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, 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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