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, April 23, 2009

Shakespeare's birthday

Just a short, self-indulgent post today in honor of Shakespeare's 445th birthday: I'm an early modernist by training, and so I feel obligated to post!

In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley declared the day to be "Talk Like Shakespeare Day" city-wide, a funny idea since, one imagines, that must mostly have meant saying things like verily and thou and adding -th to the end of verbs. As one colleague put it, trying to talk like Shakespeare is likely to make a person sound a bit like the Thor of Marvel Comics: "Verily, they have eyes but seeth not!"

Here in Champaign-Urbana, I didn't hear anyone talking like Shakespeare. But I did attend a nice little birthday party in honor of the day that was put on by our superb rare books library, a fabulous resource for scholars of early modern literature (among a great many other things). We're famous especially for the Milton collection. But we also have really significant Elizabethan holdings, at the core of which is a collection once owned by the great Shakespearean scholar T. W. Baldwin. People sipped coffee, declaimed sonnets, performed soliloquies, and in one memorable instance, sang a version of one of Ophelia's snippets of song. It being a birthday party, there was cake. Verily!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Undergraduate Research Colloquium

Last night, the English Department held its first-ever Undergraduate Research Colloquium. This event was conceived of by our Undergraduate Student Leadership Council and arranged by Ted Underwood (our Director of Undergraduate Studies) with the help of Bob Steltman. The event featured five interesting and accomplished presentations on subjects whose diversity--in terms of canonicity, period, medium, form etc--is a pretty good reflection of the range of things that students in contemporary English departments might choose to pursue. The five presenters spoke on, respectively, The Wasteland, Lucy Larcom's An Idyl of Work, Marie de France, W.S. Merwin's translations of Dante, and Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ. There was a lively discussion afterwards, both about finer points pertaining to each student's work and also about some methodological issues they all had a stake in. And then some further conversation, fuelled by coffee, cookies and grapes, of a less formal variety. In all, a really nice event and a great kick-off for one that we plan to make into an annual tradition.

The presenters (pictured below!) were Jack Vuylsteke (who wrote on Eliot), Alanna Hickey (on Larcom), Valerie O'Brien (on Marie de France's Laustic) , Lauren Naylor (on Merwin), and Ashley Albrecht (on Gibson's film).

It was courageous of them, I thought, to step forward as presenters for this inaugural event, and they all did very, very well: presenting thoughtful, creative scholarly work well and handling themselves beautifully during the Q&A. As a faculty member--i.e., as one who has seen more than his fair share of academic presentations--it was very impressive to see this caliber of work presented by our students. More importantly (as Ted Underwood said in his comments at the conclusion of the panel), I think an event like this has the potential to shift the way we as faculty members imagine our relationship to our students, and to encourage us to see them, where appropriate, as co-producers of knowledge rather than just as recipients of what we know. Not to make too much of this, but it occurs to me too that this kind of event--if it becomes an annual tradition, as I hope--might therefore turn out to have long-term implications for the way we design assignments, the way we structure our lesson plans, the way we mentor students doing honors projects in our classes, and even the way we interact informally with students in and around the classes we teach.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Incomplete List - Fall 2008: congrats to all!

The Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) on campus has recently released a draft version of its latest List of Faculty Ranked as Excellent by their Students based on Fall 2008 student evaluation data. They don't use the term incomplete list any longer, but, as I explained in a post here last Fall, I like the term and it is one that is still active in local parlance. So I'm stubbornly going to use it.

Though the CTE says that the Fall 2008 Incomplete List is a draft, they have made it public. So I will, once again, post here the names of all those faculty members who appear on it for their efforts in their English, Creative Writing, Rhetoric, and Business & Technical Writing classes. We are a very strong teaching department (as I may have mentioned before here), and I really appreciate the efforts of all our dedicated classroom instructors, including those of us who taught both conscientiously and effectively and yet missed the incomplete list cutoff (I include myself in this category for Fall 2008, by the way). The people whose names appear here should be very proud of their successes, and we as a department should all be proud that the list is a long one every semester!

So without further ado: here are the English department teachers from the (draft) Fall 2008 Incomplete list:

Sara Alderfer, Sarah Alexander, Claire Barber, Iryce Baron, Manisha Basu, Rebeccah Bechtold, Michael Behrens, Lillian Bertram, Michael Black, T. J. Boynton, Jaime Brunton, Sandy Camargo, Stephanie Cherolis, John Claborn, Stephen Claverie, Megan Condis, Bethany Cooper, Leslie Crowell, Sarah Dennis, Lindsey Drager, Dennis Dullea, Eve Eure, Lori Garner, Melissa Girard, Sarah Gray, John Griswold, Jim Hansen, Gail Hapke, Janice Harrington, Matt Hart, Debra Hawhee, Gail Hawisher, Mary Hays, Ashley Hetrick, Marilyn Holguin, Ann Hubert, Anna Ivy, Amy Rowan Kaplan, Susan Koshy, Eileen Lagman, Carl Lehnen, Jennifer Lieberman, Mary Lindsey, Samantha Looker, Tania Lown-Hecht, Ellen McWhorter, Michael Madonick, Lara Mann, Matthew Minicucci, Amy Doherty Mohr, Peter Mortensen, Andrew Moss, Michael Odom, Robert Dale Parker, Tony Pollock, Catherine Prendergast, Paul Prior, Thierry Ramais, Amity Reading, Franklin Ridgway, David Roark, John Rubins, Kerstin Rudolph, John Sanders, Julia Saville, Christina Scheuer, E. Jordan Sellers, Frank Sheets, Michael Simeone, Katherine Skwarczek, Spencer Snow, Andrea Stevens, Clint Stevens, Crystal Thomas, Renée Trilling, Agnieszka Tuszynska, Ted Underwood, Joe Valente, Michael Verderame, Jason Vredenburg, Kathryn Walkiewicz, Martha Webber, Kirstin Wilcox, Kyle Williams, David Wright

Congratulations to one and all!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Our first Clayton and Thelma Kirkpatrick Symposium

Yesterday the English department held its first ever Kirkpatrick Symposium, in the late afternoon and early evening at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center. As the name implies, the event was made possible by a very generous gift to the department from Clayton and Thelma Kirkpatrick, and it was expertly planned by an ad hoc departmental committee consisting of Tony Pollock (who chaired and did much of the heavy lifting, and who really needs to update his departmental profile if he's going to keep doing link-worthy things!), Debra Hawhee, Jim Hansen, and David Wright.

When I charged this committee to design an event back in the early Fall, I asked them to try to accomplish a number of interlocking objectives. I wanted them to help create something that would be broadly enjoyable and intellectually stimulating and that would create new possibilities for faculty members to share work across normal disciplinary boundaries. Like many large English departments, we have terrific people working in different areas (creative writing, literature, and writing studies, and then all the sub-fields within these larger groupings) that have their own distinct disciplinary conventions. It is easy for scholars focusing intensely on one area to remain unaware of interesting and even potentially relevant and/or revelatory things being done in other areas in the department. My hope was and is that the Kirkpatrick Symposia can help bring to the fore ways that all of our disparate intellectual efforts interrelate. One of the great benefits of being a member of a strong department is the privilege of being surrounded by thoughtful people who are animated by their pursuit of interesting research questions; these events are designed to enhance that benefit--to make us all as scholars and writers more accessible to each other as much as is possible.

From where I sat, last night's event was a great beginning (and many people have told me that they found the talks stimulating and eye-opening and that they were really delighted to hear about some of the things their colleagues were pursuing). The overarching theme of this symposium was the key-word "environment" and we had three terrific presentations. One by Stephanie Foote (who spoke about the culture and rhetoric of environmental blogging and also, in environmental terms, about what happens to books as material objects when they become waste products), another by Spencer Schaffner (who presented some of his work on field guides in order to address questions about book history and ecological writing), and a third by Rick Powers (who spoke about his forthcoming novel--no spoilers here!--and about the interplay of self and environment in the context of the experience of having his genome sequenced). Gillen Wood (who is, by the by, part of an exciting interdisciplinary conference on "the human story of climate change" that will take place here at UIUC from April 8-10) moderated the panel and directed a lively Q&A that orbited around questions concerning the complexity of biological and ecological systems, the kinds of knowledge that they now require and produce, and the role of English and the humanities in the larger cultural project of dealing with the questions thrown up by advances in these and other scientific arenas. Provocative stuff!

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