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, August 29, 2011

The Hands of Strangers

Though the publication date is supposedly October, I happen to know that advance copies of Janice Harrington's new book, The Hands of Strangers: Poems from the Nursing Home have arrived. That's because I've just finished reading it, and it is terrific--sometimes quite harrowing, always thoughtful, plain-spoken but formal and artful, moving, and even in places playful.

The book is published by BOA Editions, an interesting and successful not-for-profit publishing house dedicated (as their mission statement says) to fostering "readership and appreciation of contemporary literature. By identifying, cultivating, and publishing both new and established poets and selecting authors of unique literary talent, BOA brings high quality literature to the public." The Hands of Strangers is being published as part of their "American Poets Continuum Series," a prestigious publication series which has in the past published Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning volumes as well as the works of a great many prominent poets (including our own Brigit Pegeen Kelly).

Here is a description of the book, pasted in from the BOA Editions website:

"Janice N. Harrington's debut collection, Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone, won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize Contest and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Now she returns with a tightly focused collection that never veers away from its subject matter: the inner-workings of a nursing home.

The Hands of Strangers portrays the tensions and moments of grace between aged nursing home residents and their healthcare workers. What does it mean to be a nurses’ aide in a nursing home, the lowest of the low, the typically-female worker who provides physical care for the devalued bodies of the elderly? What is it to live one’s remaining life on a county ward as an indigent elder? The poems show women in motion: they lift bodies, push wheelchairs, give treatments, and perform the myriad tasks of caretaking. The poems show aides as anonymous figures laboring under routines, time clocks, and a distant medical hierarchy. They tell also tell the stories of how the nursing home industry reshapes lives, bodies, and identities of both aides and the aged.

Janice N. Harrington's first job was working as a nurses’ aide while still in high school in the seventies. She says, 'Like many of the 'girls' I worked with, I was young and inexperienced in a workplace that demanded empathy, skill, and compassion for the needs and stories of the elderly. I worked my way through college as a nurses’ aide. I wrote The Hands of Strangers because I cannot forget the 'girls' I worked with or the 'residents' under my care. I haven’t forgotten what I saw, heard, felt, or learned. Human stories hide behind the walls, the national statistics, and the isolations of institutionalized aging. I wanted to share some of those stories.'"

Congratulations, Janice!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Introducing our new assistant professors

Classes began here this week, and there is always something energizing about the start of a new semester. The campus--somewhat sleepy-feeling in the summer--seems bustling and even frenzied by contrast. Everyone is full or purpose, busy figuring things out, not yet settled into routines.

In keeping with this seasonal spirit of renewal, I'd like to introduce here the two new Assistant Professors who have joined our department this Fall.

*Manisha Basu joins our ranks this year as an Assistant Professor in the area of postcolonial literatures and theory.

Dr. Basu specializes in Anglophone Indian and African fiction. Her work is sophisticated and theoretically informed, and her research takes up the ways that postcolonial discourse (in India and in English-language fiction by Indian writers abroad) is being renegotiated as Hindu nationalism comes into contact with pressures and rewards associated with neoliberal globalization. She is also working on a comparative project examining the literary reverberations of religious/ethnic partition in India/Pakistan and post-civil-war Nigeria.

Because Dr. Basu has been a Visiting faculty member for the past few years, she already has a very impressive teaching record at UIUC. In addition to being exceptionally versatile (she has taught introductory theory classes required by our majors, classes in post-colonial Anglophone literatures, and classes in African fiction that we cross-list with the Center for African Studies), she has been highly effective by all measures (including my own personal observation). Basu has, for instance, been on the Center for Teaching Excellence's student evaluation based List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by their Students for every semester she has taught here.

*We are also now joined by Andrew Gaedtke, an Assistant Professor specializing in modern and contemporary British literature.

Dr. Gaedtke's research uses an archive of psychoanalytic case studies to uncover structuring idea about technologically-inflected paranoia that also loom large in modernist and postmodern novels. It studies, therefore, the cultural impact of technological innovation on the experience of subjectivity and, in doing so, offers a new framework for understanding the exploration of mental states and identity in experimental modernist and postmodern fiction.

Gaedtke's deep knowledge of leading-edge cognitive and psychoanalytic theory complements (without replicating) the expertise of our other faculty in British modernism and dovetails nicely with research agendas being carried out in cognitive/literary/cultural studies by faculty in other areas of the department (such as, for instance, Melissa Littlefield). Gaedtke, who received his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, comes to us with considerable teaching experience, too. Like Dr. Basu, he promises to be a versatile contributor to our curriculum, teaching a variety of courses in his subject area at all levels.

I am delighted to welcome Drs. Basu and Gaedtke aboard!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Milton and the Post-Secular Present

Feisal Mohamed informs me that he has just received, from Stanford University Press, the advance copies of his new book Milton and the Post-Secular Present: Ethics, Politics, Terrorism.

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

"Our post-secular present, argues Feisal Mohamed, has much to learn from our pre-secular past. Through a consideration of poet and polemicist John Milton, this book explores current post-secularity, an emerging category that it seeks to clarify and critique. It examines ethical and political engagement grounded in belief, with particular reference to the thought of Alain Badiou, Jacques Derrida, Jürgen Habermas, and Gayatri C. Spivak. Taken to an extreme, such engagement produces the cult of the suicide bomber. But the suicide bomber has also served as a convenient bogey for those wishing to distract us from the violence in Western and Christian traditions and for those who would dismiss too easily the vigorous iconoclasm that belief can produce. More than any other poet, Milton alerts us to both anti-humane and liberationist aspects of belief and shows us relevant dynamics of language by which such commitment finds expression."

Mohamed also maintains a blog associated with the Huffington Post, where he has put a brief excerpt from the book. You can find the excerpt by clicking here, or you can click here to find the homepage of the blog itself.

Congratulations, Feisal!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Changing of the Guard

August 16 is the start date for academic-year appointments here. And that goes, too, for internal administrative positions of the variety filled by faculty members. Today, therefore, marks the changing of the guard. Rob Barrett has been Associate Head of the department since August 16 of 2008 (which is also when my own term as Dept Head began). And, as of today, the department's new Associate Head is Spencer Schaffner.

Today also marks day one of LeAnne Howe's stint as Director of Creative Writing, a post filled last Spring by Alex Shakar and last Fall by Audrey Petty.

English professors, as scholars and even as teachers, typically thrive on single-minded intellectual focus, and so we tend to find administrative work (with its many, sometimes-jostling, simultaneous demands) a bit discombobulating. But people take administrative positions on because they are good colleagues and responsible departmental citizens, and because they acknowledge having a stake in the bigger picture, too (as we all inevitably do): in the well-being of the department and its members, and in the importance of the work we all share.

You can probably tell, if you are reading between the lines, that I have close, personal familiarity with the discombobulation to which I refer above, and I am correspondingly grateful to my colleagues who are willing to accept challenging departmental administrative posts.

I'd like, therefore, to use this space to thank Audrey, Alex, LeAnne, and Spencer for their willingness to work on all our behalves. At the risk of sounding sappy or maudlin, I feel honored to be your colleague (and the same, of course, goes for all of the other departmental officers whose terms are ongoing).

I'd also like to thank Rob Barrett, in particular, for three years of dedicated work in the next office over. He has been a confidante and a sounding-board to me, and he has helped us as a department weather more staffing crises than I care to recall. His (almost!) unshakeable good-spirits have meant a great deal to me and, I know, to the staff in English 208. After all, what other Associate Head would have allowed me to post a picture to the blog of him dressed as Silenus? Seriously, though, Rob has been a superb associate head--patient, meticulous, organized, on top of things--and it has been my privilege work with him.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Shakar's in Vogue

It is not every day that somebody from English gets a write-up in Vogue. But it is this day! Here is a link to a short write-up of late summer novels that features Alex Shakar's Luminarium.

Funny, my own scholarly books on early modern British politics and literature have so far escaped the notice of Vogue's editors for some reason. Seriously, though, I'm looking forward to tracking this novel's progress in the coming months. You can bet I'll be posting here about the further adventures of Alex Shakar in the months to come, as Luminarum gets taken up and reviewed across the country and around the world.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

ISAS book prize

Just a few days ago, at the annual conference of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS), Renée Trilling's book The Aesthetics of Nostalgia: Historical Representation in Old English Verse was awarded the ISAS prize for best first book.

This prize is awarded every other year, so the pool of nominees actually represents a couple of years worth of scholarship. Winning it is a very nice honor both for Renée and for our department.

Book prizes prizes such as this one--those given out by scholarly organizations like the ISAS, in other words--mean a great deal because they represent the evaluative judgment of the precisely the scholarly community best equipped to judge the merits and contribution of a given work. This award says that Trilling's book is deemed by experts in Anglo-Saxon literature and culture to make an unusually valuable scholarly contribution, and also that Trilling herself is a scholar to be reckoned with in her chosen field of Anglo-Saxon studies.

Congratulations, Renée!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What Does Fiction Know?

Just a short post today, with a link to a new piece by Richard Powers. The essay, which I link to at the bottom of this post, has recently been published in Places, an interesting online online journal which describes itself as follows:

"Founded 28 years ago by architecture faculty at MIT and Berkeley, Places is an interdisciplinary journal of contemporary architecture, landscape and urbanism, with particular emphasis on the public realm as physical place and social ideal. Places is a 501(c)3 organization, published by the Design History Foundation and supported by a consortium of U.S. universities as well as organizational and individual sponsors."

The Powers piece is on Berlin, on the relationship between fiction and experience, and--of course!--about much more. Check it out here: "What Does Fiction Know?"

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