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, July 22, 2013

Why Literary Periods Mattered

Ted Underwood's new book--Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies--has just been published by Stanford University Press.  Get 'em while they're hot, people!

Here is the book description, pasted in from the press' website:

"In the mid-nineteenth century, the study of English literature began to be divided into courses that surveyed discrete "periods." Since that time, scholars' definitions of literature and their rationales for teaching it have changed radically. But the periodized structure of the curriculum has remained oddly unshaken, as if the exercise of contrasting one literary period with another has an importance that transcends the content of any individual course.
Why Literary Periods Mattered explains how historical contrast became central to literary study, and why it remained institutionally central in spite of critical controversy about literature itself. Organizing literary history around contrast rather than causal continuity helped literature departments separate themselves from departments of history. But critics' long reliance on a rhetoric of contrasted movements and fateful turns has produced important blind spots in the discipline. In the twenty-first century, Underwood argues, literary study may need digital technology in particular to develop new methods of reasoning about gradual, continuous change."

Questions about periodization matter to everyone in literary studies: received wisdom about historical period shapes the classes we teach and the way we ask our scholarly questions.  I've been eagerly awaiting the publication of this book for some time, in fact, because of my own scholarly interest in the questions it raises. 

Congratulation, Ted!

P. S. Those of you who are curious to know more about digital technology and "new methods of reasoning about gradual, continuous change" may want to check out Underwood's blog, The Stone and the Shell, which has become something of a go-to source for just these questions in recent years. 

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