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, April 29, 2010

College and Campus Teaching Award ceremonies

April may be the cruelest month to poets, but it has to be a pretty good time of year for the catering companies that work the awards ceremonies on campus.

Last Thursday, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences held its annual Teaching Awards ceremony, and then this past Tuesday the Provost's office hosted its annual Celebration of Teaching Excellence. Tony Pollock--who was awarded both an LAS Dean's Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and a Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching this year--was honored at both events, along with exemplary teachers from across the college and campus. English is a very strong teaching department and we have traditionally done very well in these campus-wide awards. Past winners of campus-wide awards for undergraduate teaching include Stephanie Foote, Philip Graham, Gail Hawisher, Brigit Kelly, Mike Madonick, Robert Dale Parker, and Julia Saville. Future winners from the English Department are of course too numerous to mention.

Departmental boastfulness aside, these are terrific events because of the way they showcase the depth of great teaching across disciplines at the University of Illinois. And even if we come from departments with wildly different intellectual cores, we all know that teaching matters and in a sense we all share the same students and participate in the same campus-wide teaching mission. When I hear about the research accomplishments of outstanding faculty members in other areas--nuclear engineers, say, or faculty in the department of finance--I don't always know what their publications and awards mean because they are so far outside of my own area of professional competence. But when I hear about the wonderful ways that faculty in these other departments teach and mentor, I know exactly what it means and exactly how important it is.

So I love attending these events, and not only because the catering is after all pretty good!

This year, I was of course delighted to able to lend my voice to the chorus of acclaim for Tony, who is indeed a really extraordinary teacher. But I also loved hearing what students and colleagues in other departments had to say about the many excellent teachers being honored from other departments and colleges all over campus.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Undergraduate research

Last Thursday, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing seven terrific English students present on their senior theses as part of the 2010 Undergraduate Research Symposium held at the Illini Union. These students--together with Dale Bauer, who organized the panel--first showed a brief film introducing their topics, and then each of the students spoke a bit more and they all took questions from the audience. You can see the film and get a sense of the range of topics here. Pretty cool, if you ask me.

One of the important things about undergraduate research projects--theses, like these, or just especially ambitious papers for advanced classes--is that they can represent an important step in a given student's disposition towards knowledge. Upper division literature classes tend to be discussion-oriented, but they still cover a given subject in a manner determined by the professor's expertise. So although there can be a tremendous amount of student discovery and student creativity in these classes, there are also ways in which the fundamental issues and questions addressed have likely been predetermined by the professor from the get go. Engaging in an open-ended research project, by contrast, asks students to query and create the limits of the field in which they are working, and so can be crucially eye-opening experiences for students' understanding about how disciplines decide what questions are worth asking in the first place.

You can see that this has happened with the students in the film linked above: some of them used the thesis to ask explicit questions about the canon--what makes a literary work great? What ensures that we continue to read it? Why have some texts dropped out? And so on. Others are taking critical perspectives that they may have learned about in classes and extending them into new areas of their own devising. And still others describe how they started with one set of questions, got fascinated by some other formal or historical question, and so redefined the focus of their researches accordingly.

It was also nice to see faculty members who have worked with these students in the audience, kvelling. During the Q&A period, Vicki Mahaffey raised her hand and said something like this to the members of the panel: "I've worked with most you in my classes, and it has been a real pleasure to be your student for the past hour." That's exactly right.

Then, on Monday, the English Department undergraduates held their own research colloquium (run by our Student Leadership Council, with the help of Ted Underwood, our Director of Undergraduate Studies). One of the students from the Thursday event--Stephanie Luke--served as moderator, and another--Rebecca Finkel--presented on Oscar Wilde's fairy tales. Part of what was great about this event, though, was that we also had presentations of poems and stories by three creative writing students. I loved hearing these very different poems and stories--from free verse lyrics to a stylishly metrical riff on the story of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.

Given the level of intelligence and engagement that I saw in these two events, I was not at all surprised to learn that still another talented English major, Michael Gastiger, won this year's IPRH Prize for research in the Humanities by an undergraduate for his paper entitled "Monstrosity and Bare Life: The Legal Status of Beowulf's Outcasts."

Congrats and thanks to all! Way to go.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Richard Powers elected to American Academy of Arts and Letters

This will be a very short post, but it is a BIG deal. What is needed is not a blog post, but fanfare.

Richard Powers--award-winning novelist and, well, all-around wonderful person--has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His election, announced just this week, is the latest of many honors to make explicit what we already knew: that Powers is among the most distinguished and important novelists working in the United States today.

The LAS News version of the story is here.

The Academy's Press release is here.

If you're interested, there is also an AP story here that focuses on one of this year's honorary inductees. Somebody named Streep or something who, I guess, has done some film work? Eh: not as impressive, to me anyway, as Rick.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

2010 Humanities Lecture

It was my great pleasure and privilege to introduce Gillen Wood as he presented this year's Humanities Lecture in the auditorium at the Spurlock Museum this past Thursday. Ruth Watkins, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Science here, kicked the event off by noting that the annual Humanities Lecture is a tradition that has been ongoing here since 1977. Somebody in the audience suggested that maybe the great Nina Baym--a much-admired Professor Emerita in English--had given the inaugural lecture. In any event, I was proud, as department head, to have Gillen following Nina's footsteps and to have English so well-represented on such a large stage. There was a great turnout, the audience was energized and receptive, and the interdisciplinary nature of Gillen's talk meant that people from different parts of the university were able to mingle at the reception afterward. Gillen, who has been an active affiliate with the U of I's Environmental Change Institute, has been eager to forge interdisciplinary collaboration on campus around the topic of climate change, and it seems that he has been singularly effective at doing so!

Wood's talk--entitled "Climate Denial and the Philosopher-King of Java"--fused an account of the material, social, and cultural consequences of an early 19th century ecological catastrophe (the eruption of Mt. Tambora in 1815 and its consequences), with an impassioned plea to humanists to consider climate and ecological history as part of the project of materialist historical analysis. The idea, as he put it, is not only that we have to get accustomed to thinking of environmental change as part of the material context for culture, but also that deep historical analysis of the history of intersection between climate change and human culture can help inform our sense of what the immediate and near future might bring.

Elsewhere, Wood has called the critical approach he's championing "eco-historicism," which (in an article you can read here, but only if you can access Project Muse journals) he defines as "
the study of climate and environment as objects of knowledge and desire, analyzed through "thick" description of specific episodes of ecological micro-contact." He writes: "the critical tasks of eco-historicism lie adjacent to but beyond the rhetorical reach of environmental history and historical anthropology as currently configured. The goal of a specifically early modern eco-historicism would be to better understand the impact of four hundred years of economic growth and globalization on the creation both of Western modernity and the Malthusian ecological consciousness that is its guilty residue. The environmental effects of globalized trade and migration belong within the domain of the physical and social sciences, but the rationalizations for their impact—the intentionality of globalization, the psycho-cultural formations enabling the exploitation and trade of earth's agricultural and mineral resources, as well as the cultural forms of an embryonic ecological consciousness—are natural subjects for eco-historicists equipped with the tools of discourse analysis developed in literary and cultural studies over the last thirty years. Analysis of the social consequences of past climate and environmental change likewise falls within the ambit of eco-historicism as case studies in human cultural adaptation—or failure to adapt—to environmental conditions, degradation, and not infrequent disaster. Eco-historicism is, by its nature, interdisciplinary."

Eco-criticism has been around for a while, but eco-historicism is something important and pretty new. Gillen's work (as all those present at the Humanities Lecture can attest) is notable for its insistence on the importance of scientific literacy and rigorous historical analysis as well as for the cogency of its arguments about how eco-historical analysis might inform our thinking about the present and future.

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