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.

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