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

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


It is very, very quiet in the English Building this week--the main office of the department will be open until tomorrow afternoon, but classes are suspended for the holiday and there are not many people roaming the halls. Let me take advantage of this quiet moment simply to wish everyone in our extended community a peaceful holiday season this year.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) Awards

I just received the good news that Lauri Harden has won an LAS Staff Award in this year's competition, and that Jodee Stanley has been awarded an LAS Academic Professional Award. I'm very, very pleased by both pieces of good news, each of which comes as yet one more reminder of how many excellent people--faculty, staff, APs, lecturers, instructors, TAs--we have working here in the English Department in all capacities.

First let me say a few words about Lauri Harden's award. Staff members who have won this award are not eligible to be nominated again for it for ten years. Not coincidentally, Lauri last won this award in Fall of 1998. You can probably just go ahead and pencil her in now for the LAS Staff Award ca. Fall 2020 (I'm kidding, but only sort of: Lauri tells me that she plans to retire before 2020 but otherwise she would win the award then). She is that good at what she does. Lauri is the manager of our undergraduate studies office, and to understand what this means you have to understand that she is (among a great many other things!) one of the primary caretakers of our whole enormous, messy, complex, ever-changing scheduling process. Nobody but Lauri really knows how we pull this into shape every year, and it is truth universally acknowledged over here in the English building that Lauri's mastery of the ins and outs of the undergraduate schedule is the glue that holds our entire operation together. You might think this is hyperbole on my part, but, well, you'd be wrong.

Jodee Stanley is the editor of our award-winning literary journal Ninth Letter, which is published under the auspices of our MFA in Creative Writing Program in collaboration with the School of Art and Design. As I hope all of you already know, Ninth Letter is a kind of unique publication, marrying the very best in contemporary prose and poetry with the work of leading edge grapic designers and other visual artists. Jodee's job involves all the administrative work of an editor as well as fund-raising and grant writing and overseeing student editors and so on, and the quality of each edition she oversees testifies yet once more to the special mix of vision and hard-headed competance she brings to her task. Check out Ninth Letter by clicking on the link at the top of this paragraph, and you'll see what I mean. Subscribe, and you'll see what I mean twice a year.

Congratulations to Lauri and Jodee! Truth be told, I kind of expected them both to win. I mean really, how could they not? Nobody could be more deserving of either award.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Graduate Support

Since this blog links off of the main departmental page, I usually use it only as a venue for the kind of news about the department that I think will appeal to all of its possible readers: faculty, grad students, undergrads, alums, prospective grad students, other campus communities, and even those who wind up here by accident after google-ing something or someone. And it is with some hesitation that I take up anything here that might be controversial, or that might cast either the department or the university in a poor light: I am mindful that I represent both my department and my college, and also mindful that my own perspective on things may not be the same as that of some members of this blog's readership. Still, it seemed important to me to post here about the strike currently being conducted by the Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO): it has received media coverage in Chicago and nationally, and so I figure that perceptions of this event are likely to have a significant impact upon the way our department and its graduate students are perceived. I won't comment here on the specific issues that are being disputed in the bargaining process--you can find this information in published news reports--but I do want to give a kind of department's eye view for the benefit of readers who feel a connection to the department but who may be too distant to have a feel for the commitments and concerns of its faculty and grad students. It should be noted that the opinions I express here are solely my own.

English has one of the larger PhD programs on campus, and many of our graduate students participate in the GEO. So the strike has had a major, disruptive effect upon us in particular as a department. Graduate TAs in English teach a significant percentage of our classes. And they teach them very well, by any standard. Student evaluation scores for the department's graduate TAs are very strong across the board, and since faculty work closely with graduate students we all know from personal experience that our students are dedicated, hardworking teachers. That is part of why faculty in English are for the most part supportive of the GEO (as am I), because we know how hard our graduate students work and for how little: we know how much effort they put into their teaching, and how difficult it can be for them to balance teaching with the research they need to do in order to complete their degrees.

We are a department of dedicated teachers, and this work stoppage has been difficult for everyone (GEO members as well as faculty) because none of us is fully comfortable with the idea of disrupting classes we've been teaching all semester. Everyone in our department is very much mindful of the impact their actions may have on undergraduate students. Many faculty members have moved their classes off campus in order to avoid crossing picket lines and to avoid asking their students to cross, and everyone (including GEO members) is thinking hard about how best to protect the interests of their undergraduate students while the strike continues. In fact the GEO has enjoyed considerable support from on-campus undergraduate groups, who recognize that adequate support for the graduate students is actually crucial to maintaining the quality of the undergraduate education we offer. Ultimately, despite the temporary breakdown in the collective bargaining process here, these are not competing interests: if we can attract top students into our graduate programs, and if we can support them so that they are able to find a salutary balance between teaching duties and their own developing scholarly curiosity, then the classes they teach to our undergraduates are simply going to be the better for it.

It is true--at Illinois as at many of the top public universities across the country--that we face a budget crisis that puts extraordinary pressure on us as we all try to do our work. And of course that is one context for the temporary impasse we're in now between university and union negotiators. My understanding is that the ratio of state funding to tuition revenue has dropped from 12/1 in 1970 to 2/1 in 2001 to about 1/1 as of today. The challenge for public universities, faced with the reality of shrinking state support, is somehow to continue to do what we do without raising tuition beyond what is conscionable for a land grant institution or without diluting the quality of the education we provide by making cost-conscious decisions without regard for our educational mission. Graduate students are really key to our efforts here: they teach inexpensively in exchange for tuition waivers and because they are in an apprenticeship period, amassing teaching experience that can later be put to use in faculty positions. But here too there is a balance: if we do not support them adequately--if we ask them to teach too much for too little--then the apprenticeship model effectively breaks down. Ultimately, faculty in English are supportive of the GEO because we are aware that this balance is at once fragile and centrally important to who we are as a department.

Looking at the bigger picture, you could say that the the GEO is basically trying its best to maintain this delicate balance by means of collective bargaining pressure. And regardless of what you think about unions or picket lines or the disruption of classes, I think everyone who is an alum or a friend of the Department of English should probably be in support of this larger goal. Because if the balance tips and we can no longer support graduate student TAs adequately as scholar-teachers in training, then it will significantly diminish the quality of the research and teaching that the department as a whole can undertake. The importance of maintaining this balance has been evident for some years and it will continue to be a departmental priority long after the strike has been resolved. When readers scroll back through blog posts a year from now and look at this entry, I think this will be the aspect of the story that will still resonate: we (as a department, and as a campus) need to find ways to support our graduate programs through difficult times because adequately-supported graduate student teacher-scholars are crucial both to our ability to provide an affordable education and also, of course, to the intellectual future of our respective disciplines.

This is why, if you click through to make a gift to the department off of our main webpage, you are presented with a choice between two gift fund options: the Annual Fund and the English Department Fellows Fund. All departments have Annual Funds, but we thought it was important to give people the option to give directly to support the graduate program, so gifts to this fund are used to help provide fellowships and other research-related funding for the graduate program--the kinds of funding that allows us to do a better job of maintaining the balance between teaching and scholarship that is so essential to the the success of our program and our students alike. As state support for the university shrinks, private generosity becomes all the more important.

Update: apparently a tentative agreement has been reached between the two sides. The GEO will still need to vote on the contract, but for now the situation here seems to have resolved itself.

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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