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

Friday, May 28, 2010

Undergraduate Essay Prize winners

The immediate purpose of this short post is to announce and congratulate the winners of our two undergraduate essay prizes. The larger purpose, of course, is to brag on behalf of my department about the terrific work undertaken and completed by our most ambitious students.

So, without further ado...

The Donald Smalley prize goes to Debra Walsh, for her essay " 'That Strange, Wild-Looking Girl': Oliver Wendell Holmes's Elsie Venner and the Nineteenth-Century Conception of Female Mental Health." This project was completed under the direction of Justine Murison.

The Carol Kyle prize goes to Michael Gastiger, for his essay "Violent Dreamworlds: The Logic of Conspiracy in Don DeLillo's The Names," which was completed under the direction of Anustup Basu.

Way to go!

I'd also like to use this post to thank Justine and Anustup, again on behalf of the department, for their admirable work in fostering the creative rigor of our talented students.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Mystery on the Quad

Earlier this week, a crowd of about 35 of us gathered on the quad behind the English Building to watch a dress rehearsal performance of the Shepherds play from the Chester Mystery Cycle that a group of U of I undergraduate students will be performing this weekend at an interesting conference in Toronto that is organized around performances of the full cycle over three days. These plays are short, medieval dramatic entertainments on Biblical themes originally meant to be performed as part of holiday festivity. The goal of the Toronto conference is to stage the entire cycle as well as to stimulate research and discussion about historical performance practices and the meaning of cycle pageantry. Our group was put together under the watchful eye of Rob Barrett (pictured above, explaining the event to the admiring throng), whose scholarly work focuses on medieval and early modern Chester, and the play itself was directed by Kimberly Koch with the help of several other English Department graduate students.

I gather that they will have a wagon as a stage for the Toronto performance as well as access to some other costumes and props. But as you can maybe deduce from the pictures below, they did have some fun with props here too. The two pictures below are of the scene in which the shepherds first hear an angel singing to herald the birth of Christ, and then the moment when the second shepherd makes his offering to the baby Jesus while Mary and heavily bearded Joseph look on. The actors did a great job, and I'm really looking forward to hearing about the Toronto performance, too.

Part of the fun of this performance was watching the looks on the faces of pedestrians on the quad trying to figure out what on earth was going on. For them, it was a different kind of mystery!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Convocation 2010

This past Saturday the English Department held its 2010 convocation ceremony in Foellinger Auditorium. Planning these events takes a lot of doing (HUGE thanks to Deb Kimme and Bob Steltman for all their organizational work on this, and to Claire Billing, Penny Soskin, Steven Davenport, Syd Slobodnik, and Barbara Hall for their help with the running of the event), but the ceremonies themselves always totally justify the effort. I find them quite moving, year after year, because the happiness and pride of the graduating students and their families is so palpable. The joy of the event puts all the work we all do all year as teachers and mentors into the proper perspective by reminding us of what graduating means to students and to their families.

This year--maybe because my own bright red doctoral robes stood out so identifiably amidst the blue robes of our graduates--I wound up speaking to a great many students on the quad after the ceremony and I also posed for quite a number of happy family pictures. I have to say, there really is no better moment in the academic year than the hour or so after the convocation ceremony, when the students have recessed out of the building and reunited with beaming friends and families. Faculty--feeling maybe a little silly in their medieval, be-tasseled costumes, but also proud to represent an institution that means so much to people's lives--wander around and offer congratulations freely. One speaks to students one has just given an exam to last week, but also to people one doesn't even know and to the parents and grandparents of new graduates who tell you what this event means to them. And this year, despite clouds that threatened all afternoon, the rain held up just long enough to let it all unfold as it should. All the conventional things one says in the context of a graduate ceremony--about pride, hard work, and accomplishment, or about how the students' achievements reflect also the love and support of friends and family--come vividly to life in the mingling, festive crowd outside the auditorium.

This year's alumni speaker, Dan Whaley, received his degree in Rhetoric from the English Department in 1990, before hitting on the exceedingly bright idea, a few years later, that there might be a future in e-commerce and travel-booking in the early days of the world wide web. He spoke--sometimes comically, sometimes very seriously indeed--about the urgency of the challenges and the size of the opportunities facing the class of 2010, and about the importance, going forward, of the ability to imagine, critique, and communicate fostered in an English major. The full text of his speech can be found here.

The heart of the ceremony, of course, is acknowledging the accomplishments of all the BA, MA, MFA and PhD students graduating from the department this year, and my personal favorite thing about graduation ceremonies themselves is the way family members shout from the balconies when the student they've come to see walks across the stage. We also recognize the students who have earned distinction and high-distinction in English by writing an honors thesis, and I'd like to list the names of these students here as well, in alphabetical order: Elizabeth Blair, Margaret Carrigan, Sunanna Chand, Matthew Cherry, Alexander Christie, Mary Colleen Correll, Sarah Dickson, Rebecca Finkel, Michael Gastiger, Jeffrey Girten, Sarah Glover, Heather Smith Grattan, Miles Lincoln, Stephanie Luke, Timothy McGinty, Kathleen Roney, Mary Russell, Stephanie Sadler, Debra Walsh, Kenneth Webb, Sylvia Wolak. I like to celebrate the achievements of these students because the experience of writing a senior thesis is such a meaningful and challenging one, an opportunity to undertake original research and thus to take charge, maybe for the first time, of the framework in which knowledge is created.

Most of all, though, I'd just like to use this space to offer my congratulations, on behalf of the faculty and staff of the English Department, to the class of 2010 and to all of the friends and family members who have helped make their achievements here possible.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Quick congrats to Melissa Bailes

Congratulations to Melissa Bailes, a PhD student in English specializing in 18th- and 19-Century British Literature, for winning a highly competitive dissertation completion fellowship from the AAUW (American Association of University Women). According to the AAUW website, there were 66 American recipients of fellowships and grants this year, selected out of 1,175 eligible applicants, and this is not a discipline-specific application pool. So this is officially a Big Deal.

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