Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois


Illinois Department of English Blog

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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 vmahaffe@illinois.edu.


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Welcome to Smalley University

This is the second post in this space dedicated to sharing (with permission!) an alum's recollections of studying in our department. This letter is from Paul Baltz, and I am grateful to him for taking the time to write, for allowing me to post his letter, and for subsequent correspondence.

I love receiving letters like this because it feels terrific to me to be reminded that the current generation of faculty here represent an institution that has meant a great deal to so many people for so long. Even more importantly, though, these letters are wonderful as testimony to the importance of teachers in students' lives. Every one of us hopes to have the kind of impact that Mr. Baltz attests to, and (I believe) all of us have teachers who have made this kind of difference to us. I also love it that Mr. Baltz has himself been a high-school teacher, paying it forward as it were. He was kind enough to share with me his ideas about teaching and I can tell that his students too must have been very, very well served.

So here goes.... I've left this unedited except that I cut out a couple of short paragraphs that are written to me in particular. As a result, this begins in medias res.

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You need to know at the outset of this letter that I was an undergraduate student of Professor Smalley (Victorian Literature I and Victorian Literature II). To say that he changed my life only just begins to describe the extent of his influence on me. Donald Smalley brought my mind to life in ways that stayed with me with every class I taught during a thirty-three year career as a member of the English faculty at Amos Alonzo Stagg High School in Palos Hills, Illinois. So it was not just I who benefited from Professor Smalley's extraordinary gifts; my students form a part of his legacy as well.

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I spent four years on the Champaign-Urbana campus of the University of Illinois — two as an undergraduate, two as a graduate student. My two undergraduate years (1960 to 1962) comprised my Junior and Senior years in college and culminated with a Bachelor's Degree in English in the Spring of 1962. Looking back on my life, those were the only two years in which I experienced anything approaching real education. My two graduate years (1964 to 1966) were undistinguished.

What little success I may have experienced both as a student at the University of Illinois and as a teacher in my post-university years I owe entirely to the high quality of teaching offered by the English Department at the University of Illinois. During my student years at the university, I quickly discovered that the English Department gave the lie to the notion that great teachers are rare. The truth of the matter was ~ Great teachers were everywhere. So much so that I found that during enrollment season, I did not sign up for classes; I signed up for teachers.


These names may be lost in time and may be unfamiliar to you, but they are the people who molded me, and I shall never forget them ~ Murray Krieger (Renaissance Poetry), Marcus Goldman (Chaucer), Royal Gettman (Romanticism), Edward Davidson (Literary Theory and Criticism), George Scouffas (Short Story), Stanton Millet (The Novel) and John Flanagan (American Folklore). This list of people whose passion it was to provide students with what they required to develop their fullest potential would not be complete without the name of the wonderful woman who presided over the English Library during my time on the campus. I believe her name was Miss Benton. She so personalized her position as librarian that, when a student checked a book out, it was not on loan from the university library; it was a personal loan from her. She always seemed disappointed that she could not do more for you than what you had asked of her. Unlike Oliver Twist who asked for 'more,' Miss Benton always asked if there was not 'more' that she could do for you.

Beyond these names from my own personal pantheon of great teachers, there are two others who stand alone as teachers who can only be described, from a student's point of view, as gifts from God. Every heaven has its stars and its sun. Every dream has its basis and its beacon. By the same token, every student in the English Department at the University of Illinois should have been as lucky as I was to have as teachers Donald Smalley and James Hurt.

Donald Smalley taught me how to think; there is no other way to say it. I first encountered Professor Smalley quite by chance (so I thought). As a student transferring into the University of Illinois in the Fall of 1960 as a Junior, my faculty adviser was Francis Koenig, an Assistant Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Looking back, I am sure that Dean Koenig knew what he was doing when he enrolled me that semester in Professor Smalley's Victorian Literature I. It was not until years later when, as a teacher myself, I began to realize exactly how the magic of the Smalley approach to life and to literature had affected me.

One of Donald Smalley's great passions (next to Robert Browning and Anthony Trollope) was Dichotomous Thinking. As a twenty year old university Junior, I had never heard of dichotomous thinking, and as a heady young know it all from the Chicagoland area, I had never done any dichotomous thinking. I was pretty much grass green, rookie raw and full of myself. Professor Smalley changed all that. It was not enough that his students master whatever it was that artists like Browning and Trollope achieved and stood for. Professor Smalley's students needed to understand what it was in their own minds that ultimately brought them to that intellectual plateau already occupied by the Brownings and the Trollopes of the world. Donald Smalley did not just want students with a feel for English literature. Me wanted epistemologists. To him the human mind was a tool box, and he made it his mission to see that his students were familiar with all of the tools in that box. Dichotomous Thinking was the most important of the Smalley tools.

Here is how he did it. Every now and then, Professor Smalley would begin class by putting two things on the board as a set — an A and a B ~ as, for example —

A ~ "I am a part of all that I have met" -- from Tennyson's "Ulysses"
B -- "God's in his heaven -- / All's right with the world!" -- from Browning's "Pippa Passes"

He would then give his students five minutes to write a paragraph finding or discussing the relationship between the two components of that set. He would begin the next class by reading the best student paragraphs from that exercise. (He never read mine - usually because I was the Humpty Dumpty of the class who took shelter behind Lewis Carroll's Looking Glass mantra of "Impenetrability! That's what I say!").

As I have mentioned, it was not until years later, in the midst of my own teaching career, that I began to understand the importance of Donald Smalley in my life. Once I began to approach my own lessons in a dichotomous way, a whole new world of critical and creative thinking skills opened up to me and became part of the resources I wished to make available to my students. And, true to the Smalley tradition, most of those resources (those 'tools' in the tool box of the mind) I had first been made aware of when Professor Smalley had us read the Thomas Henry Huxley essay usually entitled "The Method of Scientific Investigation."

During the course of my career as a member of the English faculty at Amos Alonzo Stagg High School, I developed a curriculum for high school English students using Professor Smalley's ideas as a base. I came to believe that the most important question any teacher can face when dealing with his students is — Can you teach someone else to think for himself? And, using Professor Smalley's model of Dichotomous Thinking as a starting point, this curriculum asked students to examine literature looking for examples of creative and critical thinking skills and then to respond to that literature by preparing assignments which demonstrated their own unique creative and critical thinking skills.


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And then there was James Hurt. How much better can it get! To be able to study the works of a man as passionately devoted to life as Henrik Ibsen by an Ibsen scholar as passionately devoted to Ibsen as James Hurt! In the mid-1970's the University of Illinois developed a series of satellite campuses around the state of Illinois ~ I assume in order to expand its resources to meet the needs of post-university, adult education students. It was at one of these installations -- in Hinsdale, Illinois - that James Hurt once a week presented a course entitled Ibsen and Shaw. At the time I was mildly interested in Shaw and had scarcely heard of Ibsen. Since taking that course, however, I find that I cannot get enough of Ibsen. It is virtually impossible — for me, anyway — not to see almost any current political problem except through the prism of Enemy of the People or to understand any domestic problem without the benefit of A Doll's House. Incidentally, if you have never seen the Anthony Hopkins / Claire Bloom version of A Doll's House, you are in for a treat. Professor Hurt was even kind enough, some time in the 1990's, to spend a day visiting my students at Amos Alonzo Stagg High School and to help them with their study of Ibsen by offering them his insights into the work of this Scandinavian Colossus. With regard to A Doll's House, one of my students even asked Professor Hurt if Nora had left home without her American Express card. (Chuckle, Chuckle). And, to this day, one of the most cherished books in my own library is a personally inscribed copy of Catiline's Dream: An Essay on Ibsen's Plays (by, of course, James Hurt).

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Mr. Baltz added this by way of post-script to his letter: "Please rename the university after Professor Smalley. Thank you." Done! And you're welcome. Here at Smalley University, we couldn't be prouder of our tradition of superb teaching!

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