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, 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


Curtis said...

Love this! Thanks for posting it, and thanks also to Mr. Dapier for sharing it in the first place.

Laurie Johnson said...

Thank you, Mr. Dapier, and thanks to Michael Rothberg for posting this. I studied German literature not because I was particularly good at it, but because I wanted to keep imagining other lives and languages. I am so grateful to be able to say I have been able to get paid to do this! Gratitude, in these last days of a long semester, for this meaningful reminder.

Blog Archive