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, June 17, 2013

Convocation revisited

Earlier this summer, I posted a brief note about our May convocation ceremony.  In it, I promised to post again, with pictures and with the text of our convocation speaker's remarks.  So here goes!

Ultimately, this event is about our wonderful students and their families, and one of the things I like about convocation ceremonies is the tension between formal solemnity and genuine, un-ritualized joy.  I love the ceremonial nature of the whole thing--the piper, the regalia, etc--but also the shouts and whistles from happy families that overturn the solemnity of the event when students walk across the stage.  I'd like to congratulate all members of the class if 2013, and their families!  I know I speak for everyone in our department when I say that it has been a privilege and a pleasure to work with you!

I'd also like to acknowledge those students who wrote honors theses and received departmental honors.  In alphabetical order, they are: Julie Chamberlin, Joanna Chromik, Chelsea Coatney, Sara Dobin, Natalie Farmer, Julie Guzman, Stephanie Hill, Laila Hosseini, Lauren Jackson, Sarah Langer, Rachel Lee, Anna Majeski, Asher Miller, Todd Reese, Michelle Senger, and Lynda Sherman. It takes special dedication to give yourself over to a thesis project, and you have no idea how much that kind of energy and initiative means to the faculty members with whom you have worked.  Thank you, and congratulations!

Our speaker this year, as I noted in my earlier post, was Darrell Nance, who graduated with a BA in English in 1978.  Here is a picture of Darrell on our stage (also, FYI, I'm the goofy-looking guy sitting there in bright red robes):

There are, as I remarked when I introduced Darrell at the event, innumerable graduates of English who, after completing school, go on to successful careers as teachers, lawyers, writers, scholars, and what have you. But I have also become increasingly interested in people whose career paths are more unusual, and who can speak therefore to the ways that a strong liberal arts education, grounded in English, winds up informing and enriching the lives and careers even of people who take wholly unexpected professional directions.

Darrell is a case in point. After graduating from our department in '78, he moved to Arizona for personal reasons and worked for a while as a Surveyor. Then, as the saying goes, one thing led to another. He is now the owner of a successful civil engineering firm in Seattle, with prominent clients such as Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft,, and many, many others.

Darrell grew up in Mahomet, and his father worked for the University of Illinois as foreman of the campus’s painters and glaziers. He is also a passionate advocate of the pleasures and values of reading and intellectual curiosity, and he is rightly proud of having been able to complete his degree on the very campus where he grew up playing as he tagged along with his dad.

I should say, too, that the text I am pasting in here represents a fleshed-out version of the notes Darrell prepared and spoke from, but he also improvised a bit, and shuffled things around a bit while at the podium, and so these remarks are not actually anything like a verbatim transcript of his address.  I have to say that Darrell's presentation was as emotional and heartfelt as any I have ever witnessed at such an event, and you can definitely get a sense of this from this printed version even if it is not exactly what you remember hearing at the ceremony!  It is an honor to share his story with you.


So, how did a graduate of one of the best engineering schools in the world, who earned a degree in English, end up owning an engineering firm?

When I was a kid, growing up just ten miles west of here, in Mahomet, my dad would take me to the Engineering open houses here at the U of I. As any curious child would be, I was fascinated by all the gizmos and experiments the students and faculty were running. And so was my dad. He was the foreman of the painting and glazing shop here at the U of I. He had access to all the labs on campus, so he knew what projects some of the faculty were working on. I think these open houses were just as fun for him as for me, but I have a feeling that he might have been giving me some early career counseling.

Naturally, when the time came to declare a major, I chose English. I am so glad I did.

First of all, I had a great time with it. I loved everything about being an English major. The careful reading and understanding, the analysis, the critical thinking, and the challenge of expressing my thoughts—both in class and on paper—my passionate connection to novels, short stories and poetry that I had come to treasure.

And then, hanging out with dance majors, art majors, and music majors is a nice bonus, isn’t it!

Second, being an English major has helped me immeasurably in my career. Believe me, the technical side of my business is the easy part. It is the intangibles in running a business that are difficult to master, and communicating is the number one intangible; and most technical people fail at this. Most people in general fail at this. Miserably.

You have no idea how maddening it is that only a handful of the many people I work with can write a paragraph that makes any sense. This language that connects us, that keeps our culture in order, is endangered. In my world, having the ability to think critically and write clearly, and the discipline to edit your work before hitting the “send” button, is invaluable. Don’t get me wrong. My employees are brilliant, talented people. They just don’t see the value of reading carefully and responding coherently.

I have a friend who is an editor (and a former English major). She says she loves editing because she gets to criticize people for a living. Believe me, she has found her calling! She is self-employed and edits books for people who self-publish. A lot of these books are of the self-help variety. I just used the word “self” three times—something she would no doubt edit. So many people are self-publishing these days you would think her services would be needed and valuable. And yet, one of her authors recently fired her, saying he found an editing service that will edit any book of 80 pages or less for $20. Twenty bucks!

That’s how much people value clear, concise, coherent communication today—meaning not very much. And yet, how we convey our ideas is essential to both our professional and personal success.

As for my story, again it has to begin with my dad. He went to school here but did not graduate. The only reason he even attended the U of I was because of a horrible accident. He grew up the oldest of seven children on a Depression-era, dirt-poor farm in southern Illinois. His family lived on the crops they grew, the livestock they raised, and what they hunted in the woods.

When my dad was 16, during a hunting trip, his shotgun went off accidentally, blowing his lower left arm to pieces. As luck would have it, the only guy in the entire county who owned a car happened to drive by, and he took my dad to the nearest hospital where his great-uncle was the doctor on duty. Although another doctor there wanted to amputate the arm, my dad’s uncle, who had seen action as a medic during WWI, insisted the arm could be saved. He was right, but my dad’s arm would never be the same. His uncle and aunt moved him into the attic of their home, having set up a makeshift hospital room. His recovery took months of constant care and rehabilitation. It was a continuous battle to ward off infection and regrow muscle and flesh. His arm would have a deep furrowed scar and his left hand would become locked into a fist.

This sounds tragic, and it is. But during that time, his aunt would bring my dad books from the library. One or two books soon became five or six and then stacks of books at a time. She could hardly check out enough books to satisfy Dad’s increasingly ravenous appetite for reading. He read anything, everything. When he returned to the one-room schoolhouse for the last half of his senior year, the teachers said he was the smartest kid they’d ever seen.

So he enrolled at the U of I—a bright and eager farm boy, dressed in overalls and clodhopper boots, incredibly na├»ve. He didn’t even know that a college education didn’t come free. When he found out that his great-uncle and -aunt were paying for his schooling, he quit because he knew he would never be able to repay them.

He moved to Chicago during the build-up to WWII and got a job working in the shipyards building battleships. He was the guy who painted the welds in the hulls of the ships. The thing is, with a left hand that resembled a set of talons, and not too many nerves to feel pain; he could hold a heavy bucket of leaded paint in his left hand all day. He eventually moved back to Champaign and took a job as a painter here at the U of I. He worked his way up to foreman and eventually retired here after 30 years of service.

30 years after my dad started school here, I was the one roaming around campus in overalls and heavy work boots.

It took me seven years to get my BA. I dropped out several times to work full time so I could earn enough money to re-enroll. One of those jobs was on the grounds crew here. I worked my way up the chain until I was awarded a “mowing route.” It doesn’t sound like much, but you get to work on your own, moving all around campus with a push lawnmower, cutting grass along the edges of pathways and around trees, prepping for the big mowers to come along. One of my routes was the main campus, right on the quad.

On one warm, wet, spring day I was working in front of the Union, down on my knees, scraping the compacted wet grass from underneath my mower. I noticed that a group of students had stopped to watch me work. One of the guys pointed at me and said, “That. That is why my dad sent me to college. Can you imagine doing that for the rest of your life?” As they walked away, I jumped to my feet, ready to go after the guy. But I needed that job and knew I would not only be fired, but also expelled.

The lesson? It’s a classic: Never judge a book by its cover. From that day on, I promised myself to be respectful of people who do the work that the rest of us don’t want to do. It was a good lesson that has served me well. The thing I’ve learned is that the people who wear the work boots and the hard hats, the overalls, the uniforms, the aprons, are a lot smarter than some people think they are. I’ve learned to hold a lot of respect for what all people do.

As for me, I found the perfect fit. I’m a surveyor. I fell into it by chance but I love the profession.

After college, I moved to Arizona, and after a year working in a factory, I started looking for something else. I found it by taking a job with a large engineering firm. I had spent three summers during high school on a survey crew. I thought I could do this again for a year or two before graduate school. For the first few years working on a survey crew, I was incredibly fortunate to learn from some great mentors. They invested their time in me because I made it clear that I wanted to learn, would work hard, and planned to move up. And I did. Quickly. I went from reading novels to reading blueprints. When I took charge of my own field crew, I was assigned to some challenging and unusual projects. I worked in all kinds of terrain, sometimes in the middle of a city, sometimes out in the remote high desert miles from anyone, sometimes on environmentally critical areas, and sometimes on major construction sites. I’ve worked on habitat restoration projects, and I’ve worked on large urban renewal sites. I’ve built two dams, several bridges, and some massive urban infrastructure projects. I’ve worked on high-rise buildings, schools, hospitals and university campuses.

I was soon promoted to the main office to lead our field operations. I had it made, my future was secure, and I was destined to own the company one day. Then I threw it all away and started over. Why? After several trips to visit friends in Seattle, I fell in love with the place. I knew that was where I wanted to be. Not the classic career move, to be sure. But I had to follow my heart. And now I own my own firm in Seattle.

The key to where I am now is that I did a lot of field engineering. Although I am professionally licensed as a Land Surveyor in several states, I do not have a degree in engineering, nor do I have a professional engineering license. However, I do know what to expect from my employees who are licensed. And do I enjoy the irony of all this, being an English major in the engineering world, and succeeding? Of course I do. It’s pretty sweet after all.

A few weeks ago, I was passing through Salt Lake City and had lunch with my high school English teacher who had retired there. John was just starting his teaching career when I was in high school, so he’s not much older than I am. He saw that I was drifting, that he was losing me, and this led to a turning point in my life.

My older brother had died in a traffic accident a few years before. I was still lost. My parents were still lost. It seemed like we were all just living in our own bubbles, going through the motions, trying to avoid feeling anything for fear of being hurt again. When I was a junior in high school, when I really needed to turn things around, John kept pressing me with one simple question every day after class: “What are you doing?” After about two weeks, I answered with a feeble “I don’t know.” John’s response was “Finally, the right answer.” His next question was “When are you going to figure it out?” The only answer had to be “Now. Right now.” And that is when everything turned around for me. I started focusing, studying, and getting my grades back up.

Perhaps I majored in English because I wanted to become a teacher. I began as a Music major but quickly learned that you need something called talent. I flirted with Psychology. The romance didn’t last. But my love for literature kept drawing me in.

When I was invited to speak here today, my first question was “Why me? Of all people, why me?” After all, I’m not a publisher, editor, or educator. I’m not a published author, outside of my industry. But then I thought: Wait a moment. I do all of those things, and on a daily basis. I publish maps, legal documents, and design drawings. All of these things I publish have to be edited—intensely. And am I a teacher? My entire career at this point in my life depends on teaching and mentoring younger professionals, and those who aspire to sit in my office and take the reins. My main purpose now, other than running the business, is to bring along a new generation of people to take over, to take things into the future.

My future involves playing a small part here at the U of I. My dream is to set up a scholarship to encourage students like me—students who may be on the verge of dropping out, giving up, because they simply cannot make ends meet and need just a little help to stay in the game. I know that feeling. Every time I dropped out to go back to work and save money for the next year of school was nearly my last time. I came so close to giving up so many times.

Just before my senior year of college, I was ready to call it quits. My dad, who had made it clear to me that once I was 18 years old, I was on my own (and believe me I agreed wholeheartedly) asked me the same question that my high school English teacher had asked me years earlier: “What are you doing?” I simply told him that it was too much of a struggle. I couldn’t do it any more. So he made a deal with me. He bought a trailer just east of Urbana for me to live in. I paid him rent when I could. The missing payments became a loan to pay him back. The money to buy the trailer came from a meager insurance settlement he had received when my brother was killed. Again, just like my dad’s college experience, a tragedy intervened to allow me to go to school here.

Needless to say, the scholarship will be named in honor of my dad.

We don’t often get to choose what we want to do. But we always choose how we do it. Is hard work its own reward? Yes. If you find your dream job, congratulations. If not, no matter what you are doing, working hard and learning as much as you can from the job and the people around you can lead to opportunities, respect, and exposure to new experiences. Chances are, like me, you’ll have several jobs before you find your niche in the cliff wall. It doesn’t matter whether you are swinging a hammer or driving a forklift, substitute teaching or filing paperwork, laying sod or being a research assistant (all of which I’ve done, and much more), you can take all that experience and build on it. I once sat where you are now. Someday you might find yourself sitting at a conference room table during an interview, across from someone like me. Perhaps I might be looking for someone exactly like you.

The things you have learned here at the U of I, the moments of discovery, the passion for that beautiful turn of phrase, the acute sense of the ironic and the sublime, will stay with you forever. No matter what you do in the future, you will always possess that. There is no price tag that can hold enough digits to express the value of your knowledge.