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, April 27, 2011

Administrative Professionals Day

Administrative Professionals Day falls each year on the Wednesday of the last week in April. So: today! As is the custom, I had a nice lunch with the staff who work with me on a daily basis in EB 208.

Despite the clunky title and corporate pedigree, this is a day I'm really happy to celebrate. Because--as every single one of the 150-200 people who teach in the English department in a given year can attest--we have a great staff in our department. I work most closely with the main office staff, Becky Moss, Amy Rumsey, and Deb Stauffer, and I hope I've made it clear to them, over and over and over again, how much I appreciate their help with everything always. And I mean everything. Always. I don't know if they read this blog, but I kind of hope they stumble upon it... And of course this is not to slight the great contributions made by staff in other departmental offices, who also do an incredible job helping to manage the leviathan that is our department.

This whole week is administrative professionals week, in fact, so if you are in the English Building and read this, go and say thanks!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

3rd annual Undergraduate Research Colloquium

Last night I had the distinct pleasure of attending the third annual departmental undergraduate research colloquium, which was held, this time, at Authors Corner in the Illini Union Bookstore. This is an event that is dear to my heart, and that has been slightly different from year to year. Last year, for instance, the event featured several students presenting creative work--stories and poems. This year, presenters were advanced literature students presenting original research related to honors or independent study projects.

This year's event also had a distinctly different feel because of its setting: in the IUB, with a fancy-looking, free-standing podium, instead of in a charmingly-dilapidated classroom in the English Building. The podium, the fact that famous visiting writers present in the same space, and the fact that everyone had to leave the familiar confines of the English Building all combined to made the event feel a bit more formal than it otherwise might have, I thought. This was a Good Thing, actually, because presenting work as an expert to an audience consisting of fellow-students and faculty is in fact pretty different from what students typically experience in a classroom. The venue made it feel like a special event, and that is exactly as it should be.

Our presenters (Adam Sadik, Shannon Jilek, Kate Kinsella, Brenda L. Rodriguez, and Kirsten Mendoza) were great. And you couldn't help but be struck by the range of their intellectual engagements. Papers were given on Virginia Woolf, on Diana Abu-Jaber's novel Crescent (which I am now planning to read), on gendered conceptions of creativity in Joyce and Faulkner, on constructions of race in Jacobean court literature, and on gender roles in Chicana feminist literature. This variety, of course, is indicative of what is great about a large, comprehensive department like ours--there are so many kinds of instruction available, so many interesting scholarly approaches on offer at any one time, that any curious student can find something to match his or her interests.

One of my favorite moments of the evening came when, during the Q&A session after the presentations, a student asked the panelists if they thought the experience of conducting real, original research had been worth it. They all thought it was, and urged other English majors to seek out similar opportunities, and Adam in particular enthused about how much fun it can be to get past the intimidation factor of reading secondary scholarship and about how the experience of becoming and expert changes your disposition toward reading and knowledge for the better. This is a really important point, and it certainly gets at the heart of what I want our majors to get from their studies. Adam, though, was also much funnier than I'm being, and I have an image to prove it. Here is a photograph of the other panelists reacting to him at what I think was this very moment:

This is one of those times where I'm proud to be part of our department--of our students and of the teachers that have helped to pique their curiosity and to guide their work. I'd also like to say thanks here (and congrats) to the student presenters, and thanks too to Adrienne Pickett, Lori Newcomb, and members of the English Student Leadership Council for organizing the event.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Politics of Anxiety in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

Justine Murison came by my office this morning with an advance copy of her new book, The Politics of Anxiety in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Hot off the presses! And so beautiful!

The book is published by Cambridge University Press as part of a very distinguished series: Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture. Here is the book description, pasted in from the CUP website:

"For much of the nineteenth century, the nervous system was a medical mystery, inspiring scientific studies and exciting great public interest. Because of this widespread fascination, the nerves came to explain the means by which mind and body related to each other. By the 1830s, the nervous system helped Americans express the consequences on the body, and for society, of major historical changes. Literary writers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe, used the nerves as a metaphor to re-imagine the role of the self amidst political, social and religious tumults, including debates about slavery and the revivals of the Second Great Awakening. Representing the 'romance' of the nervous system and its cultural impact thoughtfully and, at times, critically, the fictional experiments of this century helped construct and explore a neurological vision of the body and mind. Murison explains the impact of neurological medicine on nineteenth-century literature and culture."

Great news for a rainy Friday. Congratulations, Justine!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Kevin T. Early Memorial Scholarship

Earlier this week I met with Yarah Kudaimi, the winner of this year's Kevin T. Early Memorial Scholarship. This award, given in honor of Kevin T. Early, who was a promising young poet, goes annually to recognize the best poetry submitted by a U of I Freshman. Submissions (a total of 38 this year) are judged anonymously by members of our creative writing faculty.

It is a treat for me to be able to speak with each year's winner, because good, young poets are pretty much guaranteed to be thoughtful, interesting people. Ms. Kudaimi, who has not yet declared a major, is certainly no exception to this rule. She reads Arabic, for example, and when I asked her what poets she liked to read she mentioned Charles Simic right away. How many Freshman have a favorite contemporary poet, I wonder? Is this some new trend?

Ms. Kudaimi also struck me as very self-possessed: in addition to telling me who she liked to read, she asked me who I enjoy reading (I told her, for those keeping score at home, that I liked Christopher Marlowe, James Wright, and Wallace Stevens). The faculty judge of this contest praised Kudaimi's poems for their "clear voice, compelling detail," and "sense of lived experience." Also for their concision, their avoidance of abstraction, and their "well-shaped" lines. Very Impressive, all around. So: congratulations!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Lying Brain: Lie Detection in Science and Science Fiction

It has been a couple of weeks since I've posted here, and I want to apologize for that. I do try to keep this updated pretty regularly, and the department certainly provides me with ample material. First we had Spring Break and then I came down with a cold, and between those two things I have been swimming upstream trying to catch up. That said, I think you'll agree that I'm returning with a bang.


I am very pleased to announce here the arrival of the first advanced copies of Melissa Littlefield's new book The Lying Brain: Lie Detection in Science and Science Fiction, which has just been printed by the University of Michigan Press. I have a copy of this book with me right now, and it looks beautiful!

Here is the book description, pasted in the press's website:

"Real and imagined machines, including mental microscopes, thought translators, and polygraphs, have long promised to detect deception in human beings. Now, via fMRI and EEG, neuroscientists seem to have found what scientists, lawyers, and law enforcement officials have sought for over a century: foolproof lie detection. But are these new lie detection technologies any different from their predecessors? The Lying Brain is the first book to explore the cultural history of an array of lie detection technologies: their ideological assumptions, the scientific and fictional literatures that create and market them, and the literacies required for their interpretation.

By examining a rich archive of materials about lie detection—from science to science fiction—The Lying Brain demonstrates the interconnections of science, literature, and popular culture in the development and dissemination of deception detection in the American cultural imagination. As Melissa Littlefield demonstrates, neuroscience is not building a more accurate lie detector; it is simply recycling centuries-old ideologies about deception and its detection."

Littlefield--who also has an appointment in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health--here uses the analytical tools associated with literary and cultural analysis in order to examine how scientific thinking around the fantasy of lie detection gets shaped and disseminated within various scientific and popular discourses. This work puts Littlefield at the leading edge of an emergent field of humanistic inquiry that I would characterize as a real departmental strength: Literature and Science. It is especially appropriate for us to be strong in this area, too, given the longstanding tradition of excellence in science and engineering fields here at The University of Illinois.

Congratulations, Melissa!

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