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.

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