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, December 20, 2012

Now with pictures

As promised, here is a picture of the cover of the latest issue of Ninth Letter.  You can find more information about the new issue here, at the 9L website.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

9L 9.2!

In a few days, when the new picture is uploaded to the Ninth Letter website, I will adorn this post with a picture of the cover of the new, hot-off-the-press issue.  For now, let me just say: it's here, it's here!  I've been reading the poems first, which I usually do, and loving them.  

Ninth Letter--as you surely know--is the award-winning literary magazine that we produce under the stalwart leadership of Jodee Stanley and in collaboration with Art + Design.  The special premise is that in addition to being a top quality literary magazine, each issue of 9L is also a work of art in its own right.  For example, this issue has a section called "animated bestiary" that... well, you'll have to check it out for yourself.

There is a preview of the intriguingly titled piece "Piaf and Roadkill" on the magazine's website, here.  If you don't know the magazine, you can read more about it at the blog on their website, and you can subscribe (which of course you should do!) here

Oh and: you can "like" them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter, too.  O brave new world!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Mockapalooza 2012

Last night, in administrative and faculty offices all throughout the English Building, we held mock interviews for job-seeking graduate students.  Since the job search, for students seeking tenure track jobs at least, typically hinges on a terrifying 45-minute interview, we try to help our students prepare by practicing.  These interviews are not unpredictable, and practice really does help.  To do this, pair faculty up into teams of 2 and and hold 30 minute sessions trying to approximate the real thing via role play.  It's sort of like speed dating, I guess: students get some different interview experiences and instant feedback, likely from faculty who have read their application materials but don't otherwise know their work.  

The whole event is arranged by our job placement officer--this year, that's Justine Murison.  And it is kind of wonderful all around because a significant portion of the department comes together to help each other out.  That automatically makes for a great vibe. Also, it is exciting to read the materials of the extremely talented grad students one meets, and to glimpse in this way the range of fantastic work going on here.  This year, I made up a team with Bruce Michelson, and we interviewed students in US literature, early modern British literature, Theatre, and Anglo-Saxon studies.  Last year, I was teamed up with Andy Gaedtke.  The year before, I was paired with Eleanor Courtemanche

I want to use this space to say thank you, on behalf of the department, to Justine and all of the faculty volunteers.  And also to send the best and most optimistic good wishes to all of our talented and dedicated grad students.

Monday, December 3, 2012

LeAnne Howe wins USA Artist Fellowship

United States Artists is a philanthropic organization, started in 2005, with the mission of supporting arts and artists in the USA.  The 'about' page of their website explains that their mission is about making it possible for artists to support themselves, and one very direct way that they do that is by giving out 50 USA Fellowships each year to artists in range of artistic fields including dance, theater, architecture and design, music etc.  

And literature, which is where we come in.

I am delighted to announce that LeAnne Howe--of English and American Indian Studies--was just awarded one of the USA Fellowships for 2012.  If you click through to the list of 2012 fellows and then click the literature tab to the left of the page, you can see her there amongst the august company of other USA Fellowship winners in literature. 

Anyway, this is pretty exciting--congratulations, LeAnne!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


I hope and trust, dear reader, that you had a lovely Thanksgiving holiday.

Today's post is about an event that took place earlier in November: the investiture ceremony for the College of Liberal Arts and Science's  two new W.D. and Sara E. Trowbridge Professors, Robert Markley of English and Peter Fritzsche of History.  If you are an exceptionally diligent reader of this blog, you will remember that I first posted about the Professorship some time ago, when the appointment was initially made.  The investiture comes after the fact, a nice ceremonial event in which the honor is celebrated and the honorees are given medallions (like the one pictured to the left) indicative of their titles.  Professors don't get to wear medallions all that often, so that alone makes an investiture seem like a pretty special event!

To the right is a picture of the two honorees, sporting their medallions, along with Dean Ruth Watkins of LAS, Ilesanmi Adesida, the Provost of our campus, yours truly, and Diane Koenker, the chair of the History Department.

The event was held at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center on November 5th--I am posting about it now just because it took a while for pictures to be send to my office!  Here are a couple more of Bob, both during his remarks and after the ceremony. 

I'm told that we don't know too much about the Trowbridge family whose gift made this Professorship possible, but they (like all who choose to support the mission of public higher education and humanities research) have my gratitude.

Congratulations, too, to Bob (and Peter) on this well-earned distinction!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Kevin T. Early Memorial Scholarship winner

I am delighted to announce here that Jessica Sung is the winner of this Fall's Kevin T. Early Memorial Scholarship.  The award, established by William and Donna Early, honors the memory of their son, Kevin T. Early, who was himself a talented, dedicated, and award-winning young poet.

This award is is given each year to recognize and a talented Freshman poet, with the stated purpose of helping to encourage talented young writers to continue pursuing their craft. Ms. Sung is an English major, and (though not enrolled in our Creative Writing track) is hoping to take a poetry-writing workshop in the near future.  This year, as always, we received a lot of stellar application packets; Ms. Sung's poems stood out for their careful prosody and their inventiveness and wit.

I've now had the chance to meet briefly with Ms. Sung, who is a second generation UIUC student but the first member of her family to seek a liberal arts degree.  I asked her how she became interested in poetry and writing.  She told me that she came by it as a result of a life-long habit of reading for pleasure, and that she first became interested in the formal aspects of poetry in middle school while reading young adult verse novels.  I confess to being fascinated by the fact that such things exist!  When I asked Ms. Sung if she especially liked any contemporary poets, she immediately mentioned Margaret Atwood (who is most famous for novels like The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake, but who has also published several volumes of poetry). 

Just in case he reads this, I'd also like the thank William Early again here for the enormous generosity of spirit that lies behind this particular award.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Comings and goings:the ecology of a department

A few weeks ago, I posted here about Lindsay Rose Russell and Derrick Spires, the two fantastic new Assistant Professors who joined our department this Fall.  Consider this a followup post.  I thought it might also interest some readers of this blog to be given a glimpse behind the curtain, as it were, at a more comprehensive picture of the personnel changes that take place in a department like ours each year.  Including Graduate Student TAs, there are between 180-200 different people working in English in a given year, and so there is always bound to be a certain amount of turnover. 

We had a pretty good year in placement terms last year, which means that many of our PhD students left to take up jobs elsewhere.  This is all to the good, even if their friends and colleagues here will miss them.  We also had one big faculty retirement last year: Richard Powers, acclaimed novelist and all-around wonderful colleague, decided to retire from his university position.  He has been pretty adamant about not wanting a lot of fanfare, and I hope he'll forgive me for saying this here, but there is nobody more universally beloved and admired in our department than he is and it is a big loss to all of us to have him step away.  Maureen Airsman, who many recent graduates of our department will know as the manager of our undergraduate advising office, retired too. And we had one faculty member on the tenure track (Kate Vieira) leave us to take a position elsewhere despite our best efforts to dissuade her. So that's the bad news. Two of our former Senior Lecturers left to take up tenure track positions at other universities.  Mark Dahlquist is now Assistant Professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi and John Griswold left to take up position as Assistant Professor and at McNeese State, where he is also editing the McNeese Review.  Mark is a scholar in my own area of expertise, and I consider John a personal friend, so it is bittersweet for me to see them go, but I'm excited for both of them and for the avenues of professional advancement that these moves make possible for each of them.

On the plus side, there is a whole new cohort of graduate students in our PhD and MFA programs, we were able to hire Angela Smith to work in our undergraduate advising office, and we were very fortunate to be able to hire Kay Emmert, Miguel Jiminez, Cheryl Price, and Gregory Wilson as new non-tenure track faculty members this Fall.  John Labella joined our department this Fall with the provisional title Visiting Instructor, though his title will change to Visiting Assistant Professor in the Spring.  Labella, who just completed his PhD at Princeton, is a scholar of modern and contemporary US poetry, which he reads in transnational contexts, and he will teach classes for us in poetry, poetics, and literary theory. We also added Professor Wail Hassan to our department, though he was already a faculty member in our campus's Program in Comparative and World Literature.  Hassan, who is an expert in (among other things) Arabic-American and Arabic-British literature has worked with students in English before, and we are happy to have been able to move 25% of his appointment across the quad to English.  

I've come to think of all this in almost ecological terms--as a necessary process of gradual change that can be a healthy one over the long haul--even though it also means seeing some friends and colleagues leave each year. If Heraclitus were a university administrator, he might have observed that nobody can step into the same department twice!

Monday, October 29, 2012

High Rise Stories and the Chicago Humanities Festival

If you are an alum of our department currently living in Chicago proper, the chances are you got an email or three from us announcing Audrey Petty's recent appearance as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival (the page about the event on the Festival's own website is here).  If you came, I don't need to tell you how terrific Audrey was.

For those of you who may have missed it (or for those of you who come to the blog for other reasons), let me explain. For the past few years, Petty has been working on a project called High Rise Stories, which is an oral history documenting the experience of living in the Chicago public housing high rise developments.  Her presentation was about this project. The hour-long event began with a reading, in which Petty shared excerpts from some contributors' stories. This was followed by a conversation between Petty and the event's moderator, Sara Levine, and a lively Q&A in which audience members asked Petty questions ranging from the artistic ("how does one edit oral history, how much shaping do you wind up doing?") to the political ("if you were to be put in charge the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, what would you want to do differently?").

Here is a picture, from the Q&A part of the program, sent to me by Diana Williams, a member of our departmental alumni board who was able to attend the event:

The presentation itself was sold out, the large lecture hall was packed, and the Q&A could easily have gone on for another hour, judging from the number of hands that shot up whenever it was time for a new question. 

I think everyone who was present on the 21st will be looking out for the book, which will be published next June.  High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing is part of an interesting book series--"Voice of Witness"--that is dedicated to oral history as a mode of capturing the human dimension of contemporary crisis. This is from the series's website: "Using oral history as a foundation, the series depicts human rights crises around the world through the stories of the men and women who experience them." 

And this is from the webpage dedicated to High Rise Stories in the Voice of Witness site:

"High Rise Stories sheds light on the human cost of one of America’s most ill-conceived and catastrophic civic programs: the Chicago housing projects. As the buildings themselves are slowly being dismantled, leaving thousands of residents in flux, this issue is as critical—and underreported—as ever.

In these gripping first-person accounts, former residents of Chicago’s public housing describe the consequences of relocation, poverty, and gentrification. Their stories of community and displacement give voice to those who have long been ignored, but whose hopes and struggles exist firmly at the heart of our national identity."


Afterwards, it was my great pleasure to host a reception for Audrey--and for some other folks from English and from the humanities community at U of I, and departmental alums--in a gorgeous room on the 8th floor of the University of Chicago's new Logan Center for the Arts, one with open glass terraces all around and just a spectacular view.  We could not have asked for better weather--70 degrees and sunny in late October in Chicago!?--and it was a great pleasure to meet some alums I had never met before and to reconnect with a few--like Diana--that I have come to know and admire.

Friday, October 19, 2012

James Holly Hanford Award

I've just learned that Feisal Mohamed's 2011 book Milton and the Post-Secular Present: Ethics, Politics, Terrorism has been awarded this year's James Holly Hanford Award by the Milton Society of America.  The Hanford Award is the society's plum award, the book prize which goes each year to honor a particularly distinguished new volume in the field of Milton Studies.  He'll officially accept the award at a Milton Society event in early January.   

I've written in this space before about how gratifying such awards are, because they signal the highest level of admiration and approval from the very experts best positioned to judge the value of a scholarly book.  This one is especially impressive to me personally because, as an early modernist myself, I am familiar with the books that have previously been so honored.  The scholars on that list are pretty much a who's who of Milton studies.  Or, rather, they will be now, once Feisal Mohamed's name is added.

Congratulations, Feisal!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Introducing our new Assistant Professors

Our department was fortunate this past year to hire two terrific new tenure-track faculty members, each via national search.  We as a department take special pride in our ability to identify scholarly talent and thus to hire really superb faculty members when we are given the opportunity to recruit.  Basically, my message today is this: we've done it again!

For those unfamiliar with the job market for faculty in English, here's what that means: we get approval to search in a given area, and put out an ad calling for application materials.  Then we get somewhere between 150-350 applications, most of them from highly qualified applicants with PhDs in the relevant scholarly field.  From there, it is an arduous process for everyone involved: faculty hiring committees look at all the CVs, pour over substantial writing samples from many promising applicants, solicit and consider letters of recommendation, conduct interviews, schedule campus visits, etc., etc., etc.  And as you might expect, given the numbers involved, we are usually able to identify several candidates per search who would be great additions to any department.  The individuals to whom we do wind up extending offers are truly outstanding, therefore, and it is with considerable pleasure and pride that we welcome them into the department and that I introduce them here.

Lindsay Rose Russell joins our faculty this year as an Assistant Professor in Writing Studies. Russell, who earned her PhD at the University of Washington, brings to our faculty expertise in several subfields related to Writing Studies, including linguistics, rhetoric, and feminist rhetorical traditions. Her faculty page at The Center for Writing Studies lists the following as areas of research expertise: "Histories and theories of the English language, rhetorical theory and practice, genre studies, language and gender, rhetorics of reference, and feminist historiography." Russell's current research recovers and analyzes the role of women—as both readers and writers—in the development of English language dictionaries. This work is literally path-breaking: in analyzing what she calls "the rhetorics of reference," Russell's work opens up productive new areas inquiry for rhetorical analysis. She also comes to us as a seasoned teacher, with experience and expertise to teach a wide range of classes that will be appreciated by students in English, English Education, and Writing Studies at a variety of levels.

Derrick Spires, our other new tenure-track Assistant Professor this Fall, received his PhD from Vanderbilt University.  Since I've already been quoted describing his work in a recent Inside Illinois write-up he received, I'll just quote myself here: "Spires’ current work centers around an archival recovery project focusing on theories of citizenship developed and tested in a range of documents representing early African-American print culture: pamphlets, periodical literature, convention proceedings and the like. His research is meticulous and thorough, representative of the best kind of historical, archival research that our field has to offer. But Spires is not only an archival cultural historian, he is also an acute critical reader of these documents, able to demonstrate how the literary or symbolic qualities of these texts and documents carried the weight of generative political thought about the nature of citizenship and belonging. It is clear that his project has the potential to reshape the way we think of early African-American culture."

We knew that both Russell and Spires were scholars of exceptional achievement and promise, and also that they both had strong graduate-school teaching records and exciting ideas for course development.  Now that they've been around for a few months, I can add this too: they are both terrific colleagues to be around!

I hope and trust that they've already felt welcomed in a million other ways already, but for blogging purposes: welcome, Lindsay and Derrick!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Histories of the Dustheap

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with its many highly-ranked Engineering and Science departments, we humanities scholars are often encouraged in the name of interdisciplinarity to find ways to bring our cultural-analysis skills to bear on questions pertaining to areas of scientific or technical expertise.  Our Chancellor, for instance, has just completed a sustained process designed to identify crucial societal questions that we as a university can help to address, and we as a campus are about to launch a series of initiatives designed to to address the six focal-point areas of inquiry that have emerged.  The first of these will be "Energy and the Environment."

From this institutional point of view, the publication of this new essay collection--Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Cultures, Social Justice--could not be more timely.  Co-edited by our own Stephanie Foote and published by MIT Press, this volume represents exactly the kind of multi-disciplinary fusion that our campus seeks to foster. 

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

"Garbage, considered both materially and culturally, elicits mixed responses. Our responsibility toward the objects we love and then discard is entangled with our responsibility toward the systems that make those objects. Histories of the Dustheap uses garbage, waste, and refuse to investigate the relationships between various systems--the local and the global, the economic and the ecological, the historical and the contemporary--and shows how this most democratic reality produces identities, social relations, and policies.

The contributors first consider garbage in subjective terms, examining “toxic autobiography” by residents of Love Canal, the intersection of public health and women’s rights, and enviroblogging. They explore the importance of place, with studies of post-Katrina soil contamination in New Orleans, e-waste disposal in Bloomington, Indiana, and garbage on Mount Everest. And finally, they look at cultural contradictions as objects hover between waste and desirability, examining Milwaukee’s efforts to sell its sludge as fertilizer, the plastics industry’s attempt to wrap plastic bottles and bags in the mantle of freedom of choice, and the idea of obsolescence in the animated film The Brave Little Toaster.

Histories of the Dustheap offers a range of perspectives on a variety of incarnations of garbage, inviting the reader to consider garbage in a way that goes beyond the common “buy green” discourse that empowers individuals while limiting environmental activism to consumerist practices."

Congratulations, Stephanie!


Friday, September 28, 2012

New book, and other Feisal Mohamed related news!

Feisal Mohamed wrote to me earlier today to let me know that he had recently received his copies of the exceptionally lovely volume pictured to the left.  The book is called Milton and Questions of History: Essays by Canadians Past and Present (University of Toronto Press), and Mohamed co-edited it with the distinguished Miltonist Mary Nyquist. 

Here is the book description, pasted in from the UTP webpage:  "Milton and Questions of History considers the contribution of several classic studies of Milton written by Canadians in the twentieth century. It contemplates whether these might be termed a coherent ‘school’ of Milton studies in Canada and it explores how these concerns might intervene in current critical and scholarly debates on Milton and, more broadly, on historicist criticism in its relationship to renewed interest in literary form.

The volume opens with a selection of seminal articles by noted scholars including Northrop Frye, Hugh McCallum, Douglas Bush, Ernest Sirluck, and A.S.P. Woodhouse. Subsequent essays engage and contextualize these works while incorporating fresh intellectual concerns. The Introduction and Afterword frame the contents so that they constitute a dialogue between past and present critical studies of Milton by Canadian scholars."

This is an editorial project that Mohamed--who himself received his PhD from the University of Toronto--has been overseeing for some time.  I'm delighted to see that his work on this has come to fruition.  And Feisal points out to me that one of the reprinted essays included in the volume is by Arthur Barker, who is a former member of our department.  Perhaps there's also a tradition of Canadian Miltonists at UIUC?


For those of you who are reading this from in or around campus, let me also point out that Mohamed will be presenting this year's IPRH Distinguished Lecturer in the Humanities next Wednesday, October 3, at 4:00 on the 3rd floor of the Levis Faculty Center. This should be a pretty bid deal--our new Provost Ilesanmi Adesida will participate, for instance--and so I'd encourage you to come on down.

The title of Mohamed's lecture is "Republican Political Theology in the Age of Hobbes," and I think it should be of interest to scholars in a very wide range of humanities subjects. Here is the abstract:

"In Carl Schmitt’s influential account of political theology, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) is a watershed text in the early modern secularization of theological principles.  This paper argues that the Roman provenance of Hobbes’ ideas qualifies their modernity, and that their foundation in determinist materialism strongly limits their theological underpinnings.  We shall look instead to key figures of England’s short-lived republic to find views of sovereignty with more substantive theological engagements.  From this distinctly English contribution to the republican tradition arises that quality of the modern political imaginary for which neither Hobbes nor Enlightenment thought can account: the sovereign’s embodiment of a locus of power sustained by the self-sacrifice of subjects."

If the volume on Canadian Milton scholarship represents Mohamed's scholarly heritage, so to speak, it looks to me as though this talk represents his present and future. His recent work has often made use of foundational 17th-century writers to illuminate aporias associated with religiosity and toleration within the tradition of liberal political thought.  Here, by recovering the political theology of Hobbes's contemporaries, and putting their theological investments in the context of early British republicanism (which is often associated with the origins of an Anglo-American liberal tradition), Mohamed promises to cast light on tensions and blind-spots within the essentially liberal political mentality that we have inherited.

I hope to see many of you there!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Incomplete List, Spring 2012

Every semester, our campus's Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) publishes a list of faculty, graduate students, and other instructional staff members whose student evaluations numbers put them in the top tier of instructors on campus, at least as far as student satisfaction is concerned.  The criteria are described in the CTE document which this post is based on--here.  For some time now the CTE has referred to this list as the List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by their Students, but that's cumbersome and so we tend to refer to it by its punchier, old name: the Incomplete List. 

Anyway, as regular readers of this blog will know, I like to post here each semester a list of the teachers in English department classes who have been enshrined in the Incomplete List on the basis of last semester's student evaluation scores.  The point is to honor individuals, of course, but also to highlight in a more general way the depth and breadth of our good teaching.  The people listed below include every single rank and title we have in the department's insrtuctional staff, and they are honored here for their teaching in English, Business and Technical Writing, Creative Writing, and Rhetoric.  And so, without further ado, here is our own version of the Incomplete List based on Spring 2012 data:

Iryce Baron, Manisha Basu, Jensen Beach, Michael Behrens, Amber Buck, Michael Burns, Jodi Byrd, Cody Caudill, Alexandra Cavallaro, John Claborn, Jill Clements, Leslie Crowell, Steve Davenport, Carrie Dickison, Michael Don, Dennis Dullea, Patrick Fadely, Jill Fitzgerald, Andrew Gaedtke, Nadia Garcia-Crespo, Sara Gelston, Shawn Gilmore, Philip Graham, Catharine Gray,  Joe Grohens, Gail Hapke, Aaron Harper, Janice Harrington, Ashley Hetrick, Elizabeth Hoiem,  Amy Huang, Brandon Jones, David Kay, Melissa Larabee, Mary Lindsay, Melissa Littlefield, Mike Madonick, Bob Markley, Julie McCormick, Heather McLeer, Thomas McNamera, Erica Melko, Jessica Mercado, John Moore, Justine Murison, John Musser, Hina Nazar, Lori Newcomb, Katherine Norcross, John O'Connor, Michael Odom, Andrea Olinger, Alaina Pincus, Catherine Prendergast, Julie Price, Thierry Ramais, Scott Ricketts, Ricky Rodriguez, Carla Rosell, John Rubins, Stephen Runkle, Ted Sanders, Julia Saville, Spencer Schaffner, E. Jordan Sellers, Frank Sheets, Kaia Simon Power, Siobhan Somerville, Andrea Stevens, Elizabeth Tavares, Jessica Thom, Debora Tienou, Wendy Truran, Ted Underwood, Denys Van Renan, Michael Verderame, Elyse Vigiletti, Martha Webber, Rebecca Weber, Dan Wong, Charlie Wright, David C. Wright.

Congratulations, one and all, and (on behalf of all of our students) thanks.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Studies

 The advance copies of the very lovely volume pictured to the left have just arrived!  The book is A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Studies, a collection of original essays exploring the resources of critical theory for reading Anglo-Saxon texts and vice versa.  Published by Wiley-Blackwell, this collection is been co-edited Jacqueline Stodnick and our own Renée Trilling.

As the book description from the back cover puts it:

"This collection of new and original essays explores the relationship between contemporary critical theory and the study of Anglo-Saxon literature. Core terminology familiar from critical theory, such as ‘ethnicity’, ‘gender’, and ‘agency’, provides a thematic structure in which fresh and revealing perspectives on Anglo-Saxon England come to light. Each essay takes one of these terms as its starting point, offering a brief overview of the term and its use in Anglo-Saxon studies before deploying it as a critical matrix for its own investigation of the Anglo-Saxon period. The collection also explores the question of what contribution Anglo-Saxonists can make to critical theory, and provides new directions for the future of the field."

Anglo-Saxon studies as a field requires of scholars a great deal of hard-won technical expertise.  One needs for starters to be able to read Old English.  And there are myriad other technical challenges associated with learning how to work with the texts and artifacts of such a very old and unfamiliar culture.  Because the technical threshold for participation in the field is so high, emphasis has not always been placed upon the same theoretical and methodological questions that preoccupy other sub-disciplines within English literary studies.  This volume will be important because it will help encourage and facilitate theoretically-informed work in Anglo-Saxon studies henceforward.  At the same time, Anglo-Saxonists are in a good position to recast and challenge some of the theoretical positions forged by specialists in later literatures, so that an Anglo-Saxonists working with the critical vocabulary of postcolonial theory or disability studies is very likely to have new perspectives to offer that can enrich or complicate subsequent theoretical work.  All in all, this looks to be a very generative scholarly book.

I am delighted to see that all of the hard work that went into producing this collection has payed off so handsomely.  Congratulations, Renée!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Braided Worlds (and related events!)

Later this week, the University of Chicago Press will publish Braided Worlds--a book which combines English Professor Philip Graham's skills as a literary writer with UIUC Anthropology Professor Alma Gottlieb's talents as an ethnographer.  The two have collaborated before, on the 1994 book Parallel Worlds: An Anthropologist and a Writer Encounter Africa (University of Chicago Press).

Here is the book description, pasted in from the University of Chicago press website

"In a compelling mix of literary narrative and ethnography, anthropologist Alma Gottlieb and writer Philip Graham continue the long journey of cultural engagement with the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire that they first recounted in their award-winning memoir Parallel Worlds. Their commitment over the span of several decades has lent them a rare insight. Braiding their own stories with those of the villagers of Asagbé and Kosangbé, Gottlieb and Graham take turns recounting a host of unexpected dramas with these West African villages, prompting serious questions about the fraught nature of cultural contact.

Through events such as a religious leader’s declaration that the authors’ six-year-old son, Nathaniel, is the reincarnation of a revered ancestor, or Graham’s late father being accepted into the Beng afterlife, or the increasing, sometimes dangerous madness of a villager, the authors are forced to reconcile their anthropological and literary gaze with the deepest parts of their personal lives. Along with these intimate dramas, they follow the Beng from times of peace through the times of tragedy that led to Côte d’Ivoire’s recent civil conflicts. From these and many other interweaving narratives—and with the combined strengths of an anthropologist and a literary writer—Braided Worlds examines the impact of postcolonialism, race, and global inequity at the same time that it chronicles a living, breathing village community where two very different worlds meet."

In concert with the publication of this book, Graham and Gottlieb have scheduled a couple of reading/signing events on campus, which those of you who read this blog from Champaign Urbana (Chambana?  Shampoo-Banana?) may be interested in attending. 

The first of these will be this coming Tuesday, Sept. 11th, from 4:30 till 5:30 in the Illinois Union Bookstore. 

The second, which will be held on September 18 at 7:30 at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities (IPRH), is a discussion of memoir writing that will feature, in addition to Graham and Gottlieb, our own Janice Harrington and UIUC history professor Harry Liebersohn. You can click through to the IPRH page describing the event--which has bios for all participants and so on--here. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Melville and the Idea of Blackness

Late last week, Chris Freeburg wrote to say that he had just received the first advance copy of his new book.  As always, that's my cue to post/boast about it here! 

Freeburg's book, Melville and the Idea of Blackness: Race and Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century America has been published by Cambridge University Press as part of its distinguished, ongoing series "Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture."

Freeburg is a scholar with great philosophical and theoretical range and part of what makes this particular book unique is its bid to reintegrate intellectual history with material and cultural histories of race in 19th-century America. Here is the book description, pasted in from the Cambridge University Press website:

"By examining the unique problems that 'blackness' signifies in Moby-Dick, Pierre, 'Benito Cereno' and 'The Encantadas', Christopher Freeburg analyzes how Herman Melville grapples with the social realities of racial difference in nineteenth-century America. Where Melville's critics typically read blackness as either a metaphor for the haunting power of slavery or an allegory of moral evil, Freeburg asserts that blackness functions as the site where Melville correlates the sociopolitical challenges of transatlantic slavery and U.S. colonial expansion with philosophical concerns about mastery. By focusing on Melville's iconic interracial encounters, Freeburg reveals the important role blackness plays in Melville's portrayal of characters' arduous attempts to seize their own destiny, amass scientific knowledge and perfect themselves. A valuable resource for scholars and graduate students in American literature, this text will also appeal to those working in American, African American and postcolonial studies."


Thursday, August 16, 2012

LAS Awards

As the start of a new semester slouches towards us, let me take as moment to recognize some faculty members affiliated with the English Department who were awarded prestigious and highly-competitive awards last year by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  These awards all warrant individual congratulations, to be sure, but I also take them as an indication and manifestation of the department's overall strength and depth.  And regular readers of this blog will remember that I already had occasion last Spring to kvell about the LAS teaching awards won by Jim Hansen and Kathryn Walkiewicz.

Janice Harrington and Jodi Byrd (whose primary departmental affiliation is American Indian Studies, but who also holds an appointment in English) were named as Helen Corley Petit Scholars for 2012-13. This is an honor given annually to exceptionally successful newly-tenured faculty members in the college of Liberal Arts and Sciences in recognition of superior achievement in research, teaching, and service.

And both Renee Trilling and (again!) Jodi Byrd were honored among this year's recipients of LAS's Conrad Humanities Scholar Awards. The Conrad Humanities Scholar program (made possible by the extraordinary generosity of Arlys Streitmatter Conrad) provides recognition and research support for outstanding humanities scholars in the college if Liberal Arts and Sciences over a five year period.

I couldn't be happier to see my colleagues receive these awards!  They are all wonderful and utterly deserving--brilliant, hard-working, dedicated people who make life better for everyone in the department and the university.  Congratulations!

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Neuroscientific Turn

I am doubly happy to hear that advance copies of The Neuroscientific Turn: Transdisciplinarity in the Age of the Brain have arrived.  I'm always happy when a colleague's book gets published, and this book is co-edited by Melissa Littlefield, who is an Associate Professor here at UIUC with appointments in English and in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health.  But also, this is a book I've had my eye on for some time just out of personal interest, and I'm eager to get my hands on a copy!

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

"The Neuroscientific Turn brings together 19 scholars from a variety of fields to reflect on the promises of and challenges facing emergent "neurodisciplines" such as neuroethics, neuroeconomics, and neurohistory. In the aftermath of the Decade of the Brain, neuroscience has become one of the hottest topics of study—not only for scientists but also, increasingly, for scholars from the humanities and social sciences. While the popular press has simultaneously lauded and loathed the coming "neurorevolution," the academy has yet to voice any collective speculations about whether there is any coherence to this neuroscientific turn; what this turn will and should produce; and what implications it has for inter- or transdisciplinary inquiry.

Melissa M. Littlefield and Jenell M. Johnson provide an initial framework for this most recent of "turns" by bringing together 14 original essays by scholars from the humanities, social sciences, and neurosciences. The resulting collection will appeal to neuroscientists curious about their colleagues' interest in their work; scholars and students both in established neurodisciplines and in disciplines such as sociology or English wondering about how to apply neuroscience findings to their home disciplines; and to science, technology, and society scholars and students interested in the roles of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in the construction of knowledge."

I should also say that I'm looking forward to reading essays in this volume by Justine Murison, who contributed a piece on a "neuroscientific turn" in the US in the 1840s, and by Bruce Michelson, whose essay on "the mind-sciences in a literature classroom" sounds immediately useful to me.

Congrats to all!     

Monday, July 23, 2012

Tim Newcomb in Inside Higher Ed

Just a short post with a great link... 

Tim Newcomb was recently interviewed in Inside Higher Ed on the subject of his book How Did Poetry Survive?  The Making of Modern American Verse.  The link is here: check it out!

Regular readers of this blog will remember my post about this book when it came out a few months ago (published by the University of Illinois Press).  As a refresher, here again is the book description, pasted in from its page:

"How Did Poetry Survive? traces the emergence of modern American poetry at the turn of the nineteenth century. American poetry had stalled: a small group of recently deceased New England poets still held sway, and few outlets existed for living poets. However, the United States' quickly accelerating urbanization in the early twentieth century opened new opportunities, as it allowed the rise of publications focused on promoting the work of living writers of all kinds. The urban scene also influenced the work of poets, shifting away from traditional subjects and forms to reflect the rise of buildings and the increasingly busy bustle of the city. Change was everywhere: new forms of architecture and transportation, new immigrants, new professions, new tastes, new worries.
This urbanized world called for a new poetry, and a group of new magazines entirely or chiefly devoted to exploring modern themes and forms led the way. Avant-garde "little magazines" succeeded not by ignoring or rejecting the busy commercial world that surrounded them, but by adapting its technologies of production and strategies of marketing for their own purposes.
With a particular focus on four literary magazines--Poetry, The Masses, Others, and The Seven Arts--John Timberman Newcomb shows how each advanced ambitious agendas combining urban subjects, stylistic experimentation, and progressive social ideals. All four were profoundly affected by World War I, and the poetry on their pages responded to the war and its causes with clarity and strength. While subsequent literary history has favored the poets whose work made them distinct--individuals singled out usually on the basis of a novel technique--Newcomb provides a denser, richer view of the history that hundreds of poets made."

Thursday, July 19, 2012

No Animals We Could Name

 Blogging has been slow of late, dear reader, though not because there aren't always things to blog about.  I've been doing some academic writing of late and that--for me at least--means trying to devote 100% of my attention to the task.  But I'm back, and here's something you'll be interested in...

A few weeks back, Ted Sanders's book No Animals We Could Name was printed by Graywolf Press.  As many of you will know, Graywolf is a very well-known and prestigious literary publishing house.  For instance, if you go to their homepage you'll see that a book of theirs won the Pulitzer Prize this year for poetry.  This is an impressive venue, in other words.  What makes it even more impressive is that this collection of stories is being published by Graywolf after being selected as the winner of the 2011 Bakeless Prize for Fiction.  As every writer knows, it can be hard to garner attention for new work, and this is a very splashy way to make an entrance onto the literary scene!

Ted is a graduate of our MFA program and is currently a Lecturer in our department.  I couldn't be happier for him and this is a book I cannot wait to read.  Instead of pasting in an inadequate book description, let me direct you to an online review of the book that strikes me as being at once smart and helpfully descriptive, from the Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune.  You can find the link to the review here.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Audrey Petty at the Chicago Humanities Festival

Hard to think about October now, in the dog days of summer.  But here goes! 

Audrey Petty will be offering a preview of her new book project, High-Rise Stories, at the Chicago Humanities Festival on October 21st. 

I thought our many Chicago-area alums in particular should know about this event, and indeed I hope to meet many of you there.  The festival's director, Matti Bunzl, has a very thoughtful post on his blog about Audrey's work and the Festival, which I strongly advise you to read.  You can find it by clicking here.

The book, which will be part of the Voices of Witness book series, is described on the series's website as follows:

"High-Rise Stories is an oral history book project that will gather stories from residents of Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes, Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens and Cabrini-Green–all publicly-funded edifices that no longer exist.

In 2000, with the deconcentration of poverty in city neighborhoods as a goal, the Chicago Housing Authority initiated Plan for Transformation, an initiative that resulted in the demolition of thousands of housing units as well as widespread renovations and the construction of mixed-income developments. High Rise Stories aims to illuminate one of America’s most critical yet underreported social issues: fair and decent housing for the members of our country’s most vulnerable populations.

High Rise Stories will explore how generations of Chicago Housing Agency residents made homes for themselves within the walls of public housing, and how they have experienced the agency’s Plan for Transformation. Tenants’ accounts of community, displacement, removal, and relocation are not only crucial to Chicago’s social history, but are also key to any meaningful national conversation about poverty, housing reform, urban renewal and gentrification."

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Cambridge History of American Women's Literature

This is another of my summer posts based on a guess about the arrival date of a new book.  The Cambridge University Press website lists this book as available from June, so I'm betting that advanced copies have in fact arrived.

In any event, I am pleased to use this space to herald the publication of Dale Bauer's impressive new essay collection The Cambridge History of American Women's Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2012).  I know, from my own conversations with editors at Cambridge University Press, that volumes of this variety are meant to be more than just essay collections--they are meant to be authoritative books that map out some scholarly terrain in a comprehensive manner.  To scholars and students, books like this are immensely useful, too, because they do just that.  This book will be widely read and cited as an authoritative summation of the field of American women's literature.

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

"The field of American women's writing is one characterized by innovation: scholars are discovering new authors and works, as well as new ways of historicizing this literature, rethinking contexts, categories and juxtapositions. Now, after three decades of scholarly investigation and innovation, the rich complexity and diversity of American literature written by women can be seen with a new coherence and subtlety. Dedicated to this expanding heterogeneity, The Cambridge History of American Women's Literature develops and challenges historical, cultural, theoretical, even polemical methods, all of which will advance the future study of American women writers – from Native Americans to postmodern communities, from individual careers to communities of writers and readers. This volume immerses readers in a new dialogue about the range and depth of women's literature in the United States and allows them to trace the ever-evolving shape of the field."

To give a sense of the heft of the collection, here is the table of contents, also pasted in from the CUP website (with some hyperlinks added by me):

 Introduction Dale M. Bauer
1. The stories we tell: American Indian women's writing and the persistence of tradition Jodi A. Byrd
2. Women writers and war Jonathan Vincent
3. American women's writing in the Colonial period Kirstin R. Wilcox
4. Religion, sensibility, and sympathy Sandra M. Gustafson
5. Women's writing of the Revolutionary era Jennifer J. Baker
6. Women writers and the early US novel Andy Doolen
7. Women in literary culture during the long nineteenth century Nancy Glazener
8. Moral authority as literary property in mid-century print culture Susan M. Ryan
9. The shape of Catharine Sedgwick's career Melissa J. Homestead
10. Writing, authorship and genius: literary women and modes of literary production Susan S. Williams
11. Nineteenth-century American women's poetry: past and prospects Elizabeth Renker
12. Transatlantic sympathies and nineteenth-century women writing Susan David Bernstein
13. Nineteenth-century African American women writers John Ernest
14. Local knowledge and regional women's writing Stephanie Foote
15. Women and children first: female writers of American children's literature Carol Singley
16. US suffrage literature Mary Chapman
17. American women playwrights Brenda Murphy
18. Turn-of-the-twentieth-century transitions: women on the edge of tomorrow Stephanie Smith
19. Women's writing and naturalism: accidents and agency Jennifer Travis
20. The geography of ladyhood: racializing the novel of manners Cherene Sherrard-Johnson
21. Self-made women: novelists of the 1920s Jean M. Lutes
22. Recovering the legacy of Zara Wright and the twentieth-century black woman writer Rynetta Davis
23. Jewish American women writers Hana Wirth-Nesher
24. Women on the breadlines John Marsh
25. Modern domestic realism in America, 1950–1970 Gordon Hutner
26. Lyric, gender and subjectivity in modern and contemporary poetry Jennifer Ashton
27. Contemporary American women's writing: women and violence Heidi Slettedahl Macpherson
28. Asian-American women's literature and the promise of committed art Leslie Bow
29. Straight sex, queer text: American women novelists Lynda Zwinger
30. Latina writers and the usable past Kimberly O'Neill
31. Where is she? Women/access/rhetoric Patricia Bizzell
32. Reading women in America Susan M. Griffin

 Editing such a collection is a major undertaking, and this is a volume that will clearly make a major impact.  Congratulations, Dale!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Bloomsday 2012

Happy Bloomsday, people.  Whether you celebrate with a pint, with mutton kidneys, or with "pungent mustard" and the "the feety savour of green cheese": enjoy!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Enlightened Sentiments

I have not seen Hina Nazar for a few weeks now--faculty tend to stay away from the main English office during the summer months unless they're teaching summer school--but I'm almost sure that she will already  have received copies of her new book, Enlightened Sentiments: Judgment and Autonomy in the Age of Sensibility.  Fordham University Press (to which the link above takes you) lists the book as having been printed in April even though it is still listed as available for pre-order at Amazon

The book is an ambitious one, offering up an account of the philosophical stakes of early novelistic fiction that seeks at the same time to challenge some deeply entrenched habits of thought associated with contemporary criticism.  It is lucidly written and is bound, I think, to be taken up and discussed by critics well-beyond the field of 18th-century fiction. 

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

"Enlightened Sentiments reassesses the enlightenment's liberal legacies by revisiting the wide-ranging development of eighteenth-century letters known as "sentimentalism." Nazar argues that the recent retrieval of sentimentalism as a predominantly affective culture of sensibility elides its critical motif of moral and aesthetic judgment and underrates its contributions to the key Enlightenment norm of autonomy. Drawing upon novelists from Samuel Richardson to Jane Austen, and theorists of judgment from David Hume to Hannah Arendt, the author contends that sentimental judgment complicates received understandings of liberal ethics as grounded in the opposition of reason and feeling, and autonomy and sociability and, as such, implies a powerful counter-challenge to postmodernist critiques of modernity as the harbinger principally of instrumentalist reason and disciplinary power."

Congratulations, Hina!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Tenure and Promotion

I am very pleased to be able to announce here the following faculty promotions.  New titles take effect in August, 2012.

For those readers of this blog who are not in the academy, this is a big, big deal.  Promotions are based on a successful record as a teacher and scholar, and they often reflects the successful publication of research that the faculty member in question has been working on for many, many years.

In all cases, these promotions involve formal evaluation of the candidate's scholarly work by leading senior experts in his or her field, and careful in-house evaluation and deliberation concerning his or her teaching and research.  A professor on the tenure track basically has only two major promotions in his or her academic career, so each of them is a very important landmark.

The following faculty members in the Department of English have earned promotion to the rank of Associate Professor and tenure:

*Jodi Byrd, who is faculty in English and American Indian Studies.  Her book The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism, was published in 2011 by the University of Minnesota Press. 

*Janice Harrington, a poet and writer of children's books in our Creative Writing program, whose most recent book of poetry is The Hands of Strangers: Poems from the Nursing Home (BOA Editions, 2011).

*Melissa Littlefield, who is on the faculty in English and also in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health.  Her book, The Lying Brain: Lie Detection in Science and Science Fiction, was published by University of Michigan Press in 2011.  For good measure, another book--The Neuroscientific Turn: Transdisciplinarity in the Age of the Brain--that Littlefield has co-edited is due to be published by The University of Michigan Press in about a month. 

*Justine Murison, a scholar of 19th-Century American literature, whose book The Politics of Anxiety in Nineteenth-Century American Literature was published by Cambridge University Press in 2011.

The following faculty members in the Department of English have earned promotion to the rank of Professor (which means, per University guidelines, that they have amassed evidence of national or international stature in their respective scholarly fields and that they are leading scholars and teachers):

*Feisal Mohamed, who is an expert in seventeenth-century literature and especially the poetry and prose of John Milton, and who works on issues pertaining to law, literature, and the history of religious toleration. Mohamed's most recent book--Milton and the Post-Secular Present: Ethics, Politics, Terrorism--was published in 2011 by Stanford University Press.

*Tim Newcomb, a scholar of modern US poetry and of film, whose most recent book How Did Poetry Survive?  The Making of Modern American Verse was just published by the University of Illinois Press this Spring.   

Congratulations, one and all!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

English Convocation 2012 (in which it is revealed that English has the Batmobile, sort of)

On Saturday, May 12th, the English department held its annual convocation ceremony in the Foellinger Auditorium.  As always, this was a really lovely event--a chance to honor the achievements of our graduates and to celebrate with them. 

For now, though, I want to shine the spotlight, as it were, upon our convocation speaker this year, Leith Adams.  It is great perk of my job that I get to meet the distinguished alums who we invite back to campus as convocation speakers each year, and this year I really enjoyed having the chance to spend a bit of time with Mr. Adams and his wife Char.  Inspiring, charming, lovely people.  Also, as it happens, Leith is in charge of the batmobiles!  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Mr. Adams, who grew up in Paris, Illinois, earned his B.A. in English from the University of Illinois in 1969.  From there, by way of one tour of duty in Vietnam and another at film school at the University of Southern California, he found himself in Los Angeles and working for Warner Bros.  He is now the Executive Director of the Warner Brothers Corporate Archive.  This is important work. Film is arguably the most recognizable narrative art form of the last century, and certainly films—from new blockbusters to classics in revival— lie at the core of our shared cultural experience.  Adams's work involves curating and preserving this important cultural legacy.  Adams is also the only speaker I have ever introduced who has a) written a book with an introduction by Dennis Hopper, and b) been featured in the newspaper with Voldemort's cloak.

I was also pleased to have Adams address the class of 2012 because his personal story exemplifies something that I know to be true and that I see instances of all the time: the fact that English alums succeed in a huge variety of different kinds of unexpected careers and that the English major--with its emphasis on analysis, creative critical thinking, cultural awareness, and writing skills--turns out to be great preparation for almost anything.

Adams may be a big shot Hollywood guy, but he's still one of ours! And—to quote from one of Warner Bros. best known and most beloved films—he'll also always have Paris, Illinois.

Here, very lightly edited, is the text of Adams's address to the class of 2012.


My name is Leith Adams and I work as Corporate Archivist at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California.  I want to congratulate all of you members of the Class of 2012 and hope your careers will be as exciting and memorable as mine has been.

I come from a small town down the road: Paris, Illinois.  I graduated from the U of I--barely--by the skin of my teeth--in 1969 with a degree in English and a split minor in Speech…and something else.  I’ll be darned if I can remember what that something else was.  But Speech: that’s where all of the film courses were.

When Professor Perry asked me to speak here, I mentioned to him that I’m probably the ugliest stepchild of English Department graduates to ever come through the University of Illinois.  After flunking Analytical Geometry my first semester (side note: to prepare for the final which was held in Altgeld Hall, I went to the Student Union and watched BATMAN which was the new hit show January of 1966; my instructor always said to the class, “Don’t worry, it’ll come to you.” I’m still waiting for the lightning of Analytical Geometry to hit me…and I guess I always will).  Oh yeah--after flunking the course, I was on probation every semester until the day I graduated.  I told Professor Perry.

He said, “That’s okay, I was kicked out of woodshop class once.”* I replied, “But I flunked Typography.”  That was during the brief, but shining, moment when I imagined myself majoring in Journalism and becoming the next Mike Royko.

“Don’t care,” said Professor Perry.

“Look, I flunked Juvenile Delinquency…how could anybody flunk that?”

“So what?”

“All right, I didn’t want to say this, but…I even flunked Creative Writing taught by Professor John Scouffas.”

But I guess you all know the answer, because I’m here.

Oh yeah…and when I stepped onstage in 1969 at the Assembly Hall to receive my diploma, I smiled as I went back to my seat…opened it up and what I saw was: “Please report to Bldg. 'such and such'--Room 'so and so' for a matter of great importance.” There was no degree for me at graduation.

Telling you this reminds me of the time my wife and I were driving back to L.A. from Vegas and as we were leaving town, we stopped to get some gas. I put money in the Coke machine and waited. Nothing came out. I couldn’t even win at the Coke machine in Las Vegas.

I did go to Room “so and so.” I owed the University $15 for some unpaid fee. My degree came in the mail--along with my draft notice. This was 1969 after all.

But I finally realized why Professor Perry invited me. On Christmas Day of this year, Warner Bros. is releasing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT 3-D…with Leonardo Di Caprio as Gatsby.  That was the reason.  I’m sorry, Professor Perry, Leo couldn’t make it today.

So what does an archivist do?  We save history--and the fact that a kid from Paris, Illinois who while in high school learned to run 35mm projectors in the local movie theater--who wrote Warner Bros. back then asking for 8x10 black and white photos from REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE with James Dean and HOUSE OF WAX with Vincent Price to illustrate non-existent articles that he said he was going to write for the high school paper--and got those photos at 25 cents each because that’s what Warner Bros. did--sold photos to the fans for a quarter--the fact that I became the archivist for the movie studio that sold me stills from my favorite movies completely boggles my mind…even today.

Your English degree can get you anywhere you want to go.  You just have to know where that is.  In a world of tweets & texts, you can read and write and comprehend much more than the general population. What you have learned here will take you wherever you want.

So where is that?  You tell me.

I knew Sophomore year that if I made it through the draft alive…through Viet Nam alive (as much as I ran from it for the four years I was here, it was waiting for me when I got out…but I was lucky…I was a college graduate and the Air Force sent me to Saigon six months and a day after hitting Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio…and I was an English teacher in Saigon for a year…and then a motion picture cameraman for two and a half years in Dayton, Ohio…I was lucky.)… so Sophomore year I knew I was going to go where they made the movies, if I made it through the draft alive.

And when I was ready to go, I was armed with a couple of things I’d read in a book.  Peter Bogdanovich wrote a book called PIECES OF TIME.  In the early 70’s he had directed Larry McMurtry’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW--a novel that was a life-changer for me when I read it here in Champaign-Urbana. Bogdanovich had also directed WHAT’S UP, DOC? with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal…still one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen.  And he even directed a movie based on Henry James’ DAISY MILLER which I liked, and the world hated.  And when Bogdanovich wrote that you have to have a game plan when you pursue your life’s dream, I listened.  He said you have to set a time limit and it has to be long enough to get you going, yet short enough that you can cut your losses and continue on with Plan B if it is not working…five years was that time limit.

And you also have to set a goal to achieve in those five years, so you’ll know you are doing better at the end of the five years than you were doing at the beginning of the five years. The goal has to be something you don’t have now that you truly want…but it should not be something unrealistic.  For example, as a writer the goal you don’t want to set is…I’ll write a book that will make millions.  The goal you might want to set is: I’ll write a book that attracts a publisher…or that gets good attention.  If it is the internet or creating games that you love, it isn’t that you’ll create a million dollar website or game in five years, it will be that you have created something that gets good attention…or maybe brings in a little bit of profit.

For me--going to Hollywood cold, fresh out of the Air Force--I knew I didn’t want to be just another geek on the street looking for work.  So I applied for film school and amazingly enough, I was let in.  That way, I could look around, try to understand the town…and see where I wanted to go.

Early on, I realized Hollywood was just like Paris, Illinois…where if I threw a snowball at a car, by the time I’d walked through the snow to my father’s insurance office, the driver had seen my dad, yelled at him and cancelled his insurance. I realized that if I sneezed in West Los Angeles, someone across the Hollywood Hills in Burbank would say, “Gesundheit.”  It will be the same for you in Silicon Valley. It will be the same for you at Harvard.  It will be the same for you in New York City Publishing.

So the goal I set for myself wasn’t any of what I just mentioned to you--direct a feature, write a great script, get good attention.  When I contemplated my navel, the goal I desired was to be able to drive onto a studio lot any time I wanted…and at the end of those five years that was something I could do.

So I reevaluated.  Do I stick it out for another five years?  You’ll have to do the same, if you use Bogdanovich’s barometer.  Are you better off than you were five years ago?  Did you come close to your goal?  Only you can know if you should be staying that next five years.  My goal for the next five years was to sell a script.

Now another lesson I learned…and this was from a class on Studio Politics I took at USC Cinema…really, I took a class called Studio Politics.  Just think of all the time and money you’re saving by not having to take these classes or read these books.  But this lesson applies to anything you will be doing in any business anywhere, always.  It sounds simple, but: “You would be surprised,” as Ken Evans said, “how many careers never got off the ground because they never learned this lesson.”  Always treat the secretary in the office you’ve just entered with respect and dignity, because that secretary is going to get you in to see the boss…or not…or when you call later, he or she will put your call through…or not.  That secretary is the key to everything you want at that moment in your life…or not.

Another way of looking at this is what I was told when I reported to a new boss at Warner Bros.  He said to me: “I only demand three things from the people who report to me: 1) you work hard and do your job, 2) always treat everyone here the same, whether it is the greens person tending the lawn or the producer of the new series we’re making or the security guard that asks to see your ID at the gate…treat them with the respect they deserve because if you take one of those people away, the studio falls apart…and 3) never, ever lie to me.  One of the best bosses I ever had.  I hope you run into someone like him at one of your jobs.

We have a museum at Warner Bros.  I was hired twenty years ago with the idea I’d help start an archive and maybe help them open a museum.  So the museum opened and a couple of years in, the studio sent a new custodian and he was a kid from Boston.  Maybe twenty years old.  Every once in a while, someone would say: “Have you talked to Tommy? He really likes movies.”  And I’m thinking: “Everyone likes movies. Why should I talk to Tommy?” But I noticed his work.  The kid was good.  “Have you talked to Tommy?” “No, I haven’t talked to Tommy.”  But eventually I did--and I continued to watch him work.

And an opening came up in the Warner Bros. Corporate Archive--and we hired Tommy. He hadn’t wanted to go to college.  He wanted to make movies.  So he came to Los Angeles and he took the only job available at Warner Bros.: custodian.

At the archive, you’re assigned films and tv shows.  You read the scripts. You focus on what to save, and work with the productions to make sure we get the costumes and the props and the art department drawings and on and on, so we can represent that film now and twenty years from now and much, much longer.

Tommy was good--and just like I noticed his work, the productions began to notice him.  And before we knew it he was hired to work on a Ridley Scott movie--Scott directed ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER and now Tommy was going to watch a legend up close while working as a production assistant on MATCHSTICK MEN.  And before he knew it, he was working for his hero Steven Spielberg on THE TERMINAL with Tom Hanks and later on INDIANA JONES AND THE CRYSTAL SKULL.  Someday Tommy Bernard will be producing a movie we’ll all be standing in line to see. And he was a custodian at Warner Bros. (Oh yeah, he has won an award or two at Slamdance and other festivals for a couple of short horror films he’s made.)

Me?  I worked for the USC Bookstore, so I could pay for my tuition at the Cinema School.  Ended up off campus on the top floor of an 8 story warehouse shipping books to External Programs classes when the sum and total paper history of Warner Bros. Studios showed up on the 6th floor of that building--donated to the University--1915 to 1967: CASABLANCA, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, THE SEARCHERS, BONNIE AND CLYDE--legal files for Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Ronald Reagan--it was all there. They hired forty people to inventory the collection, and I was one of them…from bookstore to backstage at the best studio in the history of the movies.

But I was also writing scripts--going to sell that million dollar screenplay--but writing at night and on the weekends because I knew you should never give up the day job (whether it was working at the bookstore, teaching English as an Air Force airman in Saigon, running projectors at the Virginia Theater in Champaign, working at the soda fountain at Dorris Pharmacy in Paris, Illinois).  Never give up the day job until you get that next, better, day job.  And today--2012--where is that job for each one of you?

Don’t be surprised if is a temp job in a profession or a company or university where you want to work.  Take whatever job it is that gets you in that door--and then keep working. I worked at the Bookstore during the day and I wrote at night.  I worked at the archive during the day, and I wrote scripts for tv documentaries at night and on the weekends.  When you latch onto that dream, take it where it leads you.

So it’s time to take a break--show you an archive--here are some of the artifacts we take care of at Warner Bros.

[At this point, Adams treated us to a brief set images of iconic items held in the Warner Bros. archive, ranging from items from Casablanca to the Batmobiles from the current, Christopher Nolan directed  Batman trilogy.**]

So someday all this will be yours.  The world is open to you as English graduates…but the world is open to everyone. What you can do better than them is put sentences together.  Spell without spell check.  You know that you have to write and rewrite and rewrite to make something flow.  We live in a world of typos--grammatical mistakes in books and magazines and newspapers (while they last) and the internet--so if you can step up and stand taller than the mediocrity around you, you will find your place, wherever it is you want to be.

So a couple of things: go after your passion.  Think of Tommy.  He jumped from Boston to Los Angeles armed only with the knowledge that he wanted to work in the movies and took the only job open to him at the time--custodian--to archival representative--to production assistant--to assistant to the producer of big time, big budget films.  The choices you make are the choices you live with.

I am the happiest guy in the world that I graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in English.  I hope you will be able to say the same when you look back.

Thank you for your time--and go get 'em.


* Sad but true.  Now I can never make a crude wooden birdfeeder for my backyard. 

** Batmobiles!  See! 

Blog Archive