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

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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