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

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Winter Convocation

This morning, I attended the Winter Convocation held by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Hardboiled though I may be in other regards, I'm a total softie for these events--I always enjoy them and find them moving. First, the faculty attendees gather in a staging area, adjusting their robes and hoods and trying to stand as straight as possible so as to keep their mortarboards from tipping off of their heads. We all feel a little silly, I suppose, with our tassels dangling in our peripheral vision and dolled-up like medieval scholars in our robes and hoods, but one sees friends from other departments and the dress-up aspect actually ensures that everyone is amused and in good spirits. Then, we process in and see the families in the audience, and the students enter, nervous and grinning and proud all at once, and the ceremony begins.

One by one students, in their robes, come up onto the stage, hear their name read out over the PA system, and walk across the stage to shake the dean's hand. At first, everyone is formal, but then--usually before we're done with the A's--somebody breaks the ice and shouts out when their brother or sister or partner or friend is called. "Wooo hoo," someone calls. Then "you did it, sweetie!" or "hallelujah!" and the lid is off. As the ceremony progresses, audience members get more and more demonstrative in support of their loved ones. "Sweet Pea!" someone shouts from the balcony." Another yells "That's my wife!" Everyone laughs, everyone settles in.

For me at least, the essence of the graduation ceremony lies in this unusual combination of formality and raucousness. Graduation is a major achievement and a major life threshold, and it should be marked both with formal dignity and wild celebration! By the end, I want to shout out too--it is great to feel the pride that so many families take in the achievements of our students, and as a faculty member you can't help but feel pride too in being part of the whole endeavor.

Congratulations to all of our newly-minted graduates! Wooo hoo!


Advance copies of Cary Nelson's new book No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom have arrived from NYU Press. Cary is both a professor emeritus in our department and president of the American Association of University Professors.

The book description provided by the press reads:

"The modern university is sustained by academic freedom; it guarantees higher education’s independence, its quality, and its success in educating students. The need to uphold those values would seem obvious. Yet the university is presently under siege from all corners; workers are being exploited with paltry salaries for full-time work, politics and profit rather than intellectual freedom govern decision-making, and professors are being monitored for the topics they teach.

No University Is an Island offers a comprehensive account of the social, political, and cultural forces undermining academic freedom. At once witty and devastating, it confronts these threats with exceptional frankness, then offers a prescription for higher education’s renewal. In an insider’s account of how the primary organization for faculty members nationwide has fought the culture wars, Cary Nelson, the current President of the American Association of University Professors, unveils struggles over governance and unionization and the increasing corporatization of higher education. Peppered throughout with previously unreported, and sometimes incendiary, higher education anecdotes, Nelson is at his flame-throwing best.

The book calls on higher education’s advocates of both the Left and the Right to temper conviction with tolerance and focus on higher education’s real injustices. Nelson demands we stop denying teachers, student workers, and other employees a living wage and basic rights. He urges unions to take up the larger cause of justice. And he challenges his own and other academic organizations to embrace greater democracy.

With broad and crucial implications for the future, No University Is an Island will be the benchmark against which we measure the current definitive struggle for academic freedom."

Friday, December 18, 2009

John Griswold stikes again!

The indefatigable John Griswold, whose novel A Democracy of Ghosts was published by Wordcraft earlier this year, has just published Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City with The History Press, an interesting publishing venture that is dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of local US history.

A Democracy of Ghosts (just in case some readers of this blog have not already read it!) is a historical novel set against the backdrop of Herrin ca. 1922, the time of the infamous Herrin Massacre. This book tells that history, but as one chapter of a more comprehensive look at the city's history.

Here is the book description: "Herrin, Illinois, has seen many dramatic events unfold in the nearly two hundred years since it was a bell-shaped prairie on the frontier. Now, Herrin native John Griswold, a writer and teacher at the University of Illinois, provides the first comprehensive history of this most American city, a place that in its time became not just a melting pot but also a cauldron. Discover why the coal was so good in the 'Quality Circle' and what happened to the boom that followed its discovery. Explore the roots of the vicious Herrin Massacre of 1922 and learn why the entire nation has focused its gaze on this small midwestern city so many times.

Incorporating the most recent scholarship, interviews and classic histories and narratives, this brief and entertaining history is illustrated with more than seventy-five archival photos that help tell this important American story."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday, December 4, 2009

Undergraduates, grad students, and faculty

I met, early this this past week, with In Woo Jung, a freshman Media Studies major who is this year's winner of the Kevin T. Early Memorial Scholarship. This prize, established in the memory of Kevin Early (who was himself a dedicated young poet), goes each year to the most impressive freshman poet. This year, we had about 35 entrants, each of whom submitted a sheaf of their poems for consideration, and the poems were then judged (blind--that is, without the entrants names attached to them) by a member of our creative writing faculty. Woo (as he asked to be called) submitted a set of poems notable for their formal experimentalism, both in the sense that some of them made use of highly constraining metrical forms and in the sense that some of them played very creatively with free verse and formal invention. I was impressed to see that kind of attention to the craftsmanship of poetry-writing in the work of a freshman poet, and I'm pleased too that Woo plans to change his major to English. Congratulations!

Then, on Tuesday night, numerous faculty members and graduate students returned after hours to the English Building to conduct practice-interviews in order to help prepare our PhD candidates for this year's academic job market. For those not in the field: most hiring for entry-level professor positions in English involves interviewing at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association at the end of December, and since these can be high-stakes interviews it is very helpful to go through the motions in advance and get the jitters out. We do this every year, and it is always a nice event--people coming together to help each other. This year, it was especially fun because the students I 'interviewed' (some of whom I did not really know all that well before this week) were so stellar: our graduate students are doing fantastic, ambitious research projects and they are all highly experienced and committed teachers. In fact, I'd say that on the whole PhD students at top public universities like Illinois are simply better prepared to step into jobs as teacher/scholars than are PhDs from any other kind of institution. Our PhD candidates are doing leading-edge scholarly work, and they are just much more professionalized and experienced as teachers than their counterparts at the top private universities. This is a tough time to be on the academic job market--higher education, like so many other areas of contemporary society, is suffering cutbacks and so there are fewer jobs nationally than there were two years ago--but I know for a fact that any department that is fortunate enough to hire one of our PhD students will have done very, very well for itself.

Having been reminded earlier in the week of how interesting our undergrads can be and then of how terrific our grad students are, Thursday evening brought the campus's annual bookplating ceremony, in which those faculty members who were promoted during the previous year's cycle are honored with a bookplate placed in a book they have chosen that is then ordered for the main library collection. At the ceremony, these books are on display together with brief accounts by the honorees explaining their choices, and I always like to read these because they are so various and so personal. Some faculty members choose books that inspired them or are otherwise important to their work, some choose books by mentors, some choose childhood favorites or books that are personal for non-academic reasons. One honoree from English--Paul Prior--chose a book by a former student based on one of the first dissertations he directed as a faculty member. Most of all, though, I like this event because it gives me a chance to celebrate and acknowledge the accomplishments of faculty members (in English and elsewhere) who have worked hard for many years to earn promotion. Last year, English had five faculty members promoted: Jim Hansen, who became an Associate Professor, and Prior, LeAnne Howe, Michael Rothberg, and Gillen Wood who earned the rank of Professor. I've congratulated them all before--both here and in the flesh--but it was very nice to have the chance to share a glass of wine with some of them and reflect upon their accomplishments again at the ceremony Thursday night.

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