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 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.

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