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, 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!


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