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, February 26, 2009

This and that: catching up

At the risk of sounding like one of the Brontes.... It has been several weeks, dear reader, since I last had a moment to update this blog. I have been doing a lot of traveling for my job this month and that has really eaten into any margin I might normally have to think about what to post here.

But some of that travel has been, er, blog-worthy (now that doesn't sound very Bronte-like), especially my trip in mid-February to the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Chicago. In format, the AWP Conference is was more or less like other large academic conferences I have attended as a faculty member over the years--continuous, simultaneous panels, a big and heterogeneous book fair, bustle in the hallways as people reconnect with colleagues they don't often see, etc.--but I have to say that the vibe (if I can be forgiven for sounding not like a Bronte but like a Beachboy for a moment) was entirely different. The sessions I went to were mostly people reading from their poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction to appreciative audiences instead people of presenting difficult critical arguments to skeptical or exhausted listeners. The UIUC creative writers did themselves and all of us proud in a number of sessions. Some highlights for me included a session in which three of our writers (Philip Graham, John Griswold, and Audrey Petty) each read lovely and thoughtful creative non-fiction pieces, all of which hinged on father/child relationships and so went unexpectedly well together, a fiction session featuring readings by Alex Shakar, John Rubins and LeAnne Howe, and a session for Illinois poets featuring Janice Harrington, Steve Davenport, Tyehimba Jess, and Mike Madonick in which Tyehimba provoked the crowd into unsolicited and spontaneous applause in mid-reading with a powerhouse poem on Detroit and Janice had the crowd rolling in the aisles with an introduction-cum-roast of Madonick that may have been the most perfectly pitched piece of writing I heard all weekend (sorry, Mike: couldn't resist). I was also able to attend a lovely event one evening hosted by The Ninth Letter and to get a sense of the extended academic family of our creative writing program at a reception where I dined and drank with current students, alums, and friends. Definitely worth the trip.


On another matter entirely, Smile Politely, the local online magazine that is quickly becoming a must-read for everyone in Champaign Urbana, has a nice profile this week of Michael Burns, a PhD student in our Writing Studies program, focusing on his volunteer work for The Bike Project as well as his academic interests. I love this in particular, from one of his fellow volunteers: "Michael is one of the main reasons I show up on Saturdays.... He's one of the nicest guys and best teachers of all-things-bike. Plus, he's ridiculously smart. It's not often that you get to chat with someone who will effortlessly switch from a conversation about Aristotle and Frederick Douglass to one about the mechanics of bending a steel frame back into alignment after getting run over by a car."

A tip, unrelated to English: if you live in Champaign Urbana or are considering coming and have not yet looked at Smile Politely, take a look. I think they do a really nice job keeping up with local food and music and so on. Frankly, dear reader, I'm too old and tired to get out much, but I do read their restaurant reviews and so now I have a backlog of local places I'm eager to explore.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Cary Nelson

On Friday, February 20th, at 7:00, our Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory will host a book party in honor of the recent release (by SUNY Press) of Cary Nelson and the Struggle for the University (which has been edited by Michael Rothberg and Peter Garrett) at the IPRH building. For more about the event follow this link to the Unit's website. While you're there, check out all the terrific programming that Lauren M. E. Goodlad (who is serving as interim Director this year) has put together.

Here is the blurb from the book's back cover: "At a time when the humanities are suffering crises of funding and legitimacy, Cary Nelson and the Struggle for the University provides an alternative vision: a clear-eyed, nondogmatic approach to engaged scholarship and educational activism in the interest of the public good. This collection brings together distinguished and rising cultural studies scholars to explore the ways in which Cary Nelson's work unites scholarship and activism, demonstrating the need for radical engagement in order to democratize the academy and the production of knowledge in and about American culture. Neither a Festschrift nor a tribute, the volume looks at the new directions Nelson's work has inspired in research and activism about the history and politics of the academy, cultural studies, modern American poetry, and graduate pedagogy and mentoring. An engaging afterword by Cary Nelson is also included."

As the blurb says, this book is not intended as a festschrift or a tribute. Or, not only as a tribute. It is a tribute to Cary, of course, that his career has been so productive and exemplary as to warrant and repay this kind of attention. And, to be sure, Cary has had (and is having!) a truly extraordinary career as a scholar of American poetry and as a critic and activist concerned with the current state and future of the humanities and the social functions and practices of the modern university. Anyone interested can search for the 24 (!) books he has written, co-authored, or edited, and anyone with an interest in modern American poetry should certainly check out his MAPS website, an Online Journal and Multimedia Companion that he administers as a companion to his highly-regarded Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry.

Cary is currently serving as president of the American Association of University Professors (an institution of which I am a member). I was recently reminded, in another context, of the historical importance of the AAUP by having two of its seminal position papers called to my attention as the basic foundations for our current ideas concerning academic freedom and tenure and professional ethics for faculty. This is, in short, important stuff that Cary does.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Introducing Vicki Mahaffey

Now that the Spring semester is well-underway, I am delighted to use this space to introduce the newest member of our faculty, Vicki Mahaffey, who joins the department this Spring as the Clayton and Thelma Kirkpatrick Professor in English Literature.

Professor Mahaffey, who has taught previously at The University of Pennsylvania and the University of York, is a internationally prominent scholar of Irish literature and modernism with a special emphasis on gender and on the work of James Joyce. Her departmental profile page, which you can find by clicking on the link above (or: here), lists--and links to--her single-author books and offers a more detailed listing of her areas of interest and current projects. I invite you to go take a look at that now.


Welcome back.

Professor Mahaffey adds to our already-considerable departmental strengths in British Modernism and Irish Studies, and she also has an appointment in Gender and Women's Studies. If you have the chance to meet her, you'll find her to be wise, generous, unaffected, and fiercely smart. Those are good things to be, and so I know she'll make a major contribution to the department as a teacher and a scholar and a departmental citizen. I'm very pleased to have her here.

I'm grateful, too, to Clayton and Thelma Kirkpatrick, whose extraordinary generosity towards the department has made this appointment, and much else, possible.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Web of Language

There is a nice story in today's News-Gazette about Dennis Baron and his Web of Language Blog. I get little notices all the time from the university news bureau about language-related national news stories in which Dennis has been quoted as a go-to expert, so it is nice that this time HE is the story.

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