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

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Not last...yet

Just so you know, today's post about Ted Sanders is not my last post here as Head.  Nor is this one my last.

But my term as Head of English officially ends on August 15, so the last one is coming up fast.  I'm sure that seems more momentous to you, dear reader, than to me.  But I've been posting here for several years (hundreds of posts, and tens of thousands of page-loads) so it seems momentous to me!

Ted Sanders > Robert Galbraith

A few weeks ago, the news broke that a modestly well-received detective novel called The Cuckoo's Calling, ostensibly written by a first-time author named Robert Galbraith, had actually been written and published pseudonymously by J. K. Rowling.  The book shot up bestseller lists at once, of course, and occasioned numerous jokes among academic authors whose readership is, um, a bit smaller.  As in: "I'm not saying that J.K. Rowling ghost-wrote my recent book on Jacobean court poetry, but one never knows, right?  Buy it and see."

Allow me to be the first person to make the same joke about Ted Sanders, whose novel The Box and the Dragonfly--the first book in a series called "The Keepers"--will be published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in 2014.  Ted is a very observant, precise, and accomplished writer, who I have had occasion to boast about in this space before.  So I've got to think this is going to be huge!  And who knows, people, maybe he also ghostwrote all of my my books too, in his spare time.  Buy 'em and see?      

Seriously, though, readers of this blog can anticipate many more posts about this in 2014 and thereafter, because publications on this scale make significant media waves.  For now, though, I am really only posting in order to provide a link to an anticipatory ripple: a nice story about Sanders in the local paper from this past weekend.  Ted's personal webpage is here, too, and there is a nice interview with him by our own Philip Graham that is available online here.  

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. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

And now for something completely different

The latest issue of the LAS News magazine arrived in my mailbox today, with a cover story on Ninth Letter! Click through below to read it in all of its glory.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Ninth Letter is not your father’s literary journal.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Inventions of the skin

Andrea Stevens came by my office today bearing a copy of her new book,  Inventions of the Skin: The Painted Body in Early English Drama, 1400-1642

I had the opportunity to see this in typescript as it went into production, and that's why I'm so excited now to see it in print: it is really a wonderful book!  It combines solid, materialist research in theater history with evocative, philosophically oriented readings of plays as performance texts.  It is rare to find a book these days that combines positivist research with generative, theoretically rich readings of texts, and even rarer to find both in a book that is as lucidly written as this one is.  If you are a scholar in early modern literary studies or performance studies (or if you would like to become one) I recommend reading this book.

Inventions of the Skin is published by Edinburgh University Press, as the latest entry in the new book series "Edinburgh Critical Studies in Renaissance Culture."  Under the general editorship of Lorna Hutson, this series is quickly becoming one of the most important venues for new work in early modern British literary culture. 

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

"Inventions of the Skin illuminates a history of the stage technology of paint that extends backward to the 1460s York cycle and forward to the 1630s. Organized as a series of studies, the four chapters of this book examine goldface and divinity in York's Corpus Christi play, with special attention to the pageant representing The Transfiguration of Christ; bloodiness in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, specifically blood's unexpected role as a device for disguise in plays such as Look About You (anon.) and Shakespeare's Coriolanus; racial masquerade within seventeenth-century court performances and popular plays, from Ben Jonson's Masque of Blackness to William Berkeley's The Lost Lady; and finally whiteface, death, and "stoniness" in Thomas Middleton's The Second Maiden’s Tragedy and Shakespeare's The Winter’s Tale. Recovering a crucial grammar of theatrical representation, this book argues that the onstage embodiment of characters—not just the words written for them to speak—forms an important and overlooked aspect of stage representation."

Congratulations, Andrea!

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