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

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Congrats to our new Associate Professors!

Please join me in congratulating the following English Department faculty members who have received promotion and been granted tenure at the University of Illinois. Each of them will now hold the title Associate Professor when the new academic year begins in August. Our newly promoted faculty (in alphabetical order) are:

*Feisal Mohamed, who teaches classes in early modern literature and (especially) the poetry and prose of John Milton. Mohamed writes about Milton, early modern literature and culture, the history of liberal thought from the early modern period to the present, and (especially) the vexed history of legal and philosophical thought concerning the idea of religious toleration within the western liberal tradition. A scarily-productive scholar, Professor Mohamed's book In the Anteroom of Divinity: The Reformation of the Angels from Colet to Milton was published in December of 2008, and he is well on the way to publishing a second important book, this time using his deep knowledge of early modern thought to intervene in some of the problematics that have haunted liberalism from the seventeenth-century to the present.
***Late-breaking news: Professor Mohamed tells me that his second book--Milton and the Post-Secular Present--has just this week been accepted for publication by Stanford University Press. Readers of this blog may also want to click through to Mohamed's hot-off-the-presses New York Times Opinionator piece, "The Burqua and the Body Electric."

Alex Shakar, a novelist who teaches in our Creative Writing program. It is a treat for me be able to trumpet Shakar's writing here because--as a recreational, non-specialist reader of smart contemporary fiction--I love his work. His collection of short stories, City in Love, was first printed in 1996 and then re-issued as a Harper Perennial Paperback, and his first novel, The Savage Girl, was published to considerable acclaim in 2001. His most recent novel, Luminarium, is not out yet, but will be published by Soho books. The Savage Girl is a wonderful, thought-provoking novel, and Luminarium--which I had the pleasure of reading in a penultimate draft--is (in my view) even better: one of the best novels I have read in some time. I will of course post about it here when it is printed.

*Renée Trilling, an Anglo-Saxonist, who teaches a range of courses for us including courses in Old English language and literature, the early British literature survey, and our required introduction to literary theory. Trilling's 2009 book The Aesthetics of Nostalgia: Historical Representation in Old English Verse examines the ways that historical consciousness is encoded in Anglo-Saxon poetry. It is well known that Anglo-Saxon verse is suffused with images of a lost past; what Trilling's book does is to demonstrate that this body of literature is also engaged in a complex kind of negotiation over the meaning of the past for its present, and that this is carried on with a level of sophistication that makes these texts answerable to modes of critical analysis more typically associated with modern theorists of formalism and historical representation. In this project, and in her current projects, Trilling is establishing for herself a central, ambassadorial role linking the philological rigors of Old English literary scholarship to theoretical concerns at the leading edge of humanistic study.

Each of these scholars, as is probably clear even from these thumbnail sketches, has richly earned this promotion; by granting each of them tenure we have taken an important step toward securing a healthy future for the department and its students.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Some thoughts about the AAUP, BP, and research

A colleague today called my attention to an interesting news story, involving British Petroleum, the American Association of University Professors, and that organization's current president, Professor Emeritus of English Cary Nelson.

At issue, as you'll see if you click through, are questions of corporate research sponsorship and academic freedom, and questions about the propriety of academic institution accepting corporate funding that comes with various restrictions on the publication and communication of findings. You can find Nelson's thoughts on the implications of this case expressed more fully here.

Here, though, are mine.

Though the nature of this particular story is especially pressing--because of the devastating nature of the oil spill, of course, and the enormous monetary implications of future lawsuits, etc--this is obviously a type of problem that all research universities are facing or are likely to face in the future. Corporate sponsors, even in normal circumstances, are always likely to have an interest in protecting proprietary information uncovered by researchers. But research universities are supposed to produce work that is peer-reviewable and that contributes to ongoing scholarly debates in which information is shared freely among an entire community of investigators.

Then again, as public support for higher education dwindles, universities do need to find other sources of revenue. Nobody wants to raise tuition more than is necessary, because access and diversity are key values and the price of attending a good, public research university is already becoming prohibitive for lower- and middle-income families. So if there is corporate money to be had, I imagine that it is hard for campuses in good conscience to turn it down even if it comes with conditions that threaten the nature of scholarly discourse that universities are supposed to foster.

The previous paragraph will probably sound hopelessly naive to any of my readers who work in science departments at research universities (are there any such readers?), and in most cases I imagine that there are policies in place to protect scientific inquiry and lines that simply will not be crossed. The marine scientist quoted in the piece linked to above implies as much, in fact. And of course this is obviously not a question that English departments are really faced with in exactly the same way: English departments like ours, at the end of the day, are funded primarily by the tuition revenue our classes generate and so do not make extraordinary demands upon public funding or rely heavily upon corporate or federal grant money to make ends meet. But the sciences are very, very expensive (for instance, a new assistant professor in a science department can require a million dollars or more in start-up funds to get his or her lab going) and my understanding is that even the sizable amounts of grant funding that good science departments attract usually cannot defray the cost to the university of doing ambitious science in the first place.

Still, this story matters to me as I sit over in the English Building for a number of interlinked reasons that go beyond the involvement of Cary Nelson and the AAUP (of which organization I am a member). For one thing, I am a big believer in the public-good value of the comprehensive research university and of the full range of kinds of scholarship such a place is designed to produce. So I have a stake--as a citizen and as a member of a university community--in all stories about the way this scholarship is funded and disseminated.

For another, it occurs to me that this is a story about the need for public support of research universities that is interesting because it is not, for once, about humanities curricula.

All too often, in my view, public discourse about the importance of university funding dissolves into arguments among culture warriors of various stripes about what is taught in departments like History or English. But the real truth, as I have suggested above, is that departments like ours are no longer really supported by public funds because we are relatively inexpensive and because we teach a lot of students and generate adequate tuition revenue for the system. We do not see that money directly, of course, and so our health as a department is as dependent as any upon the financial well-being of a university system that depends upon state funding as well as upon tuition and and grants. So my point is not that we are immune to, or uninterested in, state support for higher education. If the system is squeezed, we are squeezed. My point is simply that ambitious scientific research is the thing that cannot be done properly at universities without a robust public investment in higher education. And even though I've dedicated my professional life to the humanities, I ultimately don't think a reasonable person should have any question but that the basic and applied scientific research carried on in universities is in the last analysis a worthwhile public good.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Convocation 2010, now with pictures!

I just received a cd with some photos from the convocation ceremony we held in May and (since I wrote about it earlier) I thought I might post a few of them here to give readers a sense of what such an event looks like.

There are no pictures here of individual students crossing the stage to receive diplomas, and that is the real heart of the event. But these pictures do convey some of the pomp and circumstance--me in my bright red robes, the assembled students standing in their finery, our distinguished alum, the faculty assembled onstage, and so on.

The convocation is the culmination of so much work by so many students and so many faculty members, that it seems only right to celebrate it twice!

<--Here are faculty-members heading towards the auditorium, led by a bagpiper.

And here (below this caption) is yours truly, at the start of the ceremony.

Here (below) is our distinguished alumni speaker, Dan Whaley, whose speech was one of the real highlights of the event.

And below, without captions, are pictures of the faculty assembled on stage, of the students, and of the auditorium full of graduating seniors and their friends and family.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Odyssey Project

The occasion for this post is a nice recent article about the University of Illinois chapter of the Odyssey Project in Smile Politely, an online magazine dedicated to life in Urbana-Champaign.

The Odyssey Project--a really fine example of the University's efforts at community involvement and outreach--is (to quote from the project's own website) "a yearlong, college-accredited course in the humanities offered at no cost to adults in the community living below or slightly above the federal poverty level. The purpose of the course is to introduce students to the humanities and to help them reenter the world of higher education.

The program offers instruction in five discrete disciplines in the humanities: literature, philosophy, art history, U.S. history, and writing and critical thinking. The course is hosted by its community partner, the Douglass Branch Library. There is no tuition fee, and books, transportation vouchers, and child care are also free to all students. Students who complete the course receive six hours of college credit, which can then be transferred to other two- or four-year colleges."

The Odyssey Project is administered thought he Illinois Project for Research in the Humanities (IPRH, as we know it) together with the Illinois Humanities Council. Last year, the program was directed by our own Dale Bauer, though, and I'm proud to say that English faculty and graduate students have been important contributors each year since the project was launched (the upcoming year will be its fifth).

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