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, June 10, 2011

New Emeriti

Two long-standing members of our faculty opted to retire at the end of this past Spring semester. Neither of them wanted much fanfare--no parties, no speeches--but each of them will definitely be missed around here.

I hope they will forgive me for the fanfare represented by this post!


First up is Leon Chai, who joined our faculty as an Assistant Professor in 1984.

Professor Chai is the author of four well-regarded books on literature and philosophy from the Enlightenment through the post-Romantic era. The most recent of these—entitled Romantic Theory: Forms of Reflexivity in the Revolutionary Era—was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2006. This amounts, in volume and quality, to a publication record of the first order in a field where two or three well-regarded single-author books is the normal benchmark of achievement for a highly-successful scholarly career.

But, as anyone who knows him would certainly agree, this toting up of scholarly achievements leaves out most of what has been most distinctive about Chai's remarkable, twenty-eight year career in our department: his unique (and thus irreplaceable) polymathic virtuosity and his total commitment to intellectual pursuits. Chai has taught twenty-two different classes here at Illinois—everything from a 100-level introduction to Poetry on up—and many of our very best undergraduate students, impressed by his care with texts and by his philosophical seriousness, have sought him out and tyaken every class he offered during their time as majors. Where most professors are content to teach within some narrow band of specialization for their entire careers, Chai has always seemed ready to take on anything, anywhere, from the 18th century through the present. In recent years he has been a valuable mentor for junior faculty in both British and American literature of the 18th and 19th centuries, and (because our advising office wanted more classes on contemporary fiction) he recently taught a very successful undergraduate class on the novels of Don DiLillo. Now, that's range! Always a very well-regarded undergraduate teacher, Chai has also over the years served on many, many graduate committees, and again his polymathic interests have also made him an especially versatile contributor to our graduate program's mentoring work.

Professor Chai has always been motivated more by intellectual and scholarly curiosity than by careerism or more reputational aspects of faculty status. He is retiring, as I understand it, in order to follow his own intellectual interests and pleasures full-time. What this means, of course, is that there will be more path-breaking books in the future: he is assuredly planning to continue pursuing his research agenda after retirement.


Our other newly-minted Professor Emerita is Alice Deck, who first joined our faculty as an Assistant Professor in 1983 and was, until 2002, jointly appointed in the Department of English and the African American Studies Program.

Professor Deck has been, for many years, a leader working to further our campus's excellence in the field of African American literary studies. This during a period of time in which diversity was not always a top campus priority and in which numbers of African American faculty were often considerably smaller across campus than they are now. This has never been easy work, but it has been extremely important to our campus.

Professor Deck has taught African American literature to generations of students, and her efforts to encourage interest in African and African American literatures are reflected in the many conferences she has helped to organize in conjunction with African American studies and the Center for African Studies over the years. For instance, in 1985-86 she organized a conference on Zora Neale Hurston, in 1991 she helped put together a symposium on African life writing, in 1994 she helped to organize a conference on reconstructing the cultural meaning of Africa, and in 2000 she organized an interdisciplinary conference on women in Africa and the African diaspora. In recent years she has organized informal departmental readings on the birthdays of Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison each year that have been well attended by current and former students. Professor Deck has undertaken these outreach tasks in the spirit of an educator, and her contributions in this regard have been most welcome and will be missed.

Professor Deck plans to pursue this outreach agenda after retirement by ramping up her efforts as a publishing scholar. Most immediately, she is working on a book that will be called "Against the Tyrannies of Silence: Black Women's Autobiography in Africa and America," and her first order of business after retirement will be to complete this work. She also has plans, she tells me, for future work on Toni Morrison and on the Mammy figure in US popular culture.


At the risk of sounding too much like Jimmy Stewart: it is quite humbling, especially for a scholar like me who has moved around a bit, to consider the sustained impact that Professors Chai and Deck have had upon generations of students and colleagues at the University of Illinois. Careers like theirs mean so much, cumulatively, for the university and the local community alike. I am pleased that they are both planning to remain active as scholars, not least because it means that we'll have the chance to run into them from time to time in the library! If you do happen to see either of them there, please join me in offering thanks, congratulations, and best wishes.

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