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

Monday, November 16, 2009

Graduate Support

Since this blog links off of the main departmental page, I usually use it only as a venue for the kind of news about the department that I think will appeal to all of its possible readers: faculty, grad students, undergrads, alums, prospective grad students, other campus communities, and even those who wind up here by accident after google-ing something or someone. And it is with some hesitation that I take up anything here that might be controversial, or that might cast either the department or the university in a poor light: I am mindful that I represent both my department and my college, and also mindful that my own perspective on things may not be the same as that of some members of this blog's readership. Still, it seemed important to me to post here about the strike currently being conducted by the Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO): it has received media coverage in Chicago and nationally, and so I figure that perceptions of this event are likely to have a significant impact upon the way our department and its graduate students are perceived. I won't comment here on the specific issues that are being disputed in the bargaining process--you can find this information in published news reports--but I do want to give a kind of department's eye view for the benefit of readers who feel a connection to the department but who may be too distant to have a feel for the commitments and concerns of its faculty and grad students. It should be noted that the opinions I express here are solely my own.

English has one of the larger PhD programs on campus, and many of our graduate students participate in the GEO. So the strike has had a major, disruptive effect upon us in particular as a department. Graduate TAs in English teach a significant percentage of our classes. And they teach them very well, by any standard. Student evaluation scores for the department's graduate TAs are very strong across the board, and since faculty work closely with graduate students we all know from personal experience that our students are dedicated, hardworking teachers. That is part of why faculty in English are for the most part supportive of the GEO (as am I), because we know how hard our graduate students work and for how little: we know how much effort they put into their teaching, and how difficult it can be for them to balance teaching with the research they need to do in order to complete their degrees.

We are a department of dedicated teachers, and this work stoppage has been difficult for everyone (GEO members as well as faculty) because none of us is fully comfortable with the idea of disrupting classes we've been teaching all semester. Everyone in our department is very much mindful of the impact their actions may have on undergraduate students. Many faculty members have moved their classes off campus in order to avoid crossing picket lines and to avoid asking their students to cross, and everyone (including GEO members) is thinking hard about how best to protect the interests of their undergraduate students while the strike continues. In fact the GEO has enjoyed considerable support from on-campus undergraduate groups, who recognize that adequate support for the graduate students is actually crucial to maintaining the quality of the undergraduate education we offer. Ultimately, despite the temporary breakdown in the collective bargaining process here, these are not competing interests: if we can attract top students into our graduate programs, and if we can support them so that they are able to find a salutary balance between teaching duties and their own developing scholarly curiosity, then the classes they teach to our undergraduates are simply going to be the better for it.

It is true--at Illinois as at many of the top public universities across the country--that we face a budget crisis that puts extraordinary pressure on us as we all try to do our work. And of course that is one context for the temporary impasse we're in now between university and union negotiators. My understanding is that the ratio of state funding to tuition revenue has dropped from 12/1 in 1970 to 2/1 in 2001 to about 1/1 as of today. The challenge for public universities, faced with the reality of shrinking state support, is somehow to continue to do what we do without raising tuition beyond what is conscionable for a land grant institution or without diluting the quality of the education we provide by making cost-conscious decisions without regard for our educational mission. Graduate students are really key to our efforts here: they teach inexpensively in exchange for tuition waivers and because they are in an apprenticeship period, amassing teaching experience that can later be put to use in faculty positions. But here too there is a balance: if we do not support them adequately--if we ask them to teach too much for too little--then the apprenticeship model effectively breaks down. Ultimately, faculty in English are supportive of the GEO because we are aware that this balance is at once fragile and centrally important to who we are as a department.

Looking at the bigger picture, you could say that the the GEO is basically trying its best to maintain this delicate balance by means of collective bargaining pressure. And regardless of what you think about unions or picket lines or the disruption of classes, I think everyone who is an alum or a friend of the Department of English should probably be in support of this larger goal. Because if the balance tips and we can no longer support graduate student TAs adequately as scholar-teachers in training, then it will significantly diminish the quality of the research and teaching that the department as a whole can undertake. The importance of maintaining this balance has been evident for some years and it will continue to be a departmental priority long after the strike has been resolved. When readers scroll back through blog posts a year from now and look at this entry, I think this will be the aspect of the story that will still resonate: we (as a department, and as a campus) need to find ways to support our graduate programs through difficult times because adequately-supported graduate student teacher-scholars are crucial both to our ability to provide an affordable education and also, of course, to the intellectual future of our respective disciplines.

This is why, if you click through to make a gift to the department off of our main webpage, you are presented with a choice between two gift fund options: the Annual Fund and the English Department Fellows Fund. All departments have Annual Funds, but we thought it was important to give people the option to give directly to support the graduate program, so gifts to this fund are used to help provide fellowships and other research-related funding for the graduate program--the kinds of funding that allows us to do a better job of maintaining the balance between teaching and scholarship that is so essential to the the success of our program and our students alike. As state support for the university shrinks, private generosity becomes all the more important.

Update: apparently a tentative agreement has been reached between the two sides. The GEO will still need to vote on the contract, but for now the situation here seems to have resolved itself.

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