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

Monday, February 28, 2011

Women Writers of the American West, 1833-1927

A new book from Nina Baym--who is, ahem, Swanlund Chair and Center for Advanced Study Professor English Emerita, and Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences--is an important event in American studies. So I'm very, very pleased to be able to post here about the arrival of Women Writers of the American West, 1833-1927, Baym's new book, which has just been printed by the University of Illinois Press. You can order if from the press by clicking the hyperlink above, or you can order it from Amazon here (though they list March 1 as the release date).

Here is the book description, pasted in from the Press' website:

"Women Writers of the American West, 1833–1927 recovers the names and works of hundreds of women who wrote about the American West during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some of them long forgotten and others better known novelists, poets, memoirists, and historians such as Willa Cather and Mary Austin Holley. Nina Baym mined literary and cultural histories, anthologies, scholarly essays, catalogs, advertisements, and online resources to debunk critical assumptions that women did not publish about the West as much as they did about other regions. Elucidating a substantial body of nearly 650 books of all kinds by more than 300 writers, Baym reveals how the authors showed women making lives for themselves in the West, how they represented the diverse region, and how they represented themselves.

Baym accounts for a wide range of genres and geographies, affirming that the literature of the West was always more than cowboy tales and dime novels. Nor did the West consist of a single landscape, as women living in the expanses of Texas saw a different world from that seen by women in gold rush California. Although many women writers of the American West accepted domestic agendas crucial to the development of families, farms, and businesses, they also found ways to be forceful agents of change, whether by taking on political positions, deriding male arrogance, or, as their voluminous published works show, speaking out when they were expected to be silent."

Congratulations, Nina!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Two events from last week.

Just a quick post about two departmental events this past week, each of which highlights in a different way the vibrancy of the work that goes on here. No pictures this time, I'm sad to say.

First, last Tuesday we held our third annual Kirkpatrick Symposium. This event--which is made possible by the extraordinary generosity of Clayton and Thelma Kirkpatrick--typically features three speakers from very different areas of the department who each present work-in-progress keyed to a single core theme. This Spring's keyword was adaptation, and attendees were treated to three fascinating papers from different disciplinary perspectives that all dealt in different ways with questions pertaining to questions of cultural adaptation (the word's evolutionary meaning was not on the front burner in the talks, but was brought forward in the Q&A afterward).

I don't want to do an injustice to my colleagues by offering clunky summaries of elegant arguments, but perhaps I can offer just a taste. Anustup Basu presented a very entertaining account, complete with movie posters, of how stories from western literature and film (from Shakespeare to Tango and Cash) had to be adapted to make sense within pre-Bollywood Indian cinema. Then Kate Vieira offered a portion of an ethnographic study she is working on concerning literacy and assimilation in two groups of Portuguese-speaking immigrants in a town in Massachusetts. Finally, Janice Harrington presented some poems that she is working on that deal with the life and art of Horace Pippin, and that foregrounded questions about his adaptation and about the kinds of adaptation and accommodation involved in the process of writing poetry inspired by such a figure. All three were fascinating, and very well-received. speaking as a literary critic myself, it is really a treat to hear smart presentations presented from withing the other disciplines--in this case, Cinema Studies, Writing Studies, and Creative Writing--that we have in English here. Thanks, too, to Susan Koshy for moderating.

I was myself unable to attend the second of the events I wanted to mention here--this is a university where there are always too many events to keep up with!--but I wanted to highlight it here nevertheless because it suggests something about the liveliness of our graduate program and about graduate student/faculty interactions in our department. On Saturday, the British Modernities Group held a graduate student conference on "New 'British' Geographies." You can see the program here (and note that this event was co-sponsored by the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory).

The Kirkpatrick Symposium plays a special role in our department's seasonal round, and happens only once a year. And though there are several faculty/grad student working groups in the department, it is not every day that one of them hosts a conference like the one last weekend. But it is by no means unusual for us to have several enticing talks and panels on offer during a given week. In fact, that is pretty much the norm here, thanks to the aforementioned Unit, the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, the Trowbridge Office on American Literature (run by Gordon Hutner) and all of the myriad events run by other humanities departments on campus and other affiliated programs.

I was told, when I first visited this campus in Spring 2006, that there were always so many intellectual events on campus that nobody could even keep up. That has certainly turned out to be true, in my experience, and we wouldn't have it any other way.

Monday, February 14, 2011

English Students' Resource Week

If you've been in the English Building lately you've probably seen the posters for last week's English Students' Resource Week, a series of events set up by members of the English Student Leadership Council along with Lori Newcomb and Adrienne Pickett. A great idea, really: a set of events designed to spread information about campus and departmental resources specifically of use to our majors and also to spark conversations about how to get the most out of the undergraduate English major experience.

I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in one of the events, on Wednesday afternoon. Billed as a panel session on "Faculty Advice for English Majors," this was an event at the UIUC bookstore in which a panel of 5 English faculty members (including yours truly) spoke informally with students about teaching and learning in English. What this means in practice is that we all spoke about our teaching and research lives a bit, and discussed topics about the major and the discipline raised by student questions: how should students best use office hours? What is a professor's work week like? What makes a good student paper? What is the future of the job market for English PhD's looking like? What classes do professors enjoy teaching and why? That sort of thing. If you have a Facebook account, you can see a very short snippet of the event here, just to get the flavor. The picture at the top of this post is a shot of the panelists from this event, as is this one:

If you can watch the clip, you'll see that my colleagues (J.B. Capino, Janice Harrington, Justine Murison, and Kate Vieira) were totally charming (of course!). And I thought it was especially valuable for some of our students to have the chance to hear how their teachers think and talk about their classes.

The faculty are, of course, one resource for our students. Other events highlighted other kinds of resources for students, including each other. One of the events, accordingly, was designed to give English majors a chance to share each other's advice and experience without any faculty or advising office involvement at all. There was also a session designed to bring undergrads and graduate students into dialogue, and another more purely informational session designed to let students know about pre-professional and other resources available to students on our campus.

I think the members of the English Student Leadership Council have done something really wonderful here. Not only because of all the sage and practical advise that was given and taken last week, but also, and more generally, because these events all have the potential to adjust the way all sorts of people in the department understand what it means to be part of a large department. That is: we are all resources for each other, because none of us can teach or learn in a vacuum. Thanks to the members of the ESLC, thanks to Lori and Adrienne, and thanks to everyone who participated in one or another of these events. Let's do it again sometime!

Monday, February 7, 2011

LAS Teaching Awards

If you are a regular visitor to this blog, you will know that I often use this space to kvell about the excellence of our department's teaching. As I see it, we are a department committed to the idea that innovative research and superb teaching go hand in hand--that our best teachers are energized by active research agendas, that is, that engagement with smart students can be a spur to scholarship or creative activity. This, I believe, should be true for any department in a great public research university.

Anyway, this is all just preamble to announcing the latest installment of good news confirming the teaching chops of our faculty. This year, I am very pleased to say, we have had a winner in each of the three categories in which the college of Liberal Arts and Sciences gives out Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching awards. So, without further ado, I am pleased to share the following:

Catharine Gray has won an LAS Dean's Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

John Rubins has won an LAS Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching by Instructional Staff.

And Mary Unger has won an LAS Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching by Graduate Teaching Assistants.

Congratulations, all. And thanks, too, on behalf of our students!

Blog Archive