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

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Promotion and Tenure

It is almost August, which means that we're heading into the last weeks of summer. The pace is picking up noticeably in the main departmental office, and before too long we'll be up to our necks in the business of the Fall 2011 semester.

As we hurtle headlong towards another semester, I'd like to pause here to acknowledge and congratulate the five faculty members in our department who were promoted and granted tenure as the result of a year-long review process that was concluded at the end of last Spring. When the Fall term begins, in just a few short weeks, each of these distinguished scholar-teachers will officially hold the title of Associate Professor of English.

Five is an unusually large number of people to have come up for promotion and tenure in a given year, even for a comprehensive department like ours. In our case, these promotions can be seen as an echo-effect of a significant generational turnover among the faculty that took place, roughly, between 2003 and 2008. We did a lot of fantastic hiring 5-10 years ago, in other words, and what we are seeing now is that once-junior faculty members are becoming scholarly powerhouses, leaders in their respective fields. As a result, we are quickly ceasing to be the conspicuously young department I joined (as an old fogy!) in 2006, and we are becoming increasingly a department dominated by energetic, accomplished mid-career scholars. I see the past year's promotions (and those of the year before, and the ones I hope to see in the remaining two years of my term in the head's office) not only as occasions to celebrate the achievements of my impressive and deserving colleagues, but also as part of an important watershed moment for the department as a whole.

I say all this by way of context, to explain what it means to me to be able to post this here. But ultimately the achievements that matter are those of our newly-minted Associate Professors. So without further ado, here they are (in alphabetical order):

*Anustup Basu, who specializes in film and theory, works on subjects relating to the intersection of contemporary nationalism and the globalization of information and entertainment. His book Bollywood in the Age of New Media: The Geo-Televisual Aesthetic was published by the University of Edinburgh Press in 2010. Basu is also himself an active film-maker, having been Executive Producer, for example, for the award-winning 2008 film Herbert.

*Jose B. Capino is a scholar of film and theater. His current and recent scholarly work engages post-colonial theory and globalization by examining cross-cultural fantasies and projections in US and Philippine cinema. His book, Dream factories of a Former Colony: American Fantasies, Philippine Cinema, was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2010.

*Eleanor Courtemanche is an expert in Victorian literature and culture whose work emphasizes in particular the relationships between novelistic fiction and economic theory. Courtemanche's book, The 'Invisible Hand' and British Fiction, 1818-1860: Adam Smith, Political Economy, and the Genre of Realism was published in 2011, by Palgrave, as part of their "Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture" book series.

*Hina Nazar specializes in what might be called the intellectual history of the British novel in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even more broadly, her work reads the early history of the novel in order to recast a tradition of moral philosophy that begins with the Enlightenment and remains enshrined in the praxis of contemporary critical theory. Nazar's book, Enlightened Sentiments: Judgment and Autonomy in the Age of Sensibility, is currently in production and will be published by Fordham University Press during the upcoming academic year.

*Spencer Schaffner, a member of our outstanding writing-studies faculty, studies the shaping role that writing practices and technologies play in the production of knowledge and our experiences of the world. His book Binocular Vision: The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Filed Guides, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press just a few weeks ago (which means, dear reader, that you can find a fuller account just by scrolling down a bit).

Congratulations, one and all!

Thursday, July 14, 2011


I may be jumping the gun here--since I'm actually not sure whether or not Alex Shakar has received the advance copies of his new novel Luminarium or not--but I happen to have visual proof that copies are stacked up and ready to ship. Here, in all their solid, hard-bound splendor, are copies of the book, sitting in the offices of Soho Press, the book's publisher:

I've pre-ordered a copy and can't wait to get my paws on it. I read this book in a penultimate draft, in my capacity as department head, a year or so ago. I expected to be reading it as work--that is, I was expecting to maintain the kind of evaluative distance I keep when reading works of schoalrship. Instead, I found myself reading it for pure pleasure before long. In the end, even though I was reading it in a clumsily-bound typescript, I would up thinking it was one of the best novels I had read all year. The book went through another round of revisions after that, so I expect the version I read bound later this summer to be even better. Hence my excitement.

I fully expect this book to be A Big Deal. Earlier this summer, I posted here about a starred, pre-publication review in Publishers Weekly. Here is bit from another starred, early review, this time from Booklist:

"In his long-awaited second novel after the razor-sharp The Savage Girl (2001), Shakar takes measure of our post-9/11 existential confusion in a technology-avid but sciencephobic, ‘ever-complexifying world.’ A radiantly imaginative social critic, Shakar is also a knowledgeable and intrepid explorer of metaphysical and neurological mysteries. With beguiling characters trapped in ludicrous and revelatory predicaments, this is a cosmic, incisively funny kaleidoscopic tale of loss, chaos, and yearning."

I've pasted that in from the Soho Press page dedicated to the book, where you can place an order, read an excerpt, and see other blurbs and a plot synopsis.

Here, also pasted in, is the synopsis, though I have to say that I really don't think plot summary does this particular novel justice at all. It leaves out everything that makes this novel great: the quality of the prose, the pacing, the shifts in tone between earnest and cynical, the quality of observation and description, and so on. Anyway, here goes:


Fred Brounian and his twin brother, George, were once co-CEOs of a New York City software company devoted to the creation of utopian virtual worlds. Now, in 2006, as two wars rage and the fifth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, George is in a coma, control of the company has been wrenched away by a military contracting conglomerate, and Fred is broke. Near despair, he’s led by an attractive woman, Mira, to a neurological study promising “peak” experiences and a newfound spiritual outlook on life. As the study progresses, lines between subject and experimenter blur, and reality becomes increasingly porous. Meanwhile, Fred finds himself caught up in what seems at first a cruel prank: a series of bizarre emails and texts that purport to be from his comatose brother.

Moving between the research hospitals of Manhattan, the streets of a meticulously planned Florida city, the neighborhoods of Brooklyn and the uncanny, immersive worlds of urban disaster simulation; threading through military listserv geek-speak, Hindu cosmology, the maxims of outmoded self-help books and the latest neuro-scientific breakthroughs, Luminarium is a brilliant exploration of the way we live now, a novel that’s as much about the role technology and spirituality play in shaping our reality as it is about the undying bond between brothers, and the redemptive possibilities of love."

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Binocular Vision

I have not laid eyes on the physical book yet--faculty scatter over the summer and it is harder than normal for me to keep abreast of every development--but it appears that Spencer Schaffner's book Binocular Vision: The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Field Guides has just been printed by The University of Massachusetts Press.

Since UMass Press has strengths in environmental studies as well as in the field of book history, I think you'll agree that they are highly appropriate publishers for Schaffner's work. Here is the book description, pasted in here from the press's website:

"From meadows to marshlands, seashores to suburbs, field guides help us identify many of the things we find outdoors: plants, insects, mammals, birds. In these texts, nature is typically represented, both in words and images, as ordered, clean, and untouched by human technology and development. This preoccupation with species identification, however, has produced an increasingly narrow view of nature, a “binocular vision,” that separates the study of individual elements from a range of larger, interconnected environmental issues. In this book, Spencer Schaffner reconsiders this approach to nature study by focusing on how birds are presented in field guides.

Starting with popular books from the late nineteenth century and moving ultimately to the electronic guides of the current day, Binocular Vision contextualizes birdwatching field guides historically, culturally, and in terms of a wide range of important environmental issues. Schaffner questions the assumptions found in field guides to tease out their ideological workings. He argues that the sanitized world represented in these guides misleads readers by omitting industrial landscapes and so-called nuisance birds, leaving users of the guides disconnected from environmental degradation and its impact on bird populations.

By putting field guides into direct conversation with concerns about species conservation, environmental management, the human alteration of the environment, and the problem of toxic pollution, Binocular Vision is a field guide to field guides that takes a novel perspective on how we think about and interact with the world around us."

Congrats, Spencer (wherever you are)!

I linked to Spencer's standard departmental profile above, but those seeking a more in-depth Schaffner experience should also visit the web-space he maintains. Quite a lot there to see, if you poke around...

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