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, 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.

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