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, November 4, 2014

The Wallace Stevens Memorial Prize

With the everyday busyness of the semester, it has been a while since I had a chance to update this blog. I hope some of you have had a chance to "like" our departmental Facebook page, though, since we've been announcing all sorts of good things over there. If not, please join us here.

I did want to take a moment to announce an exciting new prize we will be offering to graduate and undergraduate students, starting this year. It's called the Wallace Stevens Memorial Prize and it will be awarded once a year for the best critical essay written on modern American or British poetry. Here's an announcement for the first award cycle, which will be focused on graduate students:

This award has been made possible by the generosity of a donor, Harris Hatcher. Harris Hatcher is not an alumnus of our department, but he is a lover of modern poetry--and particularly the writings of Wallace Stevens, one of the great American poets of the twentieth century. We are so lucky to have found Harris and to have had the opportunity to connect him to our faculty, which is rich in expertise on modern poetry.

Last winter, Harris came to campus, and I had the pleasure of having lunch with him and introducing him to my colleagues. Although Harris is not an academic, he has the thorough knowledge of any specialist in the criticism of Stevens and modern American poetry--and he already knew the work of such English department faculty as Tim Newcomb (author of a book on Stevens) and Cary Nelson (editor of a major anthology of American poetry)!

Here I am with Harris and Vicki Mahaffey, a leading modernist in our department…

Opportunities like this--to connect our work as scholars with an interested and knowledgeable public--do not happen every day. But they sure make our work worthwhile!

Thank you, Harris, for supporting us and our students!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Welcome (Back) . . . Teaching Excellence

I am pleased to welcome everyone back for the 2014-2015 academic year! I hope you have managed to have a relaxing summer and are feeling ready for the new semester.

I’m excited about the coming year not least because we’re welcoming several terrific new colleagues to the department. Candice Jenkins comes to us from Hunter College, where she was an Associate Professor of English. She works on contemporary African American literature and especially issues of sexuality and class. Irvin Hunt also joins us as a specialist in twentieth-century African American literature; Irvin just completed a PhD at Columbia University and has interests in comedy and satire. Candice and Irvin will both have joint appointments with the Department of African American Studies. We are equally happy to welcome Eric Pritchard, who comes to us from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was an Assistant Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies; he’ll be joining our Writing Studies faculty and continuing his work on black queer literacies and other topics. We also have two new Visiting Assistant Professors. John Gallagher just received a PhD from the University of Massachusetts and works in the areas of writing studies and digital media. Jamie Jones received a PhD from Harvard and joins us from the University of Michigan. She works on environmental humanities and late nineteenth-century American literature. In addition, Natalie Mesnard, a graduate of our MFA program, is taking on a position as Lecturer, and Carrie Dickison, a PhD candidate in our literature program, is taking on a position as Instructor.

There are new faces among departmental leaders as well. Tim Newcomb has taken over from Spencer Schaffner as Associate Head and Dale Bauer is our new Director of Undergraduate Studies, replacing Lori Newcomb. I’m very grateful to Spencer and Lori for doing so much to make my first year as Head as smooth as possible, and I’m looking forward to working with Tim and Dale. I’m also grateful to Andrea Stevens, who is serving as Graduate Placement Director while Justine Murison is on sabbatical, and to Kirstin Wilcox, who has been working with Dale to start a new internship program for our majors.

In other news, we have recently received the new List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by their Students for the spring semester. As ever, we are well represented on this list. All of us—tenure-track faculty, lecturers and instructors, graduate teaching assistants—are dedicated to our students and it shows (among other ways) in how extensive the list always is:

Laura Bandy, Iryce Baron, Rob Barrett, Jensen Beach, Michael Behrens, Martin Camargo, Sarah Cassinelli, Debojoy Chanda, Erin Chandler, John Claborn, Mary Rose Cottingham, Esther Dettmar, Carrie Dickison, John Dudek, Meghan Dykema, Patrick Fadely, Jill Fitzgerald, Jein Funk, Naida Garcia-Crespo, Shawn Gilmore, Catherine Gray, Nolan Grieve, Joe Grohens, Ceridwen Hall, Jim Hansen, Justin Hanson, William Hechler, Marilyn Holguin, Ann Hubert, DeAvery Irons, Miguel Jimenez, Daniel Kelly, Mary Lindsey, Melissa Littlefield, Trish Loughran, Sean MacIntyre, Michael Madonick, Vicki Mahaffey, Bob Markley, Patrick McGrath, Lee McGuire, Erin McQuiston, Erica Melko, Jessica Mercado, Natalie Mesnard, Matthew Minicucci, Feisal Mohamed, John Moore, Dave Morris, Andrew Moss, Justine Murison, John Musser, Richard Nardi, Hina Nazar, Katherine Norcross, Valerie O’Brien, Michael Odom, Audrey Petty, Catherine Prendergast, Julie Price, Scott Ricketts, Gregory Rodgers, Richard Rodriguez, Carla Rosell, John Rubins, Ariana Ruiz, Sandra Ruiz, Julia Saville, Spencer Schaffner, Jordan Sellers, Alex Shakar, Michael Shetina, Siobhan Somerville, Carol Spindel, Andrea Stevens, Elizabeth Tavares, Eric Thomas, Renee Trilling, Gregory Webb, Sara Weisweaver, Lucilena Williams, Zachary Williams, Jessica Wong, and Jessica Young.

That’s the news for now. Hope to see you back here soon on the English blog…

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Convocation 2014

Yesterday I had the very special privilege of presiding over the 2014 English and Creative Writing Convocation. Sitting together with a couple dozen of my colleagues I watched as over 100 English and Creative Writing majors received their diplomas and ten of our graduate students were “hooded” by their advisors to mark the receipt of their Ph.D.s. Afterwards, we emerged out into a beautiful sunny afternoon on the Illinois quad.

This is always a moving event, but it was especially so for me this year since it marked the end of my first academic year as department head (although, to be sure, many projects remain in medias res!). I am proud of our graduates, who have accomplished so much during their four years at Illinois, and I am proud of my colleagues who helped enable those accomplishments through their dedicated teaching and mentoring. Not only do I believe an English degree—and more broadly a liberal arts degree—prepares our students well for any number of future possibilities, I also believe an English degree affords them four years of close contact with faculty members who are dedicated to helping them become better writers, thinkers, and ultimately citizens.

Convocation is a collective effort and I am grateful to everyone who made it possible—not least our wonderful academic advisers Anna Ivy and Jovaughn Barnard. I’m also grateful to Interim Associate Dean Curtis Perry (whom some of you may recognize as having occupied this blog in the years before me!) for his remarks at the event.

And I’m especially thankful to our convocation speaker, the writer and journalist Carol Felsenthal. Carol graduated from our department in the early 1970s and has gone on to an illustrious career as a biographer and political commentator known for her portraits of such figures as Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Katherine Graham of the Washington Post. Carol gave a wonderful speech recounting her path to becoming a writer. She told us about some of the roadblocks women faced at the time she was starting out and also about the persistence—or chutzpah, as she put it!—needed to break through into a writing career. It seemed like a good message for folks about to set out on their own path towards what we hope will be similarly successful careers.

                                                             Michael, Carol, Curtis

I’m guessing that this blog will be a little quieter over the next couple of months as we regroup and then gear up for another year. But before you head off for your summer vacations, let me mention a few other pieces of good news that I haven’t had a chance to post yet.

Ramona Curry, a scholar of film studies in the department, has received a position as Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Studies at Uppsala University in Sweden. Ramona will be taking up her post in spring 2015.

Charlie Wright, recently a winner of a campus-wide award for graduate student mentoring, has also won the CARA Award for Excellence in Teaching from the Medieval Academy.

Our writing studies graduate student Pamela Saunders was recognized for writing one of the best papers to be presented at the upcoming Rhetoric Society of America meeting. Katie Irwin, who is based in Communication, but works with colleagues in English and the Center for Writing Studies, was also chosen for this Gerard A. Hauser Award.

Congratulations to all of these colleagues and students, and best of luck to all the new graduates! We trust you will keep in touch with us as you go on your way…

Friday, May 9, 2014

Launching Re:Search!

This has been an exciting year for undergraduate research in our department. We have a wonderful, active group of students in the English Student Council—the ESC—who have been working closely with Professor Lori Newcomb, our Director of Undergraduate Studies, and Wendy Truran, a graduate student in our program. A few weeks ago, we hosted part of the Undergraduate Research Symposium: panels considered “Gendered Spaces in British Literature,” “Identity Issues,” “Research in the Writer’s Workshop,” and “Intersectional Identities in American Women Writers.”

Another roundtable at the symposium was dedicated to what I think was the “big event” of the spring semester: the founding of Re:Search: The Undergraduate Journal for Literary Criticism. Re:Search joins our literary journal Montage as a new voice for undergraduate research in the department.

On May 8, a few dozen of us gathered in the newly refurbished atrium of the English Building for the launch of Re:Search. At the launch party we got to hear from Editor-in-Chief Nick Millman and Vice President Michael Chan, and we met other members of the editorial board as well as the contributors. Among the contributors to the first issue is Mary Baker, who recently won honorable mention in the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities essay contest for her essay on Mad Men! Other essays consider such diverse topics as children and space in The Secret Garden (Kathryn DiGiulio), superheros in the film The Avengers and the graphic novel Kingdom Come (David Rodgers), the subversion of domesticity in Victorian and neo-Victorian novels (Leatrice Potter), Japanese war-period fiction (Genevieve Scheele), nostalgia and empire in Doctor Who (Yue Yuan), race and class relations in E.D.E.N. Southworth’s The Prince of Darkness (Caitlin MacDonald), and violence and masculinity in video games (Mark Pajor). I am particularly impressed by the range of texts and approaches that made it into this single issue—a true sign of the creativity of our students and the vibrancy of our courses.

What is unique about Re:Search is the mentoring system the students have set up. Every essay is peer-reviewed by the editorial board and each contributor then works closely with a faculty mentor in the lead-up to publication. I am certain this creates a very productive intellectual exchange and accounts for the high quality of the essays. 

Many people have made this exciting new publication possible—it’s impossible to name them all here, but be sure to check out the extensive acknowledgments in the journal, which is available both online and in old-fashioned (but very lovely) paper editions. I do want to say a particular thank you to the faculty mentors who worked with the authors and, especially, to the journal’s hardworking faculty advisor Lori Newcomb, whose vision and guidance helped make this first issue such a success (that's Lori in the image above with the journal's Executive Board)!

As I remarked at the journal launch the other evening, working on a journal in graduate school was one of the most intellectually challenging and satisfying things I’ve ever done—I’m thrilled that our students have this opportunity already as undergraduates. So much of what we do as humanities students and scholars involves the solitary work of reading and writing. Being part of the creation of a journal—and appearing in one!—allows you to conceive of what you’re doing as part of a larger conversation about culture, about knowledge, about the world. Joining that larger conversation means recognizing that you are part of a community of other researchers, of people trying to understand the world in new and better ways. And it’s a good feeling. That’s what we try to enable in the Department of English. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Prendergast and Harjo Win Guggenheims!

Last week I received the very exciting news that two English department colleagues—Catherine Prendergast and Joy Harjo—have been named Fellows of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. They are two of an unprecedented five Illinois faculty members who won this year—Asef Bayat in Sociology, Stephen Taylor in Music, and Deke Weaver in Art and Design are the others. Guggenheim fellowships are about as prestigious as things get in the humanities and they recognize not just a particular project but the shape of a career—these are very impressive and significant awards.

Cathy Prendergast is a long-time member of our department and a leading figure in Writing Studies. Her first book, Literacy and Racial Justice: The Politics of Learning after Brown v. Board of Education, won multiple national awards from the likes of the MLA and the NCTE. Her second book, Buying into English: Language and Investment in the Capitalist New World, was a prominently reviewed study of the efforts of Slovaks to learn English in the wake of the Cold War and in a moment of European unification. Her new book project, which she’ll be working on during the tenure of her Guggenheim fellowship, is a study of writers’ and artists’ colonies like Yaddo and Carmel-by-the Sea. Writer, Painter, Banker, Thief will be an institutional history that brings culture and economics together—it’s an exciting and timely project and I can’t wait to see what Cathy comes up with!

Joy Harjo is a brilliant new addition to the Illinois campus. With a primary appointment in American Indian Studies and an affiliation with English, Joy is a member of the Mvskoke Nation and is one of our most prominent poets. She is the author of numerous award-winning poetry collections, including She Had Some Horses and How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems. But her Guggenheim is actually for nonfiction—a sign of her versatility as a writer. I had the opportunity to hear her read from her very powerful recent memoir Crazy Brave last fall on campus, and I am very much looking forward to the follow-up. Crazy Brave won the PEN USA Literary Award for best creative nonfiction. I should mention that Joy is also an accomplished musician who plays saxophone and tours with a band.

Congratulations, Cathy and Joy—and Asef, Stephen, and Deke! These awards are just one more sign of how vibrant the humanities, arts, and social sciences are on our campus.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Interdisciplinarity, the IPRH, and Us

The humanities at the University of Illinois are truly interdisciplinary. This feature of intellectual life in Champaign-Urbana has always struck me as our greatest asset. Part of that interdisciplinarity is simply the outcome of the broad, border-crossing interests so many of us have; our research leads us naturally into conversations with scholars from other fields and areas both within and far beyond the humanities.

That movement across disciplinary borders characterizes most humanities work these days (not to mention work in the social sciences, natural sciences, etc.); obviously it’s not just something happening in Illinois. But what is special about our campus is that we also have intellectual and institutional infrastructure that enables such research. One of the reasons I came to Illinois was because of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory, a unique interdisciplinary space for high-level research and teaching that cuts across the humanities and social sciences. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to direct the Unit for a time—and a pleasure to see it pass on to my colleague Lauren Goodlad in the following years.

There are many other units on campus that facilitate this kind of work—including our Department of Gender and Women’s Studies and various ethnic studies programs. Today I want to draw particular attention to the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities. The IPRH has had a string of visionary leaders and is now in the very capable hands of director Dianne Harris and associate director Nancy Castro (who also has English department affiliation). Under Dianne, the IPRH has been extraordinarily successful at attracting significant external funding, culminating in a recent $3 million Mellon Foundation grant. That grant—Humanities Without Walls—will help create a new consortium of fifteen humanities centers in the Midwest. The IPRH already sponsors faculty and graduate student fellowships, postdocs, lectures, and interdisciplinary research clusters. It’s an essential part of the fabric of intellectual community on our campus. 

I’m thinking with particular fondness of the IPRH today, because I just found out that—once again—Department of English faculty and students have been recognized in the annual IPRH Prizes for Research in the Humanities. I am very pleased to announce that Christopher Freeburg has been selected for the faculty prize for his essay “James Baldwin and the Unhistoric Life of Race,” which was published in the South Atlantic Quarterly. In addition, Christine Hedlin has received Honorable Mention in the graduate student category for her essay “‘Was There Not Reason to Doubt?’ Wieland and Its Secular Age.” Christine’s essay was written for a graduate seminar with Justine Murison and then revised in a professionalization seminar with Gordon Hutner. Her essay will appear in the Journal of American Studies! Last but not least, Mary Baker has received Honorable Mention in the undergraduate research category. Her paper “The Maintenance of the Mainstream: Policing Difference in Mad Men” was written for Siobhan Somerville’s class English 461: American Narratives of Passing. It will appear in the first issue of Re:Search, our department's new undergraduate journal of literary criticism.

Congratulations, everyone! And thanks to the IPRH for helping make this kind of research more visible!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Gail Hawisher Receives the Exemplar Award!

I am very pleased to report that our colleague Gail Hawisher, Professor Emeritus of English, has received a very impressive award from the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC). Together with her collaborator Cynthia Selfe, Gail has been recognized with the Exemplar Award, which the CCCC calls “its most prestigious honor.”

The Exemplar Award, given this year for the first time ever to a collaborative authoring/editing team, singles out those “whose years of service as an exemplar for our organization represents the highest ideals of scholarship, teaching, and service to the entire profession. The Exemplar Award seeks to recognize individuals whose record is national and international in scope, and who set the best examples for the CCCC membership." 

The citation from the Award Committee notes how Gail and her collaborator “led our field (sometimes kicking and screaming!) into the 21st century, a period marked by a transition for writers and teachers of writing, to digitally-mediated forms of written communication.” It draws particular attention to their editing of the groundbreaking journal Computers and Composition and to the influence of such co-written books as Literate Lives in the Information Age: Narratives of Literacy in the United States (2004) and Transnational Literate Lives in Digital Times (co-authored in 2012 with our own alum Patrick W. Berry!) as well as to their service to the profession over many years. You can read the complete citation here.

Congratulations, Gail, for this well-deserved honor!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Teaching Success

As you know from my recent post, the English department is well represented in college and campus teaching awards. Now, I'm pleased to report, instructors in English courses are, once again, numerous on the List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent By Their Students, which is compiled by the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning.

The usual disclaimers apply--we know that excellence in teaching comes in more forms than can be measured by filling in bubbles on a standardized form--but I am still pleased to see these kinds of results. English courses offer rigorous instruction in writing critically and creatively, in reading closely, and in thinking freely--the fact that our students appreciate what we're offering is always a good sign!

Here then is the list of teachers ranked excellent for courses offered in fall 2013.

Laura Bandy, Jensen Beach, Michael Behrens, Martin Camargo, JB Capino, Sarah Cassinelli, Debojoy Chanda, Jill Clements, John Claborn, Mary Rose Cottingham, Carrie Dickison, Dennis Dullea, Patrick Fadely, Stephanie Foote, Andrew Gaedtke, Shawn Gilmore, Catherine Gray, Nolan Grieve, Joe Grohens, Andrew Hall, Jim Hansen, Justin Hanson, Gail Hapke, William Hechler, Marilyn Holguin, Ann Hubert, DeAvery Irons, Miguel Jimenez, Brigit Kelly, Annie Kelvie, Melissa Larabee, Mary Lindsey, Trish Loughran, Sean MacIntyre, Heather McLeer, Erin McQuiston, Michael Madonick, Calgary Martin, Jessica Mercado, Natalie Mesnard, Matthew Minicucci, Libbie Morley, Dave Morris, Andrew Moss, Justine Murison, John Musser, Hina Nazar, Katherine Norcross, Valerie O’Brien, Michael Odom, Robert Dale Parker, Catherine Prendergast, Julie Price, Paul Prior, Isabel Quintana-Wulf, Scott Ricketts, Anna Robb, Carla Rosell, John Rubins, Rachel Samanie, Ted Sanders, Spencer Schaffner, Jordan Sellers, Michael Shetina, Andrea Stevens, Debora Tienou, Renee Trilling, Kristin Walters, Gregory Webb, Rebecca Weber, Sara Weisweaver, Kirstin Wilcox, Zachary Williams, Gregory Wilson, Charlie Wright, David Wright, Noel Zavala

Well done, all!

Blog Archive