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

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!

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