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, 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. 

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