Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois

Illinois Department of English Blog


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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

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!


metaspencer said...

It was a fun event. Thanks, Curtis, for supporting (and hyping) this kind of gathering!

Curtis said...

There were some people in attendance who suggested using the comment area as a place to keep the methodological discussion from the Q&A session open and ongoing. Though I have a counter on this site and can get some demographic data about who looks at it, I don't know how many faculty members look at it so I don't know if that makes any sense. besides, this is pretty public.

I like that people wanted more though....

KW said...

Kirstin Wilcox here, one of the people who hoped there would be some opportunity for online followup. All three of the talks had an underlying tone of urgency (as befits the subject and the current global crisis!). They also all three diverged considerably from the kinds of issues and texts many of us find ourselves teaching, (I speak particularly of literature classes). How might these provocative intersections between environmental concerns and the humanities shape how and what we expect our students to learn?

Curtis said...

My initial response, Kirstin, was to remember previous revolutions in my time in the profession: literature and...gender, literature and...political history, literature and...the history of sexuality. In each case the conjunction seemed weird to people at first but now seems pretty routine. Part of the job of English as a discipline (because our archives are so comprehensive and varied) is to extend humanistic analysis into new areas of urgent social concern. So there is obviously a place for English to participate (in historicist and theoretical terms) in telling (as Gillen's conference puts it) "the human story of global climate change." Or what have you.

But the whole tracking/mapping distinction that came up in the Q&A gives me pause, too. In a sense, what we tend to do as part of telling this or that human story is to focus on striking particulars, but part of what was being emphasized in this event was the systematic complexity of the environment and of environmental science: this may imply challenges/limits to the way we ascribe significance in this arena. More broadly, does the new computer-mediated science destroy the old two-cultures model by pushing more of a wedge between what we pursue and the way scientists now make models or maps? I would hate to think that we are doomed to be like Spencer's birders: hunting rare singularities while remaining oblivious to the toxicity of larger systems that enable their search.

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