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.

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