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

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Chicagoan of the Year!

A few months back I blogged about the publication of Audrey Petty's terrific and important book High Rise Stories. Well, on the basis of that book Audrey has just been chosen one of the Chicagoans of the Year by the Chicago Tribune!

Congratulations Audrey for that wholly deserved honor!

Here's the front page of the Tribune's Arts and Entertainment section with a great photo of Audrey:

Monday, December 23, 2013

Semester's End and Winter Convocation

On Saturday I had the pleasure of attending the LAS Winter Convocation, during which a few hundred students received their BA, MA, and PhD degrees.

Although there were relatively few English students graduating mid-year, I was still pleased to be part of the festivities. The Great Hall at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts was filled to the brim, and it's always a moving moment to see students honored for years of hard work.

I especially liked hearing the applause and shouts of family and friends when particular names were called--even though the college requests guests "to withhold their applause" in order "to enhance the dignity and ensure the smooth flow of the ceremony!" Who can exercise that kind of restraint when their loved one is being recognized for such an achievement?

Although department business continues into the holiday break, the convocation also marked the end of my first semester as department head. Thanks to my hard-working colleagues and the wonderful staff in the department, it has been about as smooth a first semester as I could have hoped for. More than anything, I've learned an incredible amount in the last few months about our department and about how the university works. It's been a challenge, but a satisfying one.

We have many exciting initiatives under way--from graduate student conferences to innovative course development and a new undergraduate journal--so I'm optimistic about the semester to come. We also have three searches going on and I am confident we'll be adding terrific new colleagues in needed areas to our faculty in the next year.

I wish everyone a restful break and a Happy New Year!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Imagining the Lives of Others: The Importance of Studying Literature

Recently I posted on some of the successful and surprising career paths our alumni are taking. In response I received a really wonderful letter from another alum. With permission, I am posting his note below—I think this is one of the most eloquent accounts of the importance of studying literature I’ve seen. 

[Update: I just read this essay by Lisa Zunshine in The Chronicle of Higher Education on the cognitive benefits of reading literature and I think it only confirms Jarrett Dapier's comments below (password may be necessary).]

Dear Mr. Rothberg,

I am a graduate of the English department (B.A. '01) and have enjoyed the department newsletters I've been receiving in the mail as well as reading new content on the blog. Your efforts to keep in touch with alumni have renewed an appreciation in myself for the education I received while I studied English and creative writing at Illinois. 

In the 10 years since graduation, I have followed a course that may appear scattershot to a lot of people, but is one that I've found deeply rewarding. I've taught reading enrichment classes to students of all ages for a private reading instruction firm, worked as a legal assistant at the ACLU of Illinois on their racial justice and reproductive rights projects, acted as the assistant publisher at In These Times magazine in Chicago (where I wrote for the magazine's blog and published occasional articles), and am now beginning my 5th year as a teen services/young adult librarian at the Evanston Public Library in Evanston, IL. Outside of my professional life, I recently published an original stage adaptation of My Antonia by Willa Cather which was produced at the Station Theatre in Urbana, I have performed at Lookingglass Theater, the Goodman Theatre, and the White House, and I worked twice as an assistant director at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. I also am married with two children. 

I have been very happy in all my pursuits and I credit the writing and reading guidance, critical thinking skills, and encouragement I received from my creative writing and English teachers - along with the local theater artists with whom I worked in Urbana during my time there - for my abilities to work creatively and professionally in disparate work environments. 

But, I think there's an even deeper commonality between the jobs I've worked in the last decade: despite the different structures and missions of each organization for which I've worked, despite the differences in responsibilities at each job, each has drawn on my ability to imagine the lives of others and approach them from a place of compassion and respect. I feel like the passion for literature, respect for characters, and belief in literature's ability to encourage connections between people and across communities I absorbed from my professors at Illinois have encouraged a level of empathy that has helped me in work and life. I'm thankful for it. 

I remain stricken at the thought that English departments - particularly at state universities - are struggling. They're crucial in ways the usual metric cannot measure.

Thanks again for keeping us in the loop.


Jarrett Dapier

Friday, December 6, 2013

Mocking for Success

Last night was the annual English Department event we call Mock Interviews. Organized by our indefatigable Placement Officer Justine Murison, the mock interviews give our graduate students an opportunity to hone their interviewing skills—and receive instant feedback—in advance of the annual Modern Language Association Convention. Various pairs of faculty sit in their offices, pretending they’re in some anonymous convention hotel, and the students circulate among us, so that they get a chance to have at least two different practice interviews.

These days more and more interviews are taking place via Skype and the interviewing season has become earlier and earlier, but MLA is still one of the primary components of the job search in English. This year’s convention will take place in early January and will be conveniently located in Chicago. I’m looking forward to seeing our job candidates there as well as many colleagues and friends.

Although most search committees (including some of our own!) are still in the process of making their way through applications, I have been pleased to hear that a number of our job candidates have already received calls for interviews.

I have to admit that each year I have the same experience with the mock interviews. In the run-up to the event, I’m always a bit peeved. Who wants to return to the office at 7:00 pm for two more hours of work? But every time it turns out the same: mock interviews are fun! They’re fun because we get to see our wonderful graduate students in action and hear what they have been working on. As in the past, I was really impressed by the great dissertation projects our students have and by their creative ideas for teaching (some of which I will surely steal!). It’s also always a pleasure to be paired with a colleague you might not otherwise work closely with—this year I was lucky to mock with Melissa Littlefield and I learned a lot from her questions.

This year’s mock interviews took place against a dramatic backdrop. With temperatures dropping and the weather forecast promising snow, we learned late in the afternoon that Facilities and Services would be turning off the heat in part of our building because of an unspecified emergency! This was really not what Justine and I wanted to hear a few hours before the interviews. In the end, though, the snow never materialized and the venerable English Building seemed to stay pretty warm (maybe because of all of those circulating, nervous bodies!). From my perspective, the event seemed to go off without a hitch. Thanks to Justine and all the faculty who participated!

The most important message, however, is this. If you happen to be reading this as a search committee member at another school, we’ve got some terrific, professional, and brilliant candidates for your jobs: hire them!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Alumni Career Paths

A few weeks ago we sent out our annual English Department newsletter. Besides being a way of letting folks know about what has been going on around the department, the newsletter also serves as a way for us to hear from our alumni—and for alumni to hear from each other. In addition to the pleasure of reading the many alumni notes that were submitted to the newsletter, I have also been gratified to hear from some alumni directly (and would love to hear from even more!).
I was especially excited to receive an email from a former student of mine, Jim Jay, who wrote an undergraduate honors thesis with me about a decade ago on the novels of Don DeLillo and Philip Roth. After graduating, Jim went on to do a law degree here at Illinois and then worked as a prosecutor for the state for eighteen months. At that point, his career took a fairly dramatic turn and he joined the State Department. Since switching paths, he’s worked at US missions in Lagos and Jakarta, and in 2015 he’ll head to Ho Chi Minh City. As Jim wrote to me, “The State Department is not where I would have imagined I would end up when I was taking your class and working on my thesis, but I have trouble seeing how things could have worked out better.” I’m thrilled that things have turned out so well for Jim—and I’m also pleased to hear that he still returns to some of the books we read together.
I also heard from an alumna who had graduated before my time in Illinois. Michelle (Kelley) Crane was a double major in Rhetoric and Spanish and, like Jim, has gone in directions that you might not have guessed. Immediately after graduating, Michelle started a career in television and worked first as a reporter for a local Champaign station. She then made a leap to the national level—joining CNN as a field producer and subsequently working for many years producing documentaries for A&E. She’s now struck out on her own and is building her own production company, producing and writing videos for television, hospitals, corporations, and non-profit organizations.
Like Jim, Michelle has volunteered to be part of the department’s Alumni Mentoring Network—an effort coordinated in our Academic Advising Office by Anna Ivy. The network puts current majors in touch with alumni working in all sorts of fields in order to give students a sense of the range of possibilities for post-college careers. Michelle summed up the spirit of the program well: “If anyone needs advice on how they should go about pursuing their future career, I would love to help. My oldest son is a junior in high school, so I definitely see the value in helping college bound teenagers and those about to graduate from college!”
            There is no doubt that college students today are on the front lines of a rapidly changing economy; they are facing the rising costs of education and a challenging job market. There’s no avoiding the serious implications of those facts, but I have to say I am heartened by the stories of Jim, Michelle, and other alumni who have forged satisfying and successful career paths. Precisely because we live in a world of rapid change and increasingly networked communication, an English major remains a great choice. We help foster the abilities that everyone can benefit from: close reading, clear thinking, lucid writing. Those also happen to be the skills that employers are looking for—something I’ve heard directly from colleagues in business and computer science lately. There’s much more to an English major than acquiring job skills, but it’s inspiring to see the unexpected things our majors have done with what they’ve learned here at Illinois.

Monday, November 4, 2013

More honors!

October was a busy month for me, with lots of campus deadlines and a conference to organize, so I have fallen a little behind on this blog.

But now that I have a quick minute I just wanted to pass on some more good news: I am very pleased to report that Lisa Cacho, an Associate Professor of Asian American Studies, Latina/Latino Studies, English, and Gender and Women's Studies, has won the 2013 John Hope Franklin Publication Prize of the American Studies Association for her book Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected. Named after one of the most distinguished American historians of the twentieth century, the John Hope Franklin Publication Prize is given annually to the best published book in American Studies. This is a huge honor for Lisa and for our campus.

NYU Press, Lisa's publisher, has a page announcing her prize here and you can read more about the book here.

On a personal note: Lisa and I were part of the same fellows' seminar at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities when she was in the early stages of working on this project, so it's a particular thrill for me to see how the book has fulfilled the promise that was already evident then. Congratulations, Lisa!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Faculty Honors...

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences here at Illinois is celebrating its centennial this year. As part of the celebration, we’ve already heard about the naming of Centennial Scholars. Now the College has announced a new set of honors. A “Gallery of Excellence” has gone up on the LAS website that will highlight the teachers, researchers, academic programs, and alumni who have been responsible “for some of the most important ideas and discoveries of the 20th and 21st centuries.”

I’m pleased to report that English is represented in the first round of honorees that is now available. I can’t think of a more deserving person to be singled out than Nina Baym, emerita professor of English, who is indeed responsible for many important ideas and discoveries! Nina held a number of the most prestigious titles available on this campus during the course of her career, including Swanlund Endowed Chair, Jubilee Professor in the College of LAS, and Center for Advanced Study Professor of English. What is important is of course not the names of those positions but the work that stands behind them: Nina is universally recognized as a major figure in changing the way we think about American literary history. She is especially and rightly renowned for expanding the canon of American literature so that it would take into account and value many women writers previously left out of the picture. Among her numerous important books during the course of a very rich career are Women’s Fiction (1978), Feminism and American Literary History (1992), and Women Writers and the American West, 1833-1927 (2011). Among the signs of her prominence in the field are her ongoing editorship of The Norton Anthology of American Literature (since 1985), and the many awards she has won, including the Modern Language Association’s Jay B. Hubbell Award for lifetime achievement in American literary studies (2000). Congratulations, Nina! You honor us by being part of our community.

While we’re on the topic of honors, I’m also very happy to report that Feisal Mohamed has received a new award. His co-edited collection Milton and Questions of History (2012) has just been awarded the Milton Society of America’s Irene Samuel Memorial Award, the highest honor from the society for a collection of essays. This is the second consecutive year that Feisal has received an award from the MSA. The award will be bestowed at the upcoming Milton Society Association conference in Chicago. Congratulations, Feisal, for receiving this further recognition of your work!

Thursday, October 3, 2013


The other day I had the great pleasure of attending a planning meeting for a new Undergraduate Literary Criticism Journal that our English majors are creating. This new journal will join Montage, a student-run creative writing and visual arts periodical with a long presence on campus. (You can read about both journals here.)

I was extremely impressed by the energy and commitment of the many students who attended, some of whom I enjoyed teaching last spring in my course on Critical Approaches to Literature! The meeting was led by Michael Chan and Clara Mount (see the picture below), but other students have also been involved in getting this initiative going, as you can read in this Daily Illini article from last spring. The students are getting great support from our Director of Undergraduate Studies Lori Newcomb as well as from our advisors, the University Library, and the Office of UndergraduateResearch.

When it appears next semester, this new journal will join what is already a very impressive array of publications coming out of our department. In addition to Montage and our award-winning literary magazine Ninth Letter (edited by Jodee Stanley and our wonderful Creative Writing faculty), we now serve as the home base for no less than six other faculty-edited journals. One very established journal, College English, has just arrived with our new colleague Kelly Ritter, and another about-to-appear journal, Resilience, is the brainchild of Stephanie Foote, who is becoming a leading figure in the new environmental humanities. Configurations, the official journal of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts, was recently taken over by Melissa Littlefield, and Bob Markley, Charlie Wright and Martin Camargo, and Gordon Hutner continue to edit The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, and American Literary History, respectively.

As you can see, this is a remarkable and diverse lineup that covers a huge terrain of “traditional” literary areas along with emerging interdisciplinary fields. Together with the great teaching and research that goes on in our department, this kind of editorial work is one of the signs of our intellectual vitality. Editing a journal is enormously hard work—as our majors are about to find out!—but it is also incredibly rewarding. And it’s a crucial service to our profession and to society at large, because it ultimately involves the preservation and transformation of our literary and cultural heritage.

As I told the students when I attended their meeting the other day, editing a journal in graduate school was one of the most enjoyable, challenging, and educational experiences I ever had as a student. Journals are the lifeblood of our profession: they are the way we most frequently get new ideas out into the world. It pleases me greatly that my colleagues and students are contributing in such a fundamental way to the creation and circulation of new works of literature, criticism, and theory. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Audrey Petty's High Rise Stories

I am very pleased to announce that Audrey Petty’s new book High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing has just appeared. Thanks to Audrey, I have a copy right here next to me on my desk! This book is a powerful work of oral history and historical recovery—it collects the voices of residents from no-longer-existing housing projects in Chicago. Audrey, who is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing in our department, served as editor, compiler, and introducer for these first-person narratives. The book is published in the Voice of Witness series, an imprint of McSweeney’s Books dedicated to “illuminating human rights crises through oral history.”

I was fortunate to hear Audrey read from and discuss High Rise Stories during a very affecting event about memoirs and memory at the IPRH last February that also included our own LeAnne Howe. Some of you may have also seen Audrey present the book during a joint event sponsored by the English Department and the Chicago Humanities Festival. I can attest that High Rise Stories is a moving and important book that exemplifies the best impulses of faculty in the humanities to make their work available to and for a larger public.

Here’s a little more about the book and the people who tell their stories in it, taken from the publisher’s website:

About the book:

In the gripping first-person accounts of High Rise Stories, former residents of Chicago’s iconic public housing projects describe life in the now-demolished high rises. These stories of community, displacement, and poverty in the wake of gentrification give voice to those who have long been ignored, but whose hopes and struggles exist firmly at the heart of our national identity.

Among the narrators:

DONNELL, who was initiated into gang life at the age of twelve. A former resident of Rockwell Gardens, Donnell recounts growing up in an environment where daily life involved selling drugs, fighting rival gangs, and navigating encounters with a corrupt and often violent police force, as well as his efforts to turn his life around after incarceration.

SABRINA, whose sister was shot in the head in their Cabrini-Green apartment when she was caught in the middle of a turf-related shooting. Because ambulances refused to come to Cabrini-Green, and the elevators were out of order, Sabrina’s father and her then-pregnant mother had to carry her sister down thirteen flights of stairs to rush her to the hospital.

DOLORES, who, at the age of 82, was hastily displaced from her home in Cabrini-Green after 53 years and forced to leave many of her belongings behind. Dolores depicts her community’s evolution over five decades, including her leadership in resident government, and her husband’s mentoring of youth through a Drum and Bugle Corps.

CHANDRA, whose son’s felony conviction bars him from entering the grounds of Chandra’s home in Orchard Park. Chicago Housing Authority rules demand that Chandra report him to the police if she sees him on the property, or face eviction herself.”

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