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, September 3, 2010

Welcome, alums!

Our annual newsletter was sent out last week, and as a result there seems to be a modest uptick in the daily number of visitors to this blog. I hope there a cause-and-effect relationship, in any event, since I'd like to think that I'm writing for (among others) our many, many alums out there who may be curious about what we're doing these days. The newsletter gives us a chance to highlight a few things, of course, but we are a big department and there is always a lot going on and there is just no way that the newsletter can even begin to do the place justice. So I use my own brief piece in the newsletter to invite readers to come here, to the blog, where I can at least give weekly updates about some of the many kinds of things that we do. If you have come here out of curiosity after reading about the blog in the newsletter, welcome! I'd love to hear from you, either in the comments section here or via email. Or even (gasp!) even snail mail (which is just soooo twentieth century): Curtis Perry, Department of English, University of Illinois, 608 S. Wright St., Urbana IL 61801.

There have been a couple of alums who have taken me up on my offer and made contact, though curiously enough each of them wanted to discuss a friend or former teacher rather than himself: I take this to be some kind of native Midwestern modesty--our alums are unwilling to toot their own horns, but are eager to praise their associates!

First Paul
Wagenbreth--an English alum who now works for the local newspaper--emailed me earlier this week to call my attention to the considerable achievements John Callahan, who is the Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities at Lewis & Clark College and who holds a PhD from our department. Callahan became a friend of the writer and critic Ralph Ellison (there is a lovely video of him discussing this friendship here) and is now Ellison's literary executor. In this capacity, Callahan (and another colleague) recently published Three Days Before the Shooting, a mammoth novel compiled out of drafts and papers that Ellison worked on for decades and left unfinished when he died in 1994.

Wagenbreth wrote to pay tribute to Callahan's scholarly achievements and to his contribution to American letters, but he also testifies to the impact that a teacher can make upon the life of a student. Wagenbreth writes of Callahan, his freshman writing instructor: "he made quite an impression on me--even steered me on to an English major and whatever success you could say I've enjoyed in life." This, he adds, is "proof if any were needed that an instructor really can make a difference in students' lives."

Then, while I was thinking about
Wagenbreth and Callahan, Bruce Erickson (who is our director of Programs in Professional Writing, and the guy who does the hard work of compiling our newsletter) told me that another alum had just come by wanting to tell him about the career of the poet and nature writer Reg Saner, now a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, who is another distinguished English Department PhD.

I joined this department in 2006 after teaching for many years at another university, and as a relative newcomer (as I've said before in this space) I love to learn about the strength of the tradition we now represent and carry on. So I've been reading a great deal this week about both Callahan and Saner. And I also think it is wonderful that alums like Mr.
Wagenbreth want to acknowledge their teachers because, as he says, it serves as a reminder of the importance of the role played by good teachers in people's lives.

Partly because I find that a sense of our department's legacy makes its current work feel more meaningful to me, I would love to find ways to increase our engagement with our many, many alumni. But I'll need your help, dear reader, in figuring out what forms that engagement might take. If you are an alum and you have any ideas along these lines, I would really, really love to hear from you. Even by snail mail!

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