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

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

New Directions

One of the more exciting developments here of late has been the fact that our own Feisal Mohamed was awarded a Mellon New Directions Fellowship. The goal of these highly-competitive awards is to foster serious, well-informed, and innovative interdisciplinary humanities scholarship.

Here is the stated objective of the fellowship program, pasted in from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation website:

Serious interdisciplinary research often requires established scholar-teachers to pursue formal substantive and methodological training in addition to the PhD. New Directions Fellowships assist faculty members in the humanities, broadly understood to include the arts, history, languages, area studies, and zones of such fields as anthropology and geography that bridge the humanities and social sciences, who seek to acquire systematic training outside their own areas of special interest. The program is intended to enable strong scholars in the humanities to work on problems that interest them most, at an appropriately advanced level of sophistication. In addition to facilitating the work of individual faculty members, these awards should benefit humanistic scholarship more generally by encouraging the highest standards in cross-disciplinary research.

The university and the recipient's department should understand that New Directions Fellowships are primarily for advanced training in pursuit of a specific research agenda. Unlike other fellowship awards, this program does not aim to facilitate short-term outcomes, such as completion of a book. Rather, New Directions Fellowships are meant to be viewed as longer-term investments in scholars' intellectual range and productivity.

Mohamed is using this award to study law this year and next, with the ultimate goal of mastering the legal matters pertaining to his ongoing interest in the controversial nature of religious toleration.

Those of you who have already seen his recent book, Milton and the Post-Secular Present, will understand how legal study marks an appropriate new direction for Mohamed's scholarly concerns. Mohamed is a trained specialist, above all, in seventeenth-century literature and the poetry and prose of John Milton. But Milton was in his own right a sophisticated social and political thinker whose complex and sometimes conflicted writings on liberty (understood in a variety of contexts) continue to be relevant in our own era. Mohamed--committed above all to the idea that rigorous humanistic scholarship should yield insight about politics, civics, and ethics--has never been shy about carrying his historical and literary expertise into the arenas of of current debate. And in addition to his peer-reviewed scholarship, he regularly writes about current events from the perspective of a scholar, in venues such as Dissent and the New York Times. Because conflicts about religious liberty and toleration so frequently imply knotty issues of law, legal study is an apt new direction for Mohamed's multi-faceted, ongoing, scholarly research.

In addition to being a great opportunity for Feisal, this award reflects very well on the University of Illinois and on our department: Mellon-funded research opportunities are highly competitive.

I probably should have reported on this several months ago. I was not sure, when I first learned about the award, when the announcement would be made public, and then other items of good news seem to have crowded in upon me. Still, this is a very big deal, and I'm happy now to be able to offer public congratulations here to go with the private congratulations I offered Feisal earlier. Belatedly, then: congratulations!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Incomplete List for Spring 2011

It is time once again for me to congratulate the many grad students, instructors, lecturers, and professors in our department whose student evaluation scores for Spring 2011 have landed them on our Center For Teaching Excellence's latest List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by their Students.

For those who are not familiar with these lists, they are based solely on student evaluation numbers. Each semester's list used to be called the Incomplete List (because not all classes on campus each semester have student evaluation reports), and of course anyone who cares about pedagogy knows that student evaluations are only one of many ways to evaluate effective teaching. So the list is also incomplete in that the data it is based on is incomplete as a way to assess teaching.

Still, the big block of names from English that appear on this list each semester is a direct reflection of the fact that many, many, many of our students feel exceptionally well-served by their classes. That is obviously a Good Thing. And each semester's list makes manifest the remarkable depth of teaching we have in our department: there are relatively new graduate students on this list as well as highly-distinguished senior faculty members, and people are here for teaching everything from 100-level writing classes as well as 500-level graduate. The list runs the gamut from A (Alderfer) to Z (Zink). And remember, many of the people listed here actually show up for more than one class.

Another thing I like about the periodic publication of Incomplete Lists is that each one offers the chance to recognize a bunch of teachers who have worked hard and had considerable classroom success. Strong teaching is key to who we are and what we do, so I like having the opportunity to praise it!

And so, without further ado, here are the instructors from English who appear on the so-called Incomplete List for classes they taught in Spring 2011.

Sarah Alderfer, Iryce Baron, Ben Bascom, Manisha Basu, Rebeccah Bechtold, Heather Blain, Lauren Marshall Bowen, T. J. Boynton, Sarah Cassinelli, Cody Caudill, Debojoy Chanda, Ezra Claverie, Jill Hamilton Clements, Dan Colson, Bethany Cooper, Mary Rose Cottingham, Leslie Crowell, Steve Davenport, Sarah Dennis, Norah Dick, Carrie Dickison, Lindsey Drager, Dennis Dullea, Patrick Fadely, Jill Fitzgerald, Kimberly Fonzo, Naida Garcia-Crespo, Shawn Gilmore, Philip Graham, Catharine Gray, Sarah Gray, John Griswold, Joe Grohens, Baron Haber, Andrew Hall, Jim Hansen, Gail Hapke, Ashley Hetrick, Marilyn Holguin, Ann Hubert, Sean Karns, David Kay, Brigit Kelly, Mary Lindsey, Melissa Littlefield, Trish Loughran, Mike Madonick, Vicki Mahaffey, Bob Markley, Julie McCormick, Patrick McGrath, Heather McLeer, Erin McQuiston, John Moore, Dave Morris, Justine Murison, Esther Nadolski, Tim Newcomb, Andrea Olinger, Curtis Perry, Julie Price, Paul Prior, Thierry Ramais, Franklin Ridgway, Jenica Roberts, Michael Rothberg, Vane Rouillon, John Rubins, Julia Saville, Spencer Schaffner, E. Jordon Sellers, Siobhan Somerville, Carol Spindel, Andrea Stevens, Eric Tanyavutti, Jessica Thom, Crystal Thomas, Kate Vieira, Elyse Vigiletti, Jonathan Vincent, Jason Vredenburg, Kathryn Walkiewicz, Daniel Wong, Elaine Wood, Amanda Zink.

Congratulations one and all on an important job well done.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The further adventures of Alex Shakar

Alex Shakar's novel Luminarium received a nice, positive review in the New York Times last week: "At times," the reviewer opines, Luminarium "reads like a Christopher Nolan or Wachowski brothers movie as scripted by Don DeLillo."

The book has also been written up in the AV Club, the Seattle Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Washington Post.

The Post review (which, to my delight, compares Shakar's novel to Richard Powers's terrific recent novel Generosity) opens with perhaps the best line a writer could ever dream of receiving in a review: "Days after finishing Alex Shakar’s Luminarium, I’m still stumbling around the house in a mixture of wonder and awe." So, dear reader, the moral of the story is simple: read Luminarium, but do not then try to operate heavy machinery.


And now see also this nice review in the LA Times.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Transit of Empire

The advance copies of Jodi Byrd's new book The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism have arrived! The book is published by the University of Minnesota Press, as part of an important book series called "First Peoples: New Directions in Indigenous Studies."

Last week, I wrote here about the recognition given to Robert Warrior and LeAnne Howe in the context of NAISA's prizes for the "Most Influential Books in Native American and Indigenous Studies of the First Decade of the Twenty-First Century." And now Byrd--who teaches in English and in American Indian Studies--adds to our strength and visibility in this field with a book that is likely to be enormously influential during the century's second decade.

Here is a book description, pasted in from the press' website: "In 1761 and again in 1769, European scientists raced around the world to observe the transit of Venus, a rare astronomical event in which the planet Venus passes in front of the sun. In The Transit of Empire, Jodi A. Byrd explores how indigeneity functions as transit, a trajectory of movement that serves as precedent within U.S. imperial history. Byrd argues that contemporary U.S. empire expands itself through a transferable “Indianness” that facilitates acquisitions of lands, territories, and resources.

Examining an array of literary texts, historical moments, and pending legislations—from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma’s vote in 2007 to expel Cherokee Freedmen to the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization bill—Byrd demonstrates that inclusion into the multicultural cosmopole does not end colonialism as it is purported to do. Rather, that inclusion is the very site of the colonization that feeds U.S. empire.

Byrd contends that the colonization of American Indian and indigenous nations is the necessary ground from which to reimagine a future where the losses of indigenous peoples are not only visible and, in turn, grieveable, but where indigenous peoples have agency to transform life on their own lands and on their own terms."

Congratulations, Jodi!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Poets and trustees

Two of our award-winning undergraduate poets--Rachel Mejak and Dan Klen--will read from their poetry at the University of Illinois Board of Trustees meeting on September 9. Mejak and Klen were selected to read because of their successes in the Spring Undergraduate Creative Writing Contests on campus. The readings will take place in open session, beginning at approximately 1:30 p.m. All are welcome to attend, if room permits.

NAISA's Most Influential Books

At an awards ceremony held at its most recent annual conference, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) awarded prizes to the "ten most influential books in Native American and Indigenous Studies of the first decade of the twenty-first century." I am delighted--but not at all surprised--to note that two of our faculty members appear on this impressive list.

*One of these most-influential books is Robert Warrior's 2005 book The People and the Word: Reading Native Nonfiction (University of Minnesota Press). Robert has an appointment in English, and he is also Director of our superb American Indian Studies program.

Here, pasted in, is the book description: "Much literary scholarship has been devoted to the flowering of Native American fiction and poetry in the mid-twentieth century. Yet, Robert Warrior argues, nonfiction has been the primary form used by American Indians in developing a relationship with the written word, one that reaches back much further in Native history and culture.

Focusing on autobiographical writings and critical essays, as well as communally authored and political documents, The People and the Word explores how the Native tradition of nonfiction has both encompassed and dissected Native experiences. Warrior begins by tracing a history of American Indian writing from the eighteenth century to the late twentieth century, then considers four particular moments: Pequot intellectual William Apess’s autobiographical writings from the 1820s and 1830s; the Osage Constitution of 1881; narratives from American Indian student experiences, including accounts of boarding school in the late 1880s; and modern Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday’s essay “The Man Made of Words,” penned during the politically charged 1970s. Warrior’s discussion of Apess’s work looks unflinchingly at his unconventional life and death; he recognizes resistance to assimilation in the products of the student print shop at the Santee Normal Training School; and in the Osage Constitution, as well as in Momaday’s writing, Warrior sees reflections of their turbulent times as well as guidance for our own.

Taking a cue from Momaday’s essay, which gives voice to an imaginary female ancestor, Ko-Sahn, Warrior applies both critical skills and literary imagination to the texts. In doing so, The People and the Word provides a rich foundation for Native intellectuals’ critical work, deeply entwined with their unique experiences."

*Also way up on the list (and remember, these are the most influential books of a decade) is the collectively-authored 2008 book Reasoning Together: The Native Critics Collective, published by the University of Oklahoma Press. This book features Robert Warrior and LeAnne Howe, who is a Professor in English as well as in American Indian Studies. This semester, LeAnne is also serving as Director of our Creative Writing program.

Here, once again, is a pasted-in book descriotion: "This collectively authored volume celebrates a group of Native critics performing community in a lively, rigorous, sometimes contentious dialogue that challenges the aesthetics of individual literary representation. Janice Acoose infuses a Cree reading of Canadian Cree literature with a creative turn to Cree language; Lisa Brooks looks at eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Native writers and discovers little-known networks among them; Tol Foster argues for a regional approach to Native studies that can include unlikely subjects such as Will Rogers; LeAnne Howe creates a fictional character, Embarrassed Grief, whose problematic authenticity opens up literary debates; Daniel Heath Justice takes on two prominent critics who see mixed-blood identities differently than he does in relation to kinship; Phillip Carroll Morgan uncovers written Choctaw literary criticism from the 1830s on the subject of oral performance; Kimberly Roppolo advocates an intertribal rhetoric that can form a linguistic foundation for criticism. Cheryl Suzack situates feminist theories within Native culture with an eye to applying them to subjugated groups across Indian Country; Christopher B. Teuton organizes Native literary criticism into three modes based on community awareness; Sean Teuton opens up new sites for literary performance inside prisons with Native inmates; Robert Warrior wants literary analysis to consider the challenges of eroticism; Craig S. Womack introduces the book by historicizing book-length Native-authored criticism published between 1986 and 1997, and he concludes the volume with an essay on theorizing experience.

Reasoning Together
proposes nothing less than a paradigm shift in American Indian literary criticism, closing the gap between theory and activism by situating Native literature in real-life experiences and tribal histories."

This well-deserved recognition for Robert and LeAnne further underscores what a remarkable group of scholars we have in the area of American Indian literary studies. In addition to Robert and LeAnne, there is Jodi Byrd, whose terrific forthcoming book I will soon have occasion to highlight in this space, and Robert Dale Parker, whose publications in this area I have had occasion to kvell about in the not-too-distant past. If there is a stronger faculty in this area anywhere, I'd like to see it!

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