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, April 30, 2012

ESLC Colloquium

This past Friday, the English Student Leadership Council held its now-annual Spring colloquium in the English Building. In a nice twist, the event started with a brief reception, a chance for students, faculty members, and departmental advisors, and various and sundry to share a bite and a brief chat.  Then four students presented research to an appreciative audience and fielded questions.  I would imagine that it would take some courage to do this, and I was really impressed by the intelligence and poise of the students, particularly during the Q&A portion of the event which (as any conference presenter knows) is the most anxious-making part of any presentation.

The event was ably MCed by Dan Hass, president of the ESLC, and it featured presentations by four outstanding students: Maggie Su (whose paper on Paradise Lost is being applauded in the picture above), Stacey Klouda (who presented on sustainable-food narratives, and for whom the crunchy-looking and verdant lettuce heads and plated books in the image below were props), Kristin Petersheim (who spoke about Chopin, Cather, and Larsen), and Patrick McDonald (who presented on Melville).     

In addition to questions about their subjects and approaches, the presenters fielded questions about the process of doing honors-level work in English: where topics came from, how students worked with faculty-mentors, what the process of original research really entails, and so on.  This seemed valuable to me, too: hands-on information, from student to student, about what it means to take an active, shaping role in the production of knowledge!

I'd like to use this space to thank all the students who participated in so doing edified all of us.  Big thanks are due, too, to our wise Director of Undergraduate Studies, Lori Newcomb, who has played such an important role these last few years in helping the ESLC find itself, and to our exceptionally dedicated and wonderful departmental advisors, Anna Ivy and Adrienne Johnson.  Our advising office is the best: that is a truth universally acknowledged.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Native Writers' Circle of the Americas Lifetime Achievement Award

LeAnne Howe, who is a faculty member in our Creative Writing program as well as in American Indian Studies, has been named as the winner of this year's Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas.  

This is quite an honor, especially since the list of previous winners includes luminaries like N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Joy Harjo, Sherman Alexie, and Louise Erdich (for more, go here).

I've pasted in the NWCA press release:

LeAnne Howe (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), author of fiction, poetry, screenplays, creative non-fiction, plays, and scholarly articles, is the winner of the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas. A well respected and honored author, LeAnne Howe’s books include Shell Shaker (2001), winner of an American Book Award in 2002 from the Before Columbus Foundation; Equinoxes Rouge, the French translation of Shell Shaker, a 2004 finalist for Prix Medici Estranger, (one of France’s top literary awards); Evidence of Red (2005), winner of an Oklahoma Book Award in Poetry and Wordcraft Circle Award in 2006; and Howe’s most recent novel, the acclaimed Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story (2007). Howe was screenwriter and on-camera narrator for the 90-minute PBS documentary Indian Country Diaries: Spiral of Fire (2006); she was also writer/co-producer of Playing Pastime: American Indian Fast-Pitch Softball and Survival, both documentaries with James Fortier (a three-time Emmy award winner filmmaker). Her scholarly work has appeared in Clearing a Path: Theorizing a Past in Native American Studies (2001), Pre-removal Choctaw History: Exploring New Paths (2008) and Reasoning Together: Native Critics Collective (2008), for which Howe is listed as a co-author. Reasoning Together was named one of the most influential Native texts of the 21st century. Additionally, Howe’s multi-genre autobiographical and scholarly prose essay, “My Mothers, My Uncles, Myself” appears in Here First: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers (2001).

Born in Edmond, raised in Oklahoma City, maintaining a home in Ada, Howe’s roots run deep into the red dirt of Okla Humma. As she writes, “I am part Cherokee, …although I am wholly Choctaw,”[1] Howe’s work speaks to the larger Choctawan experience and interaction with not only Indian country and the U.S., but also with the world. Howe has traveled extensively to such places as Japan, Jordan, Israel, Romania, and Spain. These experiences act as both research for her work and experiences by which she negotiates the ways in which Indigenous people broadly and Choctaws specifically maneuver, negotiate, and impact the world around them. Howe has been honored to serve as writer/artist and/or lecture in residence at several universities throughout the United States as well as in Amman, Jordan. She is currently Professor of English and American Indian Studies at University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne. LeAnne is working on her third novel, Memoir of a Choctaw Indian in the Arab Revolt, 1917. She is a daughter, mother, grandmother, culture bearer, and educator of the next generation. A ceremony honoring LeAnne Howe will take place during the Returning the Gift Native Writers gathering at the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin later in the year.  

[1] Howe, LeAnne. "My Mothers, My Uncles, Myself." Ed. Arnold Krupat and Brian Swann.Here First: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers. New York: Modern Library, 2000. 212-28. (215).


Congratulations, LeAnne, on this amazing honor!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Luminarium wins LA Times book prize; Shakar-mania sweeps nation

Alex Shakar's novel Luminarium was awarded the LA Times book prize last Friday as the best novel of 2011. I like the Times's headline: "Alex Shakar, Stephen King win Times Book Prizes"--but just who is this Stephen King fellow, anyway, and why is he horning in on Alex's glory? Wow! In a year where the Pulitzer judges were unable to agree upon a winner in fiction, this is the prize to win. And I liked this piece from the online site of the Wall Street Journal, too, which features Luminarium prominently among a shortlist of novels that would have been respectable Pulitzer choices.

Congratulations, Alex!

The paperback edition of Luminarium is scheduled to be printed on May 8, so now is the perfect time to jump on the bandwagon.


In other author-related news: happy (sort of) birthday to William Shakespeare, whom age cannot wither.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Collaborative Dubliners

Hot off the presses!

I'm happy to be able to herald here the birth of Collaborative Dubliners: Joyce in Dialogue, an innovative collection of essays edited by Vicki Mahaffey that has just been printed by Syracuse University Press. The organizing premise of this collection is to treat the stories in James Joyce's Dubliners as occasions for open-ended discovery and vehicles with which to foreground the process of collaborative reframing. Even the book's introduction is the product of a collaboration (between Mahaffey and Jill Shashaty), and Mahaffey also participated in two of the volume's other essays, each time working with a different scholar. Jim Hansen also participated in the book's collaborative process, and is half of a scholarly team along with Jean-Michel Rabaté of the University of Pennsylvania.

Here is the book description, pasted in from the Syracuse UP website:

"Enigmatic, vivid, and terse, James Joyce’s Dubliners continues both to puzzle and to compel its readers. This collection of essays by thirty contributors from seven countries presents a revolutionary view of Joyce’s technique and draws out its surprisingly contemporary implications by beginning with a single unusual premise: that meaning in Joyce’s fiction is a product of engaged interaction between two or more people. Meaning is not dispensed by the author; rather, it is actively negotiated between involved and curious readers through the medium of a shared text. Here, pairs of experts on Joyce’s work produce meaning beyond the text by arguing over it, challenging one another through it, and illuminating it with relevant facts about language, history, and culture. The result is not an authoritative interpretation of Joyce’s collection of stories but an animated set of dialogues about Dubliners designed to draw the reader into its lively discussions."

Congratulations, Vicki!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

J. Leeds Barroll Dissertation Prize Honorable Mention

One of the highlights of last week's meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America's annual conference in Boston occurred at the association's luncheon, the event where everyone gathers in a huge ballroom to chat with old friends, eat hotel chicken, and hear some updates about association business. Huge, in this case, means huge: there were about 800 formal participants in this year's conference, and that does not include scholars (of whom there were quite a few) who attended the conference without giving a presentation themselves.

So you can picture the scene at the luncheon: acres and acres of tables, scholars gathered from universities all over the world, and in the distance, an association president or vice president saying things about new trustees and prizes and so on. Ho hum. And then comes the announcement of those lucky few newly-minted PhDs whose dissertations were being recognized for the J. Leeds Barroll Dissertation Prize, three in total, two of whom are honorable mentions and...wait...what's that? One of the honorees is Tara Lyons, from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign! Yes! Not having been told to expect this, I almost fell out of my chair--quite a nice moment, with so many hundreds of scholars present. A feather in the cap not only for Tara but for our graduate program's visibility and reputation in the area of early modern literary studies.

To make the same point in a less dramatic manner: Tara Lyons, who defended her dissertation here last Spring (under the direction of Carol Neely and Zachary Lesser, and with Lori Newcomb and myself as committee members), and who is currently an Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, was named an honorable mention for the SAA's prestigious J. Leeds Barroll Dissertation Prize this past weekend. In front of everybody!

It was an exciting moment for me, as you can probably tell. And also for the other recent and current early modern PhD students in attendance, who know Tara as a classmate or (for those now embarking on their own dissertations) as one of the scarily accomplished older PhD students running the show in our department's Early Modern Workshop. Having read the dissertation, I can say that this is a well-deserved recognition for a brilliant and hard-working scholar. Congrats, Tara, if you happen to look at this blog from your new home in the verdant northeast!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Clayton and Thelma Kirkpatrick Symposium

I have been running around, lately, like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off. Just a mix of end of semester administrative stuff, teaching, and a trip to Boston to participate in the annual conference of the Shakespeare Association of America. That's why I am only posting now--a week after the fact!--about the Clayton and Thelma Kirkpatrick Symposium that our department held last Tuesday in the early evening at Levis Faculty Center on campus.

These symposia, which we now hold each Spring, have become a combination of a scholarly and a social event, giving grad students and faculty in the department the chance to hear about scholarly work in progress from people in the department's different sub-disciplines and also just the chance to mingle and see each other outside of the fraught confines of some faculty meeting or other.

This year, the organizing committee (to whom, my thanks!) settled on the topic of "cognition." Justine Murison (whose scholarlu work recovers the 19th-century equivalent of neuroscience) moderated the event, and we heard three provocative and surprisingly inter-illuminating papers. First, we heard from Melissa Littlefield--whose co-edited book The Neuroscientific Turn: Transdisciplinarity in the Age of the Brain--is about to become required reading for all of us--then from Paul Prior, who spoke about the critical history of attempts to use cognitive theories in writing studies, and then from Alex Shakar, whose novel Luminarium (soon to be in paperback!) is about the relationship between the material brain, science, and spirituality, among other things. All fascinating, not least because we do seem to be entering "the age of the brain" and because all humanists have to be at least curious about what brain science can and will mean for the kinds of work we do.

Speaking personally, I think of these events as celebrations of the depth and breadth of what we do in English, and about what it means to be part of a department full of smart, dedicated scholars working brilliantly on so many different kinds of important and fascinating things.

These symposia are made possible in part by the remarkable generosity of the Kirkpatricks, whose support of what we do in English has been transformational in so many different ways. So I guess I like to think of these events also as a celebration of their impact upon our work. I never tire of saying thank you, so I'll say it here again: thank you!

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