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, November 6, 2009

Investitures: generosity and enhancement

Avid readers of contemporary fiction and regular visitors to this blog will recognize an allusion here to Rick Powers' new novel in the title of this post. But its real purpose is just to kvell (a Yiddish word meaning to swell with pride and pleasure, usually about the accomplishments of friends and family-members) after the investiture ceremony we held late yesterday afternoon for Vicki Mahaffey, who is the Clayton and Thelma Kirkpatrick Professor in English Literature, and Robert Dale Parker, who is the James M. Benson Professor in English.

It was a lovely event, not only because so many friends and colleagues came out, and not only because of the remarkable eloquence of our honorees, but also because James Benson and several members of the Kirkpatrick family were there, too, and because they spoke very movingly about the importance of writing and literacy and words and of the liberal arts education that we provide.

The gifts that created these two named professorships are each visionary in their way, because it takes vision to recognize the social, personal and--yes--practical value of the humanities in a time when market forces might seem to favor efficiently delivered vocational training instead. And as I've said in this space before, English majors go on to do all kinds of things--they are teachers and scholars and writers, yes, but they are also in business, medicine, law, what have you--and time and again our alums report that the intellectual rigor, the critical curiosity, and the writing/communication skills we helped them develop have served them in good stead in countless ways in each of their professional paths. The ceremony yesterday was a celebration of some remarkable people, but it was also a celebration of all that English as a field of study does and has done for people.

Clayton Kirkpatrick, who graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in English in 1937, worked his way up to become Editor and Chief Executive at the Chicago Tribune. At our ceremony, his daughter Eileen spoke very movingly about her father's love of literature and even quoted from memory from poems he had read aloud to her, and her brother Bruce likewise spoke about his father's lifelong fascination with literature and the written word, noting that by the time the Watergate scandal broke, Clayton's journalism was itself like a kind of poetry. Bruce also spoke beautifully about his mother Thelma, and her full partnership in both her husband's career and in the endowment we were all celebrating. James Benson was an Economics major, but he reminisced in his speech yesterday about being persuaded of the importance of supporting English both by a speech he had heard given by the great Nina Baym, and then also by his own recollection of the importance of writing classes within his own educational experience. Since I believe fervently in the importance of the humanities, and since I spend a significant amount of my time attempting to argue for the importance of English, it was wonderful to hear what Mr. Benson and the members of the Kirkpatrick family had to share with us from their own experiences. I said it last night, but I'll say it again here: thank you!

Actually, The Department of English has a lot to be thankful for as we head into the holiday season. And right up at the top of that list is the generosity of our friends and alums. Not only big, landmark gifts like the ones we celebrate at investiture ceremonies, either: it is a great joy to me to see that we continue to be supported by smaller gifts from friends and alums all over the country, many of whom have chosen to give to our annual fund this year for the first time. We rely upon these gifts for many essential departmental and campus functions, including the support of our excellent and hardworking graduate students, to pay for expenses associated with hiring and recruiting faculty, and to help co-sponsor the kinds of humanities-related events on campus that are a great resource for faculty, students, and others in this community. This is a difficult economic moment, of course, one in which universities and departments are being severely challenged by shrinking state support. It is also a time when even the most generous and philanthropic people may feel the need to tighten their belts. So it is very moving to me to see that people, even now, continue to make donations to our annual fund and our graduate fellows fund. We appreciate it. I appreciate it.

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