4, 2009

Undergraduates, grad students, and faculty

I met, early this this past week, with In Woo Jung, a freshman Media Studies major who is this year's winner of the Kevin T. Early Memorial Scholarship. This prize, established in the memory of Kevin Early (who was himself a dedicated young poet), goes each year to the most impressive freshman poet. This year, we had about 35 entrants, each of whom submitted a sheaf of their poems for consideration, and the poems were then judged (blind--that is, without the entrants names attached to them) by a member of our creative writing faculty. Woo (as he asked to be called) submitted a set of poems notable for their formal experimentalism, both in the sense that some of them made use of highly constraining metrical forms and in the sense that some of them played very creatively with free verse and formal invention. I was impressed to see that kind of attention to the craftsmanship of poetry-writing in the work of a freshman poet, and I'm pleased too that Woo plans to change his major to English. Congratulations!

Then, on Tuesday night, numerous faculty members and graduate students returned after hours to the English Building to conduct practice-interviews in order to help prepare our PhD candidates for this year's academic job market. For those not in the field: most hiring for entry-level professor positions in English involves interviewing at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association at the end of December, and since these can be high-stakes interviews it is very helpful to go through the motions in advance and get the jitters out. We do this every year, and it is always a nice event--people coming together to help each other. This year, it was especially fun because the students I 'interviewed' (some of whom I did not really know all that well before this week) were so stellar: our graduate students are doing fantastic, ambitious research projects and they are all highly experienced and committed teachers. In fact, I'd say that on the whole PhD students at top public universities like Illinois are simply better prepared to step into jobs as teacher/scholars than are PhDs from any other kind of institution. Our PhD candidates are doing leading-edge scholarly work, and they are just much more professionalized and experienced as teachers than their counterparts at the top private universities. This is a tough time to be on the academic job market--higher education, like so many other areas of contemporary society, is suffering cutbacks and so there are fewer jobs nationally than there were two years ago--but I know for a fact that any department that is fortunate enough to hire one of our PhD students will have done very, very well for itself.

Having been reminded earlier in the week of how interesting our undergrads can be and then of how terrific our grad students are, Thursday evening brought the campus's annual bookplating ceremony, in which those faculty members who were promoted during the previous year's cycle are honored with a bookplate placed in a book they have chosen that is then ordered for the main library collection. At the ceremony, these books are on display together with brief accounts by the honorees explaining their choices, and I always like to read these because they are so various and so personal. Some faculty members choose books that inspired them or are otherwise important to their work, some choose books by mentors, some choose childhood favorites or books that are personal for non-academic reasons. One honoree from English--Paul Prior--chose a book by a former student based on one of the first dissertations he directed as a faculty member. Most of all, though, I like this event because it gives me a chance to celebrate and acknowledge the accomplishments of faculty members (in English and elsewhere) who have worked hard for many years to earn promotion. Last year, English had five faculty members promoted: Jim Hansen, who became an Associate Professor, and Prior, LeAnne Howe, Michael Rothberg, and Gillen Wood who earned the rank of Professor. I've congratulated them all before--both here and in the flesh--but it was very nice to have the chance to share a glass of wine with some of them and reflect upon their accomplishments again at the ceremony Thursday night.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


It is very, very quiet in the English Building this week--the main office of the department will be open until tomorrow afternoon, but classes are suspended for the holiday and there are not many people roaming the halls. Let me take advantage of this quiet moment simply to wish everyone in our extended community a peaceful holiday season this year.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) Awards

I just received the good news that Lauri Harden has won an LAS Staff Award in this year's competition, and that Jodee Stanley has been awarded an LAS Academic Professional Award. I'm very, very pleased by both pieces of good news, each of which comes as yet one more reminder of how many excellent people--faculty, staff, APs, lecturers, instructors, TAs--we have working here in the English Department in all capacities.

First let me say a few words about Lauri Harden's award. Staff members who have won this award are not eligible to be nominated again for it for ten years. Not coincidentally, Lauri last won this award in Fall of 1998. You can probably just go ahead and pencil her in now for the LAS Staff Award ca. Fall 2020 (I'm kidding, but only sort of: Lauri tells me that she plans to retire before 2020 but otherwise she would win the award then). She is that good at what she does. Lauri is the manager of our undergraduate studies office, and to understand what this means you have to understand that she is (among a great many other things!) one of the primary caretakers of our whole enormous, messy, complex, ever-changing scheduling process. Nobody but Lauri really knows how we pull this into shape every year, and it is truth universally acknowledged over here in the English building that Lauri's mastery of the ins and outs of the undergraduate schedule is the glue that holds our entire operation together. You might think this is hyperbole on my part, but, well, you'd be wrong.

Jodee Stanley is the editor of our award-winning literary journal Ninth Letter, which is published under the auspices of our MFA in Creative Writing Program in collaboration with the School of Art and Design. As I hope all of you already know, Ninth Letter is a kind of unique publication, marrying the very best in contemporary prose and poetry with the work of leading edge grapic designers and other visual artists. Jodee's job involves all the administrative work of an editor as well as fund-raising and grant writing and overseeing student editors and so on, and the quality of each edition she oversees testifies yet once more to the special mix of vision and hard-headed competance she brings to her task. Check out Ninth Letter by clicking on the link at the top of this paragraph, and you'll see what I mean. Subscribe, and you'll see what I mean twice a year.

Congratulations to Lauri and Jodee! Truth be told, I kind of expected them both to win. I mean really, how could they not? Nobody could be more deserving of either award.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Graduate Support

Since this blog links off of the main departmental page, I usually use it only as a venue for the kind of news about the department that I think will appeal to all of its possible readers: faculty, grad students, undergrads, alums, prospective grad students, other campus communities, and even those who wind up here by accident after google-ing something or someone. And it is with some hesitation that I take up anything here that might be controversial, or that might cast either the department or the university in a poor light: I am mindful that I represent both my department and my college, and also mindful that my own perspective on things may not be the same as that of some members of this blog's readership. Still, it seemed important to me to post here about the strike currently being conducted by the Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO): it has received media coverage in Chicago and nationally, and so I figure that perceptions of this event are likely to have a significant impact upon the way our department and its graduate students are perceived. I won't comment here on the specific issues that are being disputed in the bargaining process--you can find this information in published news reports--but I do want to give a kind of department's eye view for the benefit of readers who feel a connection to the department but who may be too distant to have a feel for the commitments and concerns of its faculty and grad students. It should be noted that the opinions I express here are solely my own.

English has one of the larger PhD programs on campus, and many of our graduate students participate in the GEO. So the strike has had a major, disruptive effect upon us in particular as a department. Graduate TAs in English teach a significant percentage of our classes. And they teach them very well, by any standard. Student evaluation scores for the department's graduate TAs are very strong across the board, and since faculty work closely with graduate students we all know from personal experience that our students are dedicated, hardworking teachers. That is part of why faculty in English are for the most part supportive of the GEO (as am I), because we know how hard our graduate students work and for how little: we know how much effort they put into their teaching, and how difficult it can be for them to balance teaching with the research they need to do in order to complete their degrees.

We are a department of dedicated teachers, and this work stoppage has been difficult for everyone (GEO members as well as faculty) because none of us is fully comfortable with the idea of disrupting classes we've been teaching all semester. Everyone in our department is very much mindful of the impact their actions may have on undergraduate students. Many faculty members have moved their classes off campus in order to avoid crossing picket lines and to avoid asking their students to cross, and everyone (including GEO members) is thinking hard about how best to protect the interests of their undergraduate students while the strike continues. In fact the GEO has enjoyed considerable support from on-campus undergraduate groups, who recognize that adequate support for the graduate students is actually crucial to maintaining the quality of the undergraduate education we offer. Ultimately, despite the temporary breakdown in the collective bargaining process here, these are not competing interests: if we can attract top students into our graduate programs, and if we can support them so that they are able to find a salutary balance between teaching duties and their own developing scholarly curiosity, then the classes they teach to our undergraduates are simply going to be the better for it.

It is true--at Illinois as at many of the top public universities across the country--that we face a budget crisis that puts extraordinary pressure on us as we all try to do our work. And of course that is one context for the temporary impasse we're in now between university and union negotiators. My understanding is that the ratio of state funding to tuition revenue has dropped from 12/1 in 1970 to 2/1 in 2001 to about 1/1 as of today. The challenge for public universities, faced with the reality of shrinking state support, is somehow to continue to do what we do without raising tuition beyond what is conscionable for a land grant institution or without diluting the quality of the education we provide by making cost-conscious decisions without regard for our educational mission. Graduate students are really key to our efforts here: they teach inexpensively in exchange for tuition waivers and because they are in an apprenticeship period, amassing teaching experience that can later be put to use in faculty positions. But here too there is a balance: if we do not support them adequately--if we ask them to teach too much for too little--then the apprenticeship model effectively breaks down. Ultimately, faculty in English are supportive of the GEO because we are aware that this balance is at once fragile and centrally important to who we are as a department.

Looking at the bigger picture, you could say that the the GEO is basically trying its best to maintain this delicate balance by means of collective bargaining pressure. And regardless of what you think about unions or picket lines or the disruption of classes, I think everyone who is an alum or a friend of the Department of English should probably be in support of this larger goal. Because if the balance tips and we can no longer support graduate student TAs adequately as scholar-teachers in training, then it will significantly diminish the quality of the research and teaching that the department as a whole can undertake. The importance of maintaining this balance has been evident for some years and it will continue to be a departmental priority long after the strike has been resolved. When readers scroll back through blog posts a year from now and look at this entry, I think this will be the aspect of the story that will still resonate: we (as a department, and as a campus) need to find ways to support our graduate programs through difficult times because adequately-supported graduate student teacher-scholars are crucial both to our ability to provide an affordable education and also, of course, to the intellectual future of our respective disciplines.

This is why, if you click through to make a gift to the department off of our main webpage, you are presented with a choice between two gift fund options: the Annual Fund and the English Department Fellows Fund. All departments have Annual Funds, but we thought it was important to give people the option to give directly to support the graduate program, so gifts to this fund are used to help provide fellowships and other research-related funding for the graduate program--the kinds of funding that allows us to do a better job of maintaining the balance between teaching and scholarship that is so essential to the the success of our program and our students alike. As state support for the university shrinks, private generosity becomes all the more important.

Update: apparently a tentative agreement has been reached between the two sides. The GEO will still need to vote on the contract, but for now the situation here seems to have resolved itself.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Investitures: generosity and enhancement

Avid readers of contemporary fiction and regular visitors to this blog will recognize an allusion here to Rick Powers' new novel in the title of this post. But its real purpose is just to kvell (a Yiddish word meaning to swell with pride and pleasure, usually about the accomplishments of friends and family-members) after the investiture ceremony we held late yesterday afternoon for Vicki Mahaffey, who is the Clayton and Thelma Kirkpatrick Professor in English Literature, and Robert Dale Parker, who is the James M. Benson Professor in English.

It was a lovely event, not only because so many friends and colleagues came out, and not only because of the remarkable eloquence of our honorees, but also because James Benson and several members of the Kirkpatrick family were there, too, and because they spoke very movingly about the importance of writing and literacy and words and of the liberal arts education that we provide.

The gifts that created these two named professorships are each visionary in their way, because it takes vision to recognize the social, personal and--yes--practical value of the humanities in a time when market forces might seem to favor efficiently delivered vocational training instead. And as I've said in this space before, English majors go on to do all kinds of things--they are teachers and scholars and writers, yes, but they are also in business, medicine, law, what have you--and time and again our alums report that the intellectual rigor, the critical curiosity, and the writing/communication skills we helped them develop have served them in good stead in countless ways in each of their professional paths. The ceremony yesterday was a celebration of some remarkable people, but it was also a celebration of all that English as a field of study does and has done for people.

Clayton Kirkpatrick, who graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in English in 1937, worked his way up to become Editor and Chief Executive at the Chicago Tribune. At our ceremony, his daughter Eileen spoke very movingly about her father's love of literature and even quoted from memory from poems he had read aloud to her, and her brother Bruce likewise spoke about his father's lifelong fascination with literature and the written word, noting that by the time the Watergate scandal broke, Clayton's journalism was itself like a kind of poetry. Bruce also spoke beautifully about his mother Thelma, and her full partnership in both her husband's career and in the endowment we were all celebrating. James Benson was an Economics major, but he reminisced in his speech yesterday about being persuaded of the importance of supporting English both by a speech he had heard given by the great Nina Baym, and then also by his own recollection of the importance of writing classes within his own educational experience. Since I believe fervently in the importance of the humanities, and since I spend a significant amount of my time attempting to argue for the importance of English, it was wonderful to hear what Mr. Benson and the members of the Kirkpatrick family had to share with us from their own experiences. I said it last night, but I'll say it again here: thank you!

Actually, The Department of English has a lot to be thankful for as we head into the holiday season. And right up at the top of that list is the generosity of our friends and alums. Not only big, landmark gifts like the ones we celebrate at investiture ceremonies, either: it is a great joy to me to see that we continue to be supported by smaller gifts from friends and alums all over the country, many of whom have chosen to give to our annual fund this year for the first time. We rely upon these gifts for many essential departmental and campus functions, including the support of our excellent and hardworking graduate students, to pay for expenses associated with hiring and recruiting faculty, and to help co-sponsor the kinds of humanities-related events on campus that are a great resource for faculty, students, and others in this community. This is a difficult economic moment, of course, one in which universities and departments are being severely challenged by shrinking state support. It is also a time when even the most generous and philanthropic people may feel the need to tighten their belts. So it is very moving to me to see that people, even now, continue to make donations to our annual fund and our graduate fellows fund. We appreciate it. I appreciate it.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Pumpkinification of English

Classicists among us will perhaps recognize an allusion here to a Roman satire called Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii, which is typically translated as The Pumpkinification of Claudius. But I actually mean this literally, not as an allusion or a satire: we've been pumpkinified. That is, we've just finished holding our annual staff pumpkin decorating contest, which means that the main administrative office of the English Department has been home, for the last several days, to an impressive array of remarkable, elaborately decorated pumpkins:

Visitors to the office have been invited to vote for their favorite, and today we tallied the votes and declared a winner. In order that you, dear reader, can experience some of the suspense attendant upon our pumpkinification, I'll leave this picture of the entries here and post a photo of the winner as a late update to this blog entry at some point next week. I can't vouch for this as direct first-hand knowledge, but I'm told that one of the pumpkins pictured above is a tribute of sorts to a member of our creative writing faculty.

The office has been pretty festive here all week, truth be told, and not only because of our pumpkinification. We've had things set up for trick-or-treaters, so for the last couple of days there has been a fairly steady stream of kids in their costumes sauntering or toddling in and out of the office. And even my esteemed Associate Head has been carrying out his duties in partial costume, sporting horns that will, he says, make up part of the satyr costume he plans to wear out and about on Hallowe'en. Sadly, he refused to allow me to take his picture, so you'll have to take my word for it.

Update #1: the winner of the pumpkin decorating contest is... Deb Stauffer, whose creation was the hatching pumpkin-chick in the center of the picture above. This is the second year in a row that Deb has won this contest.

Update #2: it turns out that the Associate Head, Rob Barrett, is shy only about displaying partial costumes. He sent me a picture of himself in full Silenus costume to post here, and, well, I can't resist:

We work hard here (even if we do have Bacchus's sidekick on staff). So it is nice every now and again to have the chance to be just silly. Happy holiday season to one and all! And now back to your regularly scheduled program.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hansen, Hansen and Hart

No, this is not a post about some super-successful law firm started by English alums. It is a post about two new faculty books--one by Jim Hansen and another co-edited by Hansen and Matt Hart.

According the good people at SUNY Press, Jim's new book--Terror and Irish Modernism: The Gothic Tradition from Burke to Beckett--is in print and available as of yesterday. Here is the book description from the press' website:

"Terror and Irish Modernism offers a synoptic overview of modern Irish fiction. Covering more than two centuries of literary production, Jim Hansen locates the root structure of modern Irish fiction in the masculine gender anxiety of one of the nineteenth century’s most popular literary genres: the Gothic. Addressing both the decolonization of Ireland and the politics of literary form, Hansen sheds new light on canonical works by Maria Edgeworth, C. R. Maturin, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett by reading them all as part of the generic tradition of the Irish Gothic. He focuses in particular on how the Irish Gothic tradition translated the English Gothic’s female-confinement narrative into a story about confined, feminized male protagonists. In reading this male gender-disorientation as the foundational condition of modern Irish political identity, Terror and Irish Modernism provides a thoroughly new genealogy of modern Irish fiction."


The other new book I want to announce here--Hansen and Hart's Contemporary Literature and the State--actually first appeared several months ago, as a co-edited special issue of the scholarly journal Contemporary Literature. Now, though, it has also been published as a free-standing paperback by the University of Wisconsin Press. Here, once again, is the book description available at the press' website:

"Contemporary Literature and the State challenges the critical opposition between the monolithic state and the individual artist. The volume collects essays on writers as different as Samuel Beckett and Ngozi Adichie and covers historical and geographical contexts from Yorkshire to Singapore, San Francisco to Cape Town. Featuring new and established critical voices, Contemporary Literature and the State is an important new contribution to debates about the politics of literature, coming at a time when state power appears both more arbitrary and more necessary than ever."


Last week, as many of this blog's local readers will know, the university's weekly paper Inside Illinois ran a story about the enormous scholarly productivity of the faculty in the department of English, complete with a listing of faculty books published so far in 2009. Terror and Irish Modernism was mentioned in the story, but Contemporary Literature and the State was not. So, if you click through and look at that story now, make a mental note to add this book to the tally! And in any event, congratulations are clearly due now to the scholarly firm of Hansen, Hansen and Hart for the publication of these two interesting and provocative new books. So: congratulations!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Alumni Achievement

I had the distinct pleasure, last Friday, of hosting Dr. Lynn Hartmann, a professor of oncology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, and one of the nation's leading specialists in the study and treatment of breast and ovarian cancers. Dr. Hartmann, who received a BA in English here at the University of Illinois in 1970, was back in town over homecoming weekend as one of four Alumni Achievement Award Winners honored by the LAS Alumni Association this year. This is the second year in a row that the Alumni Association has chosen one of our alums for its Achievement Awards--last year at this time I had the honor of hosting Dr. Carol Lee at a similar event.

Dr. Hartmann's career path--from the English major, to school for pharmacology, and thence to medical school--is of course not one we typically imagine for our students. In her remarks at the awards banquet she described the relationship between her undergraduate studies and her subsequent medical career in what I thought was an interesting way. I'm paraphrasing here, but basically she suggested that she came to college more or less unformed and learned from reading challenging literature about a range of human experience that she might not been able to encounter elsewhere. Going into medicine, and dealing first hand with her patients, she found a correlative to the extremities of human experience that she had hitherto explored primarily in books.

The point here is not that English prepares one for medical school particularly well, or even that we here deserve any credit for the extraordinary things that Dr. Hartmann has accomplished. The point, for me, is rather that her thoughtful recollections are a reminder that a literature major can contribute to the development of humane values and to a broadening of perspective that, while not exactly vocational in themselves, contribute to the professional lives of talented students entering a wide range of fields and careers. We have our fair share of undergraduate students who go on to graduate school or who become teachers of English in secondary schools. And there is a pretty well-worn path from an English BA to law school, since the skills we help students develop--close textual analysis, rigorous argumentation--transfer easily into legal study. The writing skills we help people develop (both in the composition classes we teach for the whole campus and in the the careful work we do with the majors) are also obviously transferable. So there are plenty of ways that the study of English can provide robust and direct pre-professional training. What a story like Dr. Hartmann's helps me remember, though, is the even broader applicability of English as part of what we call the liberal arts education, which has always been about learning to think rigorously from new perspectives and about new questions, and which is therefore valuable to different students in innumerable different ways depending upon what they choose to do with what they've learned.

A few weeks ago, I received an interesting email message from another alum, named Conrad Huss, who graduated from the U of I in 1963 with degrees in English and Mathematics before going on to a PhD in Engineering Mechanics and moving on to a very successful career in the field of industrial design. I asked him if I could write about him here, and he kindly gave me permission. Dr. Huss wrote to me (after receiving a copy of our newsletter) in order to provide encouragement to current English students about the range of professional options for which their reading, thinking, writing, and language skills in fact prepared them. Our superb advising office has also been thinking about the variety of careers our alums have pursued: Claire Billing has been compiling a rather impressive list of English alums in a wide range of fields who have agreed to become part of an alumni mentoring network and in that capacity to offer advice to current and future English majors who may be interested in following the paths they've taken. The directory is pretty substantial, with alumni volunteers from advertising and public relations, businesses of various kinds, editing and publishing, higher ed (in many capacities), secondary education, event planning, fundraising and development, law, Library and information science, media, writing (of various kinds), and (not even counting Dr. Hartmann) medicine.

Congratulations to Dr. Hartmann on her achievement award! I'd also like to send warmest thanks to Dr. Huss and all the other alums who have taken what they've learned in our program into so many walks of life and who have been generous enough to volunteer as menors.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Moon, Come to Earth

I had not expected it until November, but Philip Graham's new book The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon is now available from the University of Chicago Press. This book, as its subtitle explains, consists of a series of essays chronicling events and experiences during a year that Philip and his family spent in Lisbon. And, like the very best travel writing does, it combines the vividly sensory and particular (the book begins with the look and smell of real sardines) with a cumulative wisdom and perspective that one arrives at via the experience of dislocation.

Here is the book description available at the University of Chicago Press website: "A dispatch from a foreign land, when crafted by an attentive and skilled writer, can be magical, transmitting pleasure, drama, and seductive strangeness.

In The Moon, Come to Earth, Philip Graham offers an expanded edition of a popular series of dispatches originally published on McSweeney’s, an exuberant yet introspective account of a year’s sojourn in Lisbon with his wife and daughter. Casting his attentive gaze on scenes as broad as a citywide arts festival and as small as a single paving stone in a cobbled walk, Graham renders Lisbon from a perspective that varies between wide-eyed and knowing; though he’s unquestionably not a tourist, at the same time he knows he will never be a local. So his lyrical accounts reveal his struggles with (and love of) the Portuguese language, an awkward meeting with Nobel laureate José Saramago, being trapped in a budding soccer riot, and his daughter’s challenging transition to adolescence while attending a Portuguese school—but he also waxes loving about Portugal’s saudade-drenched music, its inventive cuisine, and its vibrant literary culture. And through his humorous, self-deprecating, and wistful explorations, we come to know Graham himself, and his wife and daughter, so that when an unexpected crisis hits his family, we can’t help but ache alongside them.

A thoughtful, finely wrought celebration of the moment-to-moment excitement of diving deep into another culture and confronting one’s secret selves, The Moon, Come to Earth is literary travel writing of a rare intimacy and immediacy."

And here, for your even more immediate reading pleasure, is an interview with Philip recently conducted by the mighty Oronte Churm in his Inside Higher Ed blog "The Education of Oronte Churm." Philip has his own author website, too, where you can find more information about the book as well as various further musings--definitely worth a visit.

Congratulations, Philip!

Late update: there was a nice piece on The Moon, Come to Earth in the Chicago Tribune this week. You can find it here.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Generosity: An Enhancement

A new novel from Richard Powers is officially a Big Deal (his last novel, The Echo Maker, won the National Book Award for 2006, for example; and see this, from the New York Times). So I'm delighted to be able to post here about his latest, entitled Generosity: An Enhancement.

Here is the book description provided at "When Chicagoan Russell Stone finds himself teaching a Creative Nonfiction class, he encounters a young Algerian woman with a disturbingly luminous presence. Thassadit Amzwar’s blissful exuberance both entrances and puzzles the melancholic Russell. How can this refugee from perpetual terror be so happy? Won’t someone so open and alive come to serious harm? Wondering how to protect her, Russell researches her war-torn country and skims through popular happiness manuals. Might her condition be hyperthymia? Hypomania? Russell’s amateur inquiries lead him to college counselor Candace Weld, who also falls under Thassa’s spell. Dubbed Miss Generosity by her classmates, Thassa’s joyful personality comes to the attention of the notorious geneticist and advocate for genomic enhancement, Thomas Kurton, whose research leads him to announce the genotype for happiness.

Russell and Candace, now lovers, fail to protect Thassa from the growing media circus. Thassa’s congenital optimism is soon severely tested. Devoured by the public as a living prophecy, her genetic secret will transform both Russell and Kurton, as well as the country at large. What will happen to life when science identifies the genetic basis of happiness? Who will own the patent? Do we dare revise our own temperaments? Funny, fast, and finally magical, Generosity celebrates both science and the freed imagination. In his most exuberant book yet, Richard Powers asks us to consider the big questions facing humankind as we begin to rewrite our own existence."

I've just ordered a copy of this book. In fact, I have been eagerly awaiting it since last Spring, when Rick spoke about it (and about his experience having his own genome sequenced [!]) at our Kirkpatrick symposium. So now I guess I know what my bedtime reading will be for the next week or so!

Update: there is a nice, interesting review of Generosity, also from the New York Times, here.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Student Leadership Council

Late yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity to attend a meeting of our department's Student Leadership Council, a group of about 20 undergraduate English majors who are generously giving of their time and energy this year to help us think of ways to enhance the student experience within the major. This is an idea created by our Director of Undergraduate Studies, Ted Underwood, but very much led by the student volunteers themselves.

At the meeting, a number of interesting ideas were floated and discussed--ranging from various informal kinds of intellectual conversations that might be held between interested students and faculty members, to purely social events that the department might hold for its undergraduate constituency, to services that the department might (and in some cases, does) provide. One funny (to me) suggestion was that the students might hold some kind of protest to build camaraderie--and though I did not hear any suggestions as to what might be protested against, I did volunteer to do something wicked and oppressive for them to mobilize about if it would help! Always looking for ways to help, I am.

Kidding aside, there were some really terrific ideas, including a suggestion that really interested me for an informal session in which (over food) some faculty members and students might share thoughts about what makes for good teaching in an English classroom. Speaking personally, I think I could learn from hearing students' serious thoughts on that subject, and I suspect that motivated students might be interested in hearing the behind-the-scene thinking of faculty members about how and why we make the pedagogical choices we do. There were a number of variations on this proposed, and it will be up to the members of the Student Leadership Council to settle on a final form for such an event, but I hope to participate in it and I'm pretty excited about what such a conversation could mean both for interested faculty and students alike.

More generally, I'm really delighted to see this kind of development taking place in the department, and grateful to Ted and the Council members for their initiative and general goodwill. Keep up the good work, everyone!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Aesthetics of Nostalgia

Just a few moments ago, Renée Trilling came into my office proudly displaying a copy of her brand new book The Aesthetics of Nostalgia: Historical Representation in Old English Verse (University of Toronto Press).

Here is the book description provided by the press: "Heroic poetry was central to the construction of Anglo-Saxon values, beliefs, and community identity and its subject matter is often analyzed as a window into Anglo-Saxon life. However, these poems are works of art as well as vehicles for ideology. Aesthetics of Nostalgia reads Anglo-Saxon historical verse in terms of how its aesthetic form interacted with the culture and politics of the period.

Examining the distinctive poetic techniques found in vernacular historic poetry, Rene Trilling argues that the literary construction of heroic poetry promoted specific kinds of historical understanding in early medieval England, distinct from linear and teleological perceptions of the past. The Aesthetics of Nostalgia surveys Anglo-Saxon literary culture from the age of Bede to the decades following the Norman Conquest in order to explore its cultural impact through both its content and its form."

This has been a very big week for Professor Trilling, who also just finished hosting an exciting 2-day conference here on campus called "Theorizing Anglo-Saxon Studies" that was, by all accounts, a great success too. It takes a lot of work and skill to organize and run a conference like this, and of course scholarly books like The Aesthetics of Nostalgia are also the product of innumerable hours of solitary study. It is wonderful (and very impressive, I might add) to see all of this labor come to fruition all at once. Congratulations, Renée!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Welcome, newsletter readers!

Late last week we mailed out this year's annual departmental newsletter--a 12 page, magazine-format newsletter containing alumni news items as well as stories and profiles highlighting some of the developments here over the past year. Thanks are due to Jim Frost and Bruce Erickson (past and present directors of Programs in Professional Writing), and to Bob Steltman and Claire Billing (from our advising office) for helping put this thing together, and also to the very talented undergraduate students who helped write and edit its various features: Justine Chan, Jeff Girten, Shannon Jilek, Timothy Lo, Mary Russell, and Ken Webb.

In the piece I wrote, I invited readers curious about what we do here to visit this blog. So, if you are an alum of our department visiting this page for the first time after seeing the link in the newsletter: welcome! And of course feel free to send me an email message if you have anything you want to say about either the newsletter or the webpage. I always love being reminded of the larger community that is connected to the department as part of its history and legacy.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Janice Harrington wins Jaffe Foundation Award

Janice Harrington, a terrific poet and children's writer who teaches in our creative writing program, has just been named one of six recipients of the 2009 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Awards. These awards (and here I'm quoting from the Foundation's own web page) go to "women writers of exceptional talent" with an emphasis "on those in the early stages of their writing careers." Jaffe, herself a bestselling author, established her foundation in 1995, and since then it has given out more than $1 million to support the careers of emergent women writers.

I couldn't be happier about this, frankly, because I too feel that Janice Harrington is an exceptional talent. But don't take my word for it. Go see for yourself: you can find one of my favorite poems from her book Even The Hollow My Body Made Is Gone here, at her own author website. Browse around there and you'll also find out about her children's books, which are pretty remarkable too. I say this as a kind of personal testimonial based in part on the reactions of my own kids: I have read The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County to my daughter many, many times, and watched both of my kids become totally enthralled when Janice read it aloud herself at an after-school reading-night event at their school.

This is a well-deserved award and one that I'm really delighted to be able to celebrate here. Congratulations, Janice!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Incomplete List, Spring 2009

Yesterday, the campus's Center for Teaching Excellence printed its List Of Teachers Ranked As Excellent By Their Students for Spring 09. This list, compiled every semester, is based on student evaluation data. If you have been a regular reader of this blog (or if you happen to scroll back through the last year of posts) you will remember that this list is colloquially called the 'Incomplete List' because the CTE used to call it the Incomplete List Of Teachers Ranked As Excellent By Their Students until summer of 2007. It is incomplete because not all classes on campus are evaluated by students, and also because student evaluation is only one way of measuring a given class' success. Still, faculty here work hard on their teaching and like to be appreciated for their efforts, so we all like to show up on the Incomplete List even if we all know that it is not the last word on evaluating our teaching.

I know, from a department Head's perspective, that we have a lot of dedicated teachers doing great work in the classroom every semester. I enjoy compiling these lists of the faculty and graduate student instructors in English whose names have appeared on the Incomplete List for their BTW, CW, ENGL, and Rhet classes in part because I like being able to recognize the good work individuals are doing but also because I like calling attention to the length of the list. I'm delighted, above all, that so many students in English Department classes choose to give their teachers highly positive scores on evaluations: that tells me that lots and lots of students have really appreciated the work their teachers have been doing.

So, without further ado, here's the English Department cohort from the most recent Incomplete List (based on Spring 09 evaluation data):

Sarah Alexander, Claire Barber, Iryce Baron, Anustup Basu, Manisha Basu, Rebeccah Bechtold, Michael Behrens, Patrick Berry, Michael Black, Allan Borst, T.J. Boynton, Stephanie Brabant, Jamie Brunton, Dana Burchfield, Sandy Camargo, Stephanie Cherolis, John Claborn, Howard Cole, Daniel Colson, Bethany Cooper, Eleanor Courtemanche, Leslie Crowell, Lindsey Drager, Caroline Duda, Dennis Dullea, Lisa Dunick, Russell Evatt, Shawn Gilmore, Melissa Girard, Catharine Gray, Jim Hansen, Gail Hapke, Mary Hays, Ashley Hetrick, Ann Hubert, Kelly Innes, Anna Ivy, Rowan Kaplan, David Kay, Brigit Kelly, Kimberly Koch, Susan Koshy, Eileen Lagman, Jennifer Lieberman, Mary Lindsey, Melissa Littlefield, Tania Lown-Hecht, Vicki Mahaffey, Robert Markley, Kristin McCann, Arley McNeney, Ellen McWhorter, Bruce Michelson, Ligia Mihut, Zia Miric, Feisal Mohamed, Amy Mohr, David Morris, Justine Murison, Lori Newcomb, Lisa Oliverio, Robert Dale Parker, Audrey Petty, Tony Pollock, Catherine Prendergast, Amity Reading, Franklin Ridgway, Micah Riecker, David Roark, Ricky Rodriguez, John Rubins, Kerstin Rudolph, Stephen Runkle, Julia Saville, Spencer Schaffner, Christina Scheuer, E. Jordan Sellers, Christopher Simeone, Katherine Skwarczek, Spencer Snow, Siobhan Somerville, Andrea Stevens, Clint Stevens, Bradley Stiles, Jonathan Stone, Crystal Thomas, Mary Unger, Michael Verderame, Jason Vredenburg, Jonathan Vincent, Kathryn Walkiewicz, Terra Walston, Rebecca Weber, Kyle Williams, Gregory Wilson, Elaine Wood, Charlie Wright.

Congratulations to one and all, and thanks--on behalf of our students--for all your efforts in the classroom.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Robert Dale Parker, James M. Benson Professor in English

I am delighted to announce here that Robert Dale Parker has been offered and has officially accepted appointment as the department's first James M. Benson Professor in English.

Named professorships such as this one are among the highest honors available to faculty-members in any university; they are meant to recognize and support the work of scholars whose careers have been extraordinarily productive and who have also made extensive and distinctive contributions as teachers and as professional leaders. With this award, Parker joins Vicki Mahaffey, who is the Clayton and Thelma Kirkpatrick Professor in English Literature, and Brigit Pegeen Kelly, who is Harry E. Preble Professor of English, as our department's holders of named professorships. Richard Powers holds a Swanlund Chair, as does Professor Emeritus Nina Baym. Baym and Professor Emeritus Cary Nelson are both Jubilee Professors of Liberal Arts and Sciences. That's very impressive company, and inclusion on this list puts Parker's accomplishments into their proper context.

Parker's initial work--highlighted by two well-regarded boooks on Faulkner and another on the poet Elizabeth Bishop--established him as a leading scholar of American modernism and earned him recognition on campus as a University Scholar in 1990. Following up on this body of work, Parker emerged as a one of the world's foremost authorities in the field of Native American literary history, publishing The Invention of Native American Literature (Cornell University Press, 2003) and following that up with his award-winning 2007 volume The Sound The Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnson Schoolcraft (University of Pennsylvania Press). This remarkable scholarly recovery project promises to rewrite the history of Native American literature. Here is the book description issued by the press:

"Introducing a dramatic new chapter to American Indian literary history, this book brings to the public for the first time the complete writings of the first known American Indian literary writer, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (her English name) or Bamewawagezhikaquay (her Ojibwe name), Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky (1800-1842). Beginning as early as 1815, Schoolcraft wrote poems and traditional stories while also translating songs and other Ojibwe texts into English. Her stories were published in adapted, unattributed versions by her husband, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a founding figure in American anthropology and folklore, and they became a key source for Longfellow's sensationally popular The Song of Hiawatha.

As this volume shows, what little has been known about Schoolcraft's writing and life only scratches the surface of her legacy. Most of the works have been edited from manuscripts and appear in print here for the first time. The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky presents a collection of all Schoolcraft's extant writings along with a cultural and biographical history. Robert Dale Parker's deeply researched account places her writings in relation to American Indian and American literary history and the history of anthropology, offering the story of Schoolcraft, her world, and her fascinating family as reinterpreted through her newly uncovered writing. This book makes available a startling new episode in the history of American culture and literature."

As if this weren't enough, Parker also recently published How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies (Oxford University Press, 2008), an extremely valuable, cogent overview of critical theory designed for classroom use by graduate students and advanced undergraduates in all areas of literary and cultural study. That Parker was able to do justice to this project is testimony to his extraordinary scholarly range. And the success of How to Interpret Literature likewise has to do with Parker's commitment to pedagogy. His name has appeared on the university's List of Faculty Ranked as Excellent by their Students more than 45 times, and his has won competitive undergraduate-teaching awards at both the college and campus levels. A tireless graduate instructor, Parker has also won recognition from the Graduate College as an outstanding mentor and has served as advisor to innumerable graduate students in English. Parker is known to his colleagues (in English as well as in American Indian Studies, where he is an active affiliate) for the care and conscientiousness with which he approaches his many and varied roles in the department. There is nobody who reads a colleague's work or a job application with more care; nobody is more generous with helpful suggestions or with the drafting of documents; nobody takes the moral responsibility of membership in a department more seriously.

A career like this one clearly warrants celebration and support, and so I am also extremely grateful to James M. Benson for making this appointment possible. Private funding for humanities professorships makes it possible not only to reward extraordinary scholars but also to ensure that they will have the support required in order to do their best and most ambitious work. I am grateful to Mr. Benson for his recognition of the importance of humanities scholarship, and I am very pleased that his gift will be used to support the future work of such an obviously exemplary scholar and teacher.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Better Pencil

I happen to know--from Facebook, ironically enough--that Dennis Baron has just now received advanced copies of his new book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution (Oxford University Press).

Here is the description of the book provided by the press: "Computers, now the writer's tool of choice, are still blamed by skeptics for a variety of ills, from speeding writing up to the point of recklessness, to complicating or trivializing the writing process, to destroying the English language itself.

A Better Pencil puts our complex, still-evolving hate-love relationship with computers and the internet into perspective, describing how the digital revolution influences our reading and writing practices, and how the latest technologies differ from what came before. The book explores our use of computers as writing tools in light of the history of communication technology, a history of how we love, fear, and actually use our writing technologies--not just computers, but also typewriters, pencils, and clay tablets. Dennis Baron shows that virtually all writing implements--and even writing itself--were greeted at first with anxiety and outrage: the printing press disrupted the "almost spiritual connection" between the writer and the page; the typewriter was "impersonal and noisy" and would "destroy the art of handwriting." Both pencils and computers were created for tasks that had nothing to do with writing. Pencils, crafted by woodworkers for marking up their boards, were quickly repurposed by writers and artists. The computer crunched numbers, not words, until writers saw it as the next writing machine. Baron also explores the new genres that the computer has launched: email, the instant message, the web page, the blog, social-networking pages like MySpace and Facebook, and communally-generated texts like Wikipedia and the Urban Dictionary, not to mention YouTube.
Here then is a fascinating history of our tangled dealings with a wide range of writing instruments, from ancient papyrus to the modern laptop. With dozens of illustrations and many colorful anecdotes, the book will enthrall anyone interested in language, literacy, or writing."

Late update: there is an interesting interview with Dennis in Salon this week that you should be able to access here. Definitely worth taking a look at!

Monday, August 17, 2009

New Semester

Classes are still a week away, but the hum of a new semester has definitely begun. I'd like to use this space to welcome students and faculty back to the halls of the English Building, and also to say hello to any alums who may stumble upon this blog or surf over after reading my piece in our annual newsletter. For those of you who may have checked in here periodically over the summer, I promise to update more regularly once again now that the pace of things is picking up on campus.

It is always nice to start a new year with some good news, so let me also use this space to congratulate the English Department faculty members who were promoted during last year's review and promotion cycle and who, therefore, begin this academic year with sparkling new titles.

*Jim Hansen is now Associate Professor of English and Criticism and Interpretive Theory.

*LeAnne Howe is now Professor of English (with an emphasis on Creative Writing) and
American Indian Studies.

*Paul Prior is now Professor of English and Writing Studies.

*Michael Rothberg is now Professor of English (with many other cross-disciplinary affiliations)
and Director of a new Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies.

*Gillen D'Arcy Wood is now Professor of English as well as a member of the University's new
Environmental Change Institute.

For those of you who are not faculty members who may read this, the promotion of faculty members is always a Big Deal. On the one hand, the distinction reflected by each new rank reflects hard-won achievement in our profession. On the other, faculty members, as they move up in ranks, have the opportunity to play an increasingly important leadership role in the department, the university, and the profession as a whole.

For those readers of this blog who are faculty members, you probably already know about these promotions. But it never hurts to say congratulations to your colleagues one more time!

Congratulations to all, and welcome to the start of another academic year!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Faculty books: Multidirectional Memory

I am happy to call to your attention the recent publication of Michael Rothberg's new book, Multidirectional Memory Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, in Stanford University Press' "Cultural Memory in the Present" book series.

Here is the book description, from the press' website: "Multidirectional Memory brings together Holocaust studies and postcolonial studies for the first time. Employing a comparative and interdisciplinary approach, the book makes a twofold argument about Holocaust memory in a global age by situating it in the unexpected context of decolonization. On the one hand, it demonstrates how the Holocaust has enabled the articulation of other histories of victimization at the same time that it has been declared "unique" among human-perpetrated horrors. On the other, it uncovers the more surprising and seldom acknowledged fact that public memory of the Holocaust emerged in part thanks to postwar events that seem at first to have little to do with it. In particular, Multidirectional Memory highlights how ongoing processes of decolonization and movements for civil rights in the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, the United States, and elsewhere unexpectedly galvanized memory of the Holocaust.

Rothberg engages with both well-known and non-canonical intellectuals, writers, and filmmakers, including Hannah Arendt, Aimé Césaire, Charlotte Delbo, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marguerite Duras, Michael Haneke, Jean Rouch, and William Gardner Smith."

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Unit

I have been remiss about posting here of late. The summer is comparatively slow in EB 208, and (to tell the truth) I've been trying to do some scholarly reading and writing of my own in the gaps between administrative responsibilities and so haven't taken the time to write here. This is likely to continue through mid-August, though I will try to post from time to time.

I couldn't let this pass without comment, however: I am happy to announce that (pending approval of the Trustees) Lauren M. E. Goodlad, who did a terrific job as interim director of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory last year, has graciously agreed to serve a full term as Director beginning in August. The Unit is not formally affiliated with the English, but its directors have typically been from our faculty and it has been, for more than 25 years, an important source of intellectual and scholarly excitement for faculty and graduate students in English as well as in other humanities fields on campus. Goodlad, whose work perfectly embodies the very best of the kind of historically and materially grounded theoretical work for which the Unit is known, is the perfect person to lead the Unit going forward and I'm very happy that she has agreed to do so.

Now would also be an appropriate time to thank the outgoing Director, Michael Rothberg, for his brilliant work with the Unit during his term. In addition to his tireless administrative work-- planning countless talks, conferences and other events that have been instrumental in fostering our lively culture of interdisciplinary exchange--Rothberg is to be lauded for making a concerted effort to include graduate students in English and other humanities fields in all of the Unit's activities. Rothberg was on leave in 2008-09, and will be working this coming year in English as well as in The Program in Jewish Culture and Society, where he will be the Director of a new initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Democracy of Ghosts

No, this post isn't about the English Building, late in the afternoon, during the summer. It is about the publication of John Griswold's new novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, just published by Wordcraft of oregon, LLC (itself an interesting publishing venue, worth checking out).

Here is the press-supplied book description: "A DEMOCRACY OF GHOSTS is the love story of four couples, set against the backdrop of the Herrin Massacre of 1922. This clash of miners and strikebreakers in Bloody Williamson County, in Southern Illinois, resulted in the deaths of 21 men -- 19 of them the "scabs" tortured and murdered by average men, women, and even children in what was once the most radical community in America. John Griswold has drawn from contemporary eyewitnesses and news accounts, an ethnography of the area, histories, and his own grandfather's letters to create the lives of four fictional couples whose ambitions, self-doubts, and social and sexual jealousies contribute to this great American violence that still echoes down through time."

You can find out more by clicking through to John's own website here.

Late update #1: there is a recent interview with John--about his novel and the chunk of Southern Illinois history it deals with--in The Southern Illinoisan, here.

Late update #2 (and counting): John is being honored with the Delta Award, which has been given annually by the Morris Library at the University of Southern Illinois since 1976 for distinguished writing about Southern Illinois.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Ninth Letter

Volume 6.1 of Ninth Letter is now available: get 'em while they're hot off the press!

I got my copy today and am happy to report: the format has been completely redesigned (smaller pages, cool inserts, a different kind of interaction between writing and graphic design) but the quality of the writing is as compelling as ever. But don't take my word for it: read it for yourself! I'd also urge you to read the nice story about Jodee Stanley and the other creators of Ninth Letter that was printed in the most recent edition of Inside Illinois (the UIUC faculty news weekly), and to check out the website associated with the magazine (psst -- they even have their own blog: I guess my sending you there would be an example of blog-rolling).

You can subscribe by following the link from the main Ninth Letter site or directly from the link provided here. If anyone is interested in making a contribution to help support the production of future issues, you can do that from the Ninth Letter site or, again, here.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Peter Garrett

The end of this Spring semester brings the retirement of Peter Garrett, a much-admired member of our department who first came to Champaign-Urbana in 1975. Professor Garrett, a specialist in narrative theory and 19th century British fiction, is the author of (among other things) several important studies of narrative structure and form including his 2003 book Gothic Reflections: Narrative Force in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Cornell UP). He is also a former director of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory here at Illinois, and was co-editor (with Michael Rothberg) of the book Cary Nelson and the Struggle for the University which was published by SUNY Press this past Winter.

The pictures pasted into this post (of Peter being toasted by Cary Nelson and presented by yours truly with a gift on behalf of the department) are from a retirement party that we held in Peter's honor a week or so ago. You can't really see it in the photos (which were taken from the part of the room where most people were standing), but the the event was crowded and very, very convivial--evidence, I'd say, of the generally-held admiration for Peter's achievements as well as of a shared appreciation for his level-headed good sense. Peter is teaching this summer and will almost certainly teach for us again as an emeritus faculty member. And he will definitely continue to write and publish. So, I'm happy to say, he's pretty clearly going to remain active, as a member of our departmental community and as a trusted colleague. He'll just have more time for things like skiing and martial arts! Still, in an era when faculty members in English departments have become increasingly peripatetic, it is great to have a chance to pause over and celebrate a career like Peter's, one during which he has made such a deep and sustained contribution to everything our department is and does.

Monday, May 18, 2009


This past Saturday we held our annual departmental convocation in Foellinger Auditorium, on the south side of our quad. What a lovely event, with scores of happy graduates in their blue Illinois robes and proud families dressed up for the occasion. It is really wonderful to see the smiles on students' faces as they cross the stage to receive their diplomas, and to shake the hands of beaming family members afterwards on the quad. The weather was a little on the chilly side Saturday, especially in the shade on the patio between the English Building and Lincoln Hall where we held our reception, but the people were all as sunny and bright as could be.

Dr. Carol D. Lee, a distinguished scholar of education, who graduated from the U of I with a degree in the teaching of English in 1966, addressed the graduates and their families. She spoke in very moving terms about the potential of literature to open people up to new possibilities, and about the importance of making that potential available to all. I thought her remarks were perfect: festive, grave, thought-provoking. She reflected upon her own experiences, as an African American student in English in the 1960s, before English departments taught much in the way of African American literature, and offered our graduates--along with congratulations and encouragement--some ways of thinking about the potential importance of English studies that they could feel proud of and be challenged by at the same time.

I know I speak for the faculty as a whole in saying that we are proud of what all of our graduating seniors (not mention our MA, MFA, and PhD students!) have accomplished here. But I want to mention by name the students who were recognized in the ceremony for successfully completing an honors essay and thereby earning departmental honors (either 'distinction' or 'high distinction'): Ashley Albrecht, Katelin Anderson, Lindsay Andrews, Jennifer Baader, Jaron Birkan, Alyssa Bluhm, Alex Chang, Jennifer Christie, Eunice Chun, Allison Clark, Kathrina Czarny, John Deckert, Brian Falbo, Elizabeth Hahn, Heather Hanks, Alanna Hickey, Rafael Ibay, Megan McKendry, Mark Mallon, Kevin O’Malley, Esther Dettmar Nadolski, Sonia Rodriguez, Britt Steinberg, Emily Stout, Jincy Tharu, Beverly Tsai, Jack Vuylsteke, Yana Yakhnes.

Completing an honors essay typically involves conducting significant critical and historical research and writing a paper that is longer and more professionalized than anything that regular classwork has hitherto demanded. And part of what is challenging about this kind of work is how it differs from a paper for a class: in the latter, a student is typically given some kind of framework or set of questions by the way the class itself is set up. Honors essays have to stake out their own claims in a much more independent way, and so writing one can sometimes represent a valuable and challenging shift in perspective as well as in scale or ambition for the students who write them. This can be a struggle--I remember my own senior thesis, written in the, ahem, 1980s, as both a failure and a valuable learning experience--so I'm pleased to have the chance here to celebrate the hard work and accomplishments of our honors students.

Even more, though, I wanted to use this space to congratulate the class of 2009. Congratulations!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Faculty books for your reading pleasure!

It is my pleasure to be able to announce here the arrival of three more faculty books. Two of them I'm especially proud to call your attention to because they are really impressive single-author books that will make significant impacts in their respective fields. The third, as you'll see below, I'm proud of for more selfish reasons.

So without further ado....

Dale Bauer's Sex Expression and American Women Writers, 1860-1940 has just been published by The University of North Carolina Press.

Here is the book description from the UNC Press website: "American women novelists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries registered a call for a new sexual freedom, Dale Bauer contends. By creating a lexicon of "sex expression," many authors explored sexuality as part of a discourse about women's needs rather than confining it to the realm of sentiments, where it had been relegated (if broached at all) by earlier writers. This new rhetoric of sexuality enabled critical conversations about who had sex, when in life they had it, and how it signified.

Whether liberating or repressive, sexuality became a potential force for female agency in these women's novels, Bauer explains, insofar as these novelists seized the power of rhetoric to establish their intellectual authority. Thus, Bauer argues, they helped transform the traditional ideal of sexual purity into a new goal of sexual pleasure, defining in their fiction what intimacy between equals might become.

Analyzing the work of canonical as well as popular writers--including Edith Wharton, Anzia Yezierska, Julia Peterkin, and Fannie Hurst, among others--Bauer demonstrates that the new sexualization of American culture was both material and rhetorical."


The second book that I want to call your attention to is Ricky Rodríguez's Next of Kin: The Family in Chicano/a Cultural Politics. The Duke University Press website lists July 2009 as the ETA for this book, but Ricky tells me that the advance copies are expected any moment and he's already received copies of the book's handsome dust jacket.

Here is the description, from the Duke UP website: "As both an idea and an institution, the family has been at the heart of Chicano/a cultural politics since the Mexican American civil rights movement emerged in the late 1960s. In Next of Kin, Richard T. Rodríguez explores the competing notions of la familia found in movement-inspired literature, film, video, music, painting, and other forms of cultural expression created by Chicano men. Drawing on cultural studies and feminist and queer theory, he examines representations of the family that reflect and support a patriarchal, heteronormative nationalism as well as those that reconfigure kinship to encompass alternative forms of belonging.

Describing how la familia came to be adopted as an organizing strategy for communitarian politics, Rodríguez looks at foundational texts including Rodolfo Gonzales’s well-known poem “I Am Joaquín,” the Chicano Liberation Youth Conference’s manifesto El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, and José Armas’s La Familia de La Raza. Rodríguez analyzes representations of the family in the films I Am Joaquín, Yo Soy Chicano, and Chicana; the Los Angeles public affairs television series ¡Ahora!; the experimental videos of the artist-activist Harry Gamboa Jr.; and the work of hip-hop artists such as Kid Frost and Chicano Brotherhood. He reflects on homophobia in Chicano nationalist thought, and examines how Chicano gay men have responded to it in works including Al Lujan’s video S&M in the Hood, the paintings of Eugene Rodríguez, and a poem by the late activist Rodrigo Reyes. Next of Kin is both a wide-ranging assessment of la familia’s symbolic power and a hopeful call for a more inclusive cultural politics."


I feel a little sheepish about the self-promotion, but the advance copies of Shakespeare and the Middle Ages--a collection of essays that I co-edited with John Watkins of the University of Minnesota--have also just arrived.

Here is the book description from the Oxford University Press website: "Shakespeare and the Middle Ages brings together a distinguished, multidisciplinary group of scholars to rethink the medieval origins of modernity. Shakespeare provides them with the perfect focus, since his works turn back to the Middle Ages as decisively as they anticipate the modern world: almost all of the histories depict events during the Hundred Years War, and King John glances even further back to the thirteenth-century Angevins; several of the comedies, tragedies, and romances rest on medieval sources; and there are important medieval antecedents for some of the poetic modes in which he worked as well.

Several of the essays reread Shakespeare by recovering aspects of his works that are derived from medieval traditions and whose significance has been obscured by the desire to read Shakespeare as the origin of the modern. These essays, taken cumulatively, challenge the idea of any decisive break between the medieval period and early modernity by demonstrating continuities of form and imagination that clearly bridge the gap. Other essays explore the ways in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries constructed or imagined relationships between past and present. Attending to the way these writers thought about their relationship to the past makes it possible, in turn, to read against the grain of our own teleological investment in the idea of early modernity. A third group of essays reads texts by Shakespeare and his contemporaries as documents participating in social-cultural transformation from within. This means attending to the way they themselves grapples with the problem of change, attempting to respond to new conditions and pressures while holding onto customary habits of thought and imagination. Taken together, the essays in this volume revisit the very idea of transition in a refreshingly non-teleological way."

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