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, May 18, 2009


This past Saturday we held our annual departmental convocation in Foellinger Auditorium, on the south side of our quad. What a lovely event, with scores of happy graduates in their blue Illinois robes and proud families dressed up for the occasion. It is really wonderful to see the smiles on students' faces as they cross the stage to receive their diplomas, and to shake the hands of beaming family members afterwards on the quad. The weather was a little on the chilly side Saturday, especially in the shade on the patio between the English Building and Lincoln Hall where we held our reception, but the people were all as sunny and bright as could be.

Dr. Carol D. Lee, a distinguished scholar of education, who graduated from the U of I with a degree in the teaching of English in 1966, addressed the graduates and their families. She spoke in very moving terms about the potential of literature to open people up to new possibilities, and about the importance of making that potential available to all. I thought her remarks were perfect: festive, grave, thought-provoking. She reflected upon her own experiences, as an African American student in English in the 1960s, before English departments taught much in the way of African American literature, and offered our graduates--along with congratulations and encouragement--some ways of thinking about the potential importance of English studies that they could feel proud of and be challenged by at the same time.

I know I speak for the faculty as a whole in saying that we are proud of what all of our graduating seniors (not mention our MA, MFA, and PhD students!) have accomplished here. But I want to mention by name the students who were recognized in the ceremony for successfully completing an honors essay and thereby earning departmental honors (either 'distinction' or 'high distinction'): Ashley Albrecht, Katelin Anderson, Lindsay Andrews, Jennifer Baader, Jaron Birkan, Alyssa Bluhm, Alex Chang, Jennifer Christie, Eunice Chun, Allison Clark, Kathrina Czarny, John Deckert, Brian Falbo, Elizabeth Hahn, Heather Hanks, Alanna Hickey, Rafael Ibay, Megan McKendry, Mark Mallon, Kevin O’Malley, Esther Dettmar Nadolski, Sonia Rodriguez, Britt Steinberg, Emily Stout, Jincy Tharu, Beverly Tsai, Jack Vuylsteke, Yana Yakhnes.

Completing an honors essay typically involves conducting significant critical and historical research and writing a paper that is longer and more professionalized than anything that regular classwork has hitherto demanded. And part of what is challenging about this kind of work is how it differs from a paper for a class: in the latter, a student is typically given some kind of framework or set of questions by the way the class itself is set up. Honors essays have to stake out their own claims in a much more independent way, and so writing one can sometimes represent a valuable and challenging shift in perspective as well as in scale or ambition for the students who write them. This can be a struggle--I remember my own senior thesis, written in the, ahem, 1980s, as both a failure and a valuable learning experience--so I'm pleased to have the chance here to celebrate the hard work and accomplishments of our honors students.

Even more, though, I wanted to use this space to congratulate the class of 2009. Congratulations!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Faculty books for your reading pleasure!

It is my pleasure to be able to announce here the arrival of three more faculty books. Two of them I'm especially proud to call your attention to because they are really impressive single-author books that will make significant impacts in their respective fields. The third, as you'll see below, I'm proud of for more selfish reasons.

So without further ado....

Dale Bauer's Sex Expression and American Women Writers, 1860-1940 has just been published by The University of North Carolina Press.

Here is the book description from the UNC Press website: "American women novelists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries registered a call for a new sexual freedom, Dale Bauer contends. By creating a lexicon of "sex expression," many authors explored sexuality as part of a discourse about women's needs rather than confining it to the realm of sentiments, where it had been relegated (if broached at all) by earlier writers. This new rhetoric of sexuality enabled critical conversations about who had sex, when in life they had it, and how it signified.

Whether liberating or repressive, sexuality became a potential force for female agency in these women's novels, Bauer explains, insofar as these novelists seized the power of rhetoric to establish their intellectual authority. Thus, Bauer argues, they helped transform the traditional ideal of sexual purity into a new goal of sexual pleasure, defining in their fiction what intimacy between equals might become.

Analyzing the work of canonical as well as popular writers--including Edith Wharton, Anzia Yezierska, Julia Peterkin, and Fannie Hurst, among others--Bauer demonstrates that the new sexualization of American culture was both material and rhetorical."


The second book that I want to call your attention to is Ricky Rodríguez's Next of Kin: The Family in Chicano/a Cultural Politics. The Duke University Press website lists July 2009 as the ETA for this book, but Ricky tells me that the advance copies are expected any moment and he's already received copies of the book's handsome dust jacket.

Here is the description, from the Duke UP website: "As both an idea and an institution, the family has been at the heart of Chicano/a cultural politics since the Mexican American civil rights movement emerged in the late 1960s. In Next of Kin, Richard T. Rodríguez explores the competing notions of la familia found in movement-inspired literature, film, video, music, painting, and other forms of cultural expression created by Chicano men. Drawing on cultural studies and feminist and queer theory, he examines representations of the family that reflect and support a patriarchal, heteronormative nationalism as well as those that reconfigure kinship to encompass alternative forms of belonging.

Describing how la familia came to be adopted as an organizing strategy for communitarian politics, Rodríguez looks at foundational texts including Rodolfo Gonzales’s well-known poem “I Am Joaquín,” the Chicano Liberation Youth Conference’s manifesto El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, and José Armas’s La Familia de La Raza. Rodríguez analyzes representations of the family in the films I Am Joaquín, Yo Soy Chicano, and Chicana; the Los Angeles public affairs television series ¡Ahora!; the experimental videos of the artist-activist Harry Gamboa Jr.; and the work of hip-hop artists such as Kid Frost and Chicano Brotherhood. He reflects on homophobia in Chicano nationalist thought, and examines how Chicano gay men have responded to it in works including Al Lujan’s video S&M in the Hood, the paintings of Eugene Rodríguez, and a poem by the late activist Rodrigo Reyes. Next of Kin is both a wide-ranging assessment of la familia’s symbolic power and a hopeful call for a more inclusive cultural politics."


I feel a little sheepish about the self-promotion, but the advance copies of Shakespeare and the Middle Ages--a collection of essays that I co-edited with John Watkins of the University of Minnesota--have also just arrived.

Here is the book description from the Oxford University Press website: "Shakespeare and the Middle Ages brings together a distinguished, multidisciplinary group of scholars to rethink the medieval origins of modernity. Shakespeare provides them with the perfect focus, since his works turn back to the Middle Ages as decisively as they anticipate the modern world: almost all of the histories depict events during the Hundred Years War, and King John glances even further back to the thirteenth-century Angevins; several of the comedies, tragedies, and romances rest on medieval sources; and there are important medieval antecedents for some of the poetic modes in which he worked as well.

Several of the essays reread Shakespeare by recovering aspects of his works that are derived from medieval traditions and whose significance has been obscured by the desire to read Shakespeare as the origin of the modern. These essays, taken cumulatively, challenge the idea of any decisive break between the medieval period and early modernity by demonstrating continuities of form and imagination that clearly bridge the gap. Other essays explore the ways in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries constructed or imagined relationships between past and present. Attending to the way these writers thought about their relationship to the past makes it possible, in turn, to read against the grain of our own teleological investment in the idea of early modernity. A third group of essays reads texts by Shakespeare and his contemporaries as documents participating in social-cultural transformation from within. This means attending to the way they themselves grapples with the problem of change, attempting to respond to new conditions and pressures while holding onto customary habits of thought and imagination. Taken together, the essays in this volume revisit the very idea of transition in a refreshingly non-teleological way."

Blog Archive