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, October 29, 2010

Mellon grant for text-mining

The following is a slightly truncated version of a press release that can be found in its entirety here. It features our own Ted Underwood (as well as John Unsworth, who is an affiliate of English even though his appointment is in the Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences).


GSLIS Dean John Unsworth, English Department faculty member Ted Underwood, and a team of fellow researchers have received a two-year grant to explore text-mining as a tool for understanding the humanities. Unsworth will serve as co-principal investigator along with Michael Welge, director of the Automated Learning Group at Illinois's National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and Stanford University Librarian Mike Keller will serve as principal investigator. Matthew Jockers, at Stanford University, will serve as Project Director.

Awarded in the amount of $761,000 by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the grant will fund use cases by participants at four universities: Dan Cohen, from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University; Ted Underwood, from the English Department at the University of Illinois; Tanya Clement, Associate Director of Digital Cultures and Creativity at the University of Maryland; and Franco Moretti, the Danily C. and Laura Louise Bell Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Stanford University.

Goals of the project include sharing research findings through peer-reviewed publications in print and online, as well as the further development of infrastructure for text-mining.

The main emphasis will be on developing, coordinating, and investigating research questions posed by the participating humanities scholars. Examples include exploring questions related to the evolution of literary style in the 19th-centuryAnglophone novel (Moretti), analyzing oral features of Gertrude Stein’s poetry, prose, and plays in both text and audio recordings (Clement), automated topical classification and visualization of historical documents concerning the events of 9/11 (Cohen), and understanding the impetus for changes in diction during the Romantic era (Underwood). “This is already an established research topic,” Underwood remarked, “because Romantic writers knew the language was changing, and spent a lot of time arguing about the social implications of word choice. But until recently we’ve had no way to pose the most obvious questions you’d want to ask about the topic: How did diction actually change? When? Which genres were affected first? It’s a problem that seems to cry out for analysis at a larger scale.”

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Every year, as Hallowe'en approaches, the English department staff holds a pumpkin decorating contest. In a blog post about this tradition last year, I dubbed it the Pumpkinification of English (in the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that this is an allusion to a satirical book called The Pumpkinification of Claudius probably written by the Roman playwright, politician, and philosopher Seneca, a writer I find endlessly fascinating. But I digress). Anyway, the time has come again once again for our annual re-pumkinification. The pumpkins are set out on display in the department's main office, and people who pass through are invited to vote for their favorite. This kicks off what is usually a pretty festive couple of days around here, since the children of department-members will traipse through the office in costume to trick-or-treat today and tomorrow as well.

Here are this year's contestants. I'll update in a few days when the smoke clears and the votes have been tallied.

Update, Friday late afternoon. Votes have been cast and tallied. Now, at last, the results can be revealed to a breathless public. This year's winner is...

[wait for it...]

[building suspense...]

...Deb Stauffer, for the black cat pumpkin in the center of the table! This is, as they say in the NBA, a 3-peat!

Monday, October 18, 2010

New Richard Powers story in the The New Yorker

The October 18th edition of The New Yorker features a lovely, thought-provoking short story by our own Richard Powers. The story is called "To the Measures Fall," and (as the mini-abstract at The New Yorker's website has it), it centers around "an American woman’s lifelong re-readings of an obscure English novel she discovered in the Costwolds while on a junior year abroad."

That really does not do the piece justice. It is also about the mysterious and idiosyncratic way some literature happens to grab us, about the way our investments in books can be isolating as well as sustaining, about the way our reading of a book can change over time, and about the interplay between our investments in narrative and the unfurling of our own experiences as narrative.

Also, as a Shakespearean, I am contractually obligated to point out that the title of the story--which is also the title of the obscure English novel that the American woman reads--comes from near the end of As You Like It, where the old Duke tells everyone to dance and partake of the "rustic revelry" associated with the play's happy ending:

Meantime, forget this new-fall'n dignity
And fall into our rustic revelry.
Play, music! And you, brides and bridegrooms all,
With measure heap'd in joy, to the measures fall.

I'll let you, dear reader, arrive at your own conclusions as to what this allusion signifies. But in any event you should definitely go read the story. If you have a subscription you can get it online here. Otherwise, look it up!

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