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

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Gail Hawisher

As 2010 gives way to 2011, our numbers will be reduced by one. Professor Gail Hawisher, who has been on the faculty here since 1990, is retiring at the end of this semester. So in the new year, if you see her, you can call her Professor Emerita Gail Hawisher. On the one hand, congratulations are in order: I know Gail is looking forward to this next phase, and I bet she'll be enjoying herself quite a bit this coming semester! On the other hand, it does feel to me like a loss for the department, even though she will continue for the foreseeable future to help with the mentoring of our graduate students in Writing Studies. I guess what I'm saying is this, at the end of the day: send your congratulations to her and your condolences to me!

Gail has been a national leader in the field of Writing Studies--or rhetoric and composition as it is often called elsewhere--during a period in which that field has become increasingly important to English Departments all over the country. Our program is very highly regarded (and rightly so!), and this is due in no small part to Gail's efforts both within the institution and as a representative of it on the national scene.

Gail's work centers around computers and pedagogy, and her scholarly record is very impressive indeed: she has been involved in 10 different collaborative book projects and his author or co-author of more than 55 articles and book chapters. Additionally, her record of professional service is, frankly, awesome: for example, she has been involved in many, many program reviews, has given invited lectures and talks at universities all over the country, and has been co-editor of a major journal in the field as well as of a highly-regarded book series.

Her contributions within the institution are also important and wide-ranging. In addition to her work as Director of the Center for Writing Studies, she secured funding for and helped found the University of Illinois Writing Project, a federally funded professional development program for teachers at all levels and in all disciplines meant to encourage and support the teaching of writing. Her excellent teaching has been honored with college and campus-wide teaching awards, and at least fifteen of her former PhD students are currently employed in tenure track academic jobs.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Professor Emerita Hawisher for all of her many, many contributions to department over the years, and of course to wish her all the best in the coming years, too.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Grant getters.

I am writing, dear reader, to share two quick stories about grant-funded research in English.

The first concerns Ramona Curry, who I've just learned has been awarded a pretty significant grant from the NEH that will go to support her over the next year as she labors to complete a book project entitled Trading in Cultural Spaces: How Chinese Film Came to America.

This is a very meticulously researched project that deals with cinematic cultural exchange in a manner that challenges some of the prevailing wisdom about US cinema's growing global reach and hegemony. It does so by examining (to quote from her proposal) "the trans-Pacific flow of Chinese movies into and within the U.S" via "intra-regional and community-based media circuits around the globe." "From the early 20th century," Curry argues, "such films have challenged stereotypes and forged avenues for cross-cultural exchange."

"By recovering multiple Chinese American and supporting voices, images and multicultural networks," Curry adds, Trading in Cultural Spaces "aims to refocus cinema history on its prior margins, [and] to enrich transnational and national film and social histories."

This will obviously be an important book in the field of cinema studies. The NEH funding that the project has received is given in acknowledgment of the importance of the work. Please join me in congratulating Ramona!


I also can't resist posting this link, to a brief account of some grant-funded research conducted recently by a team of researchers including our own Melissa Littefield. Here is the description of the project from the website I've linked to above:

"Between November 30th and December 3rd 2010, an inter-disciplinary and internationally-collaborative experimental team met at CFIN to complete an experimental study funded by the European Neuroscience and Society Network and with scanning facilities and overheads provided by the Center for Integrative Neuroscience (CFIN/MINDLab).

The purpose of the experiment was to consider whether or not there was a neurological correlation between 'deception' and 'socially-stressful truth-telling' (i.e. evaluative statements that may cause dissonance in relationships between two or more people). During deception, activity has been seen in several areas of the brain (the anterior cingulated cortex, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; and sometimes the insula). Truth-telling, however, has often been used as a baseline for these studies - an experimental condition for which there is little additional brain activation. The researchers hypothesized that brain areas often associated with inhibition, recall, decision making, and executive function may be similarly active during deception and and socially-stressful truth-telling. Their experimental design created a situation in which to test the outcomes of socially-stressful truth-telling.

The experiment was conducted by Melissa M. Littlefield (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Des Fitzgerald (London School of Economics and Political Science), and James Tonks (University of Exeter), with local collaborators Martin Dietz, Kasper Knudsen and Andreas Roepstorff. With scanning now complete, data analysis will begin in the new year, and results should be reported shortly thereafter."

Now, I believe I know what you are thinking, dear reader, even without scanning your brain. You're wondering why an English professor is doing this kind of experiment in the first place!

The answer is that Littlefield, who holds a joint appointment in English and in the department of Kinesiology and Community Health, writes on literature, science, and culture and in particular on the creation and circulation of the cultural fantasy that technoligically-enabled lie-detection might serve as an efficacious a forensic tool or as a way to plumb the depths of human character. This experiment, I imagine, will help frame her arguments by helping to establish a baseline concerning what actually is and is not possible in the realm of driven lie-detection via fMRI technology.

Pretty cool!


We are not, for the most part, a big grant-getting department. Most of the research we do is relatively inexpensive--we need a) our archives and b) time--and so we really do not need access to anything like the massive system of federal and foundation grants characteristic of the world of science research nowadays. But for this very reason--because grantsmanship is not really part of our academic culture--it is very impressive to me when our faculty do secure external funding for their work. So I want to take this opportunity to congratulate both Ramona and Melissa for their successful efforts in this regard.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Mock on, mock on...

Last Thursday evening the department held its annual mock-interview extravaganza, an evening event in which PhD students seeking jobs have the opportunity to role-play the job interview with at least two different interview teams made up of the department's faculty members. This year, the event was arranged by Tony Pollock, our superb Director of Graduate Studies, who divvied faculty into teams of two and scheduled mock interviews for our job seekers.

For those who do not know, faculty hiring in English departments typically involves a high-stakes 30-40 minute interview at our national conference in which search committees ask prospective hires about their research and teaching. This is a very nerve-wracking process (I speak from personal experience) because it feels so artificial: the ability to sound poised under great pressure while talking to strangers does not necessarily correlate to any of the things that successful faculty members do on a day-to-day basis, and it feels as though you can blow years of hard work by having a single inarticulate moment in an interview. Most of these interviews follow a somewhat predictable template that includes questions about the current research project and questions about different kinds of teaching. And since there is some formula to this, it helps a great deal to have the chance to rehearse. Otherwise, by the time you figure out how to interview properly you can have wasted some valuable opportunities.

I love this event--which I privately think of as mockapalooza--for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is kind of fun to do the role-playing. For another, it is interesting for me to see what PhD students in other areas of the department are doing. If the students that the team of Perry and Courtemanche mock-interviewed this year are any indication, we have some wonderful people seeking jobs. More generally, I think this is one of the events where our department is at its very best as a community. It is heartening to see so many faculty members (almost half of the department) coming into the English Building after dinner on a chilly winter evening to help graduate students prepare.

Thanks, Tony, for your organizational work. And thanks to all of the faculty members who participated this year. Best of luck to our job-seeking PhD students--may you all have the interview experiences you deserve this January in LA!

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