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

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Our great students!

English is a large major. We teach lots of classes, with lots of students every year, and though we are an exceptionally strong department when it comes to classroom teaching, it can be a challenge to create the kind of departmental community that might engage students beyond the classroom under these conditions. But I think we're making some important efforts to do just that.

Exhibit A is the work our Director of Undergraduate Studies, Ted Underwood, has been doing this semester to help launch a Student Leadership Council for the department and then to follow through on the kinds of events that this council dreams up. The Student Leadership Council is a group of undergraduate student volunteers who work with Ted and with departmental advisers to design and implement extra-curricular departmental programming. As a result of their efforts, Bob Steltman is now working with one group of students on an informal creative writing group, and Ted has worked with the S.L.C. to set up (drum-roll, please) our first annual Undergraduate Research Colloquium for English students that will take place on the evening of April 14th, from 5:00-6:30 in EB 29. My understanding is that they are also working on other events, like lunches at which students and faculty might meet to discuss matters of mutual interest. An important part of the work of the S.L.C. is to help us think of events that broad constituencies within the English Major might find rewarding and interesting.

If you'd like to hear more about the Undergraduate Research Colloquium, send me or Ted an email.

Encouraging undergraduate participation in research is actually a major point of emphasis on our campus right now, and one really good reason for this is that students who are encouraged to approach their studies as part of the larger university project of creating new knowledge are also likely to have a more active and engaged relationship to their own education and thus to learn better. Student participation in research means very different things in different disciplines, though. In the lab sciences (as I understand them), it is likely to mean that a student assists a grad student or post doc on some project that is in turn part of the overall research agenda of a professor's lab. Work in English tends to be more solitary--in that the work professors produce often takes the form of books and articles that are written by a single author--but we do have shared questions, of course, and one advantage we have is that the work we ask students to do in their undergraduate classes is in many cases designed to be creative and original in nature from the get go. So while it is not to be expected that undergraduate papers will typically be on par with professional scholarly writing, it is nevertheless true that the kinds of thinking we ask for in our classes has a lot in common with the kind of thinking we try to do in our own work. Speaking personally: sometimes when I'm writing about or teaching a text that I also wrote about as an undergraduate (The Merchant of Venice, say, or Paradise Lost), I realize that some of the good ideas and interpretations I still rely on were things I first developed when I was in college lo these many years ago. I didn't always think that what I was doing was research, but time has proven that I was in fact at times doing some valuable, original critical work. So, from the faculty perspective, one benefit I see to the new campus emphasis upon undergraduate research is that it gives us the chance to remind our students that research is in fact what they are often doing in our classes already, at least if they take the opportunities and challenges that we present them with seriously. The department's Undergraduate Research Colloquium helps make that point and gives us a chance to see some of the fruits of these labors.

There is also a campus-wide Undergraduate Research Symposium. This year, it'll be held on April 7th, from 9-4, in the Illini Union. One thing I'm really excited about within this event this year is a presentation (scheduled, I gather, for 1:30) being made collaboratively by all the members of Dale Bauer's ENGL 280 class (an Honors seminar on American women writers--you can find the course description by scrolling down here) in which class-members were filmed discussing their research projects and then the tape was edited by one class member into a 15 minute presentation that will be shown at the symposium. I like this idea because it emphasizes precisely the overlap between creative research and the work we normally strive to do in English classrooms. I hope to be able to link to this video in a future blog post, but for now let me just say this: Dale is justifiably kvelling about the work her students are doing and I'm proud to have my department well-represented at the campus symposium. If you are reading this and live in Champaign-Urbana, drop by the Illini Union at 1:30 on April 7 and see what I'm talking about.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


I am happy to announce here that Tony Pollock has agreed to serve as Director of Graduate Studies beginning next Fall. He'll be replacing Stephanie Foote, who has done a fantastic job in that office for three years and is more than ready for a richly-deserved break right about now. Tony served as the department's placement officer this year, and he will be replaced next year in that important job by Jim Hansen. The short version of this post would read: thanks, Tony; thanks, Stephanie; thanks, Jim.

Here's the long version.

For those readers of this blog who are not academics, professors in departments like English typically measure out their work lives in terms of three categories: teaching, research/creative activity, and service. Teaching is our bread and butter, and it is something most of us work exceedingly hard at and find intrinsically rewarding and valuable. And research and/or creative activity is usually something that professors at universities like Illinois are deeply passionate (not to say obsessive) about. Since the published products of our labor are what our colleagues at other universities know us by, it means that our research/creative activity profiles are typically our main public profiles, the way we garner prestige and other rewards in our professional worlds. All of this is, I think, as it should be.

But that leaves service--the category used for all administrative contributions to the operation of the department or university, as well as for administrative work done for one's profession (such as serving on editorial boards of journals or evaluating grant proposals). Service can often feel like the least important part of a faculty-member's job, since for most of us the teaching and research we do is integral to who we feel we are. And it is certainly the case that service work can be poorly rewarded in a profession that sometimes sees publication as the be-all and the end-all. But at the same time, anyone who has been in an academic department for any period of time will know that conscientious departmental contributions to shared administrative work make all the difference in the world and that they have certain colleagues whose service contributions made their professional lives notably better. And so colleagues who agree to take on administrative positions and who do them conscientiously really deserve everyone's gratitude. When colleagues accept major administrative posts they are saying, in effect, that the collective work of the department matters enough to them to make it worth a bit of self-sacrifice. Every faculty member in English has as stake in the success of our graduate program, so the jobs that faculty members like Stephanie, Tony, and Jim take on have at least an indirect impact on things that matter a great deal to all of us--and of course an even more direct impact on the graduate students who take our classes and help us teach our majors.

Turnover in the DGS's office is the occasion for this post, but the same kinds of things could be written about other major administrative positions in the department. Rob Barrett didn't have to accept my invitation to become Associate Head last summer, but I'm very grateful that he did and I think the whole department is better off for it. Paul Prior has made huge contributions as Director of Rhetoric and Cathy Prendergast is already working hard to prepare to take over for him this summer. Ted Underwood is doing great things as Director of Undergraduate Studies. And Audrey Petty just took over from Mike Madonick as Director of Creative Writing. Lori Newcomb has helped with all hiring initiatives as our Affirmative Action Officer, and faculty members like Lauren Goodlad and Gail Hawisher do major administrative work outside of the department with affiliated but separate academic units. And on and on.

The real truth is that most faculty members, especially those with tenure, make significant service contributions. But since part of my job is to find the right people for posts like the Directorship of Graduate Studies, I'm especially impressed by (and grateful to) those faculty members who are public-spirited enough to accept these major, multi-year service commitments.

Thanks, Tony; thanks, Stephanie; thanks, Jim. Etc.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Some campus awards for teaching and advising

I just received word that three of our English Department nominees have won campus-wide teaching awards.

*John Griswold, a Lecturer in our Creative Writing program, has been selected to receive the Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching by a member of the Instructional Staff.

*Samantha Looker, a graduate student in Writing Studies, has been selected to receive the Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching by a Teaching Assistant.

*And Bob Steltman--about whose many and varied contributions to the department I have already waxed enthusiastic on this blog--has been chosen for the Campus Award for Excellence in Advising Undergraduate Students.

These are big, eye-catching awards, awards representing teaching and advising work so exceptional as to stand out even at the campus level! Still more testimony to excellent teaching and advising we do around here.

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