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

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!

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