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

Friday, November 6, 2015

Why Liberal Arts? Why English?

Today I had the opportunity to speak to prospective University of Illinois students and their parents at
 "Orange and Blue Day." My charge was to introduce the benefits of an education in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, to say something about the value of the humanities, and to make a pitch for English as a major. All in five minutes. I ended up going a little over time and I still only scratched the surface, of course. But I made an attempt to articulate--to a very particular audience, with a very particular goal in mind--what it is we do here at the University of Illinois and why it is more worth doing than ever.

Here's what I said. I'd love to hear back from you on the key questions: Why liberal arts? Why English?


            Good afternoon. It is a pleasure to have the chance to talk to you today. As you’ve just heard, I am Michael Rothberg and I am Head of the English Department. Before getting to my main job—which is convincing you that English is the only major you should seriously consider—I want to say a few words on behalf of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The question you’re probably asking yourself is: why come to LAS at UIUC? And you know, that’s really a very easy question: First of all, you want to come to the University of Illinois because it’s the top public university in the state. There’s no other public school where you can go to be educated by so many Nobel prize winners, Pulitzer prize winners, and other award winning scientists, humanists, and artists. (Actually, there aren’t too many private schools where you can do that, either.) Coming to a top research university means coming to a place where new knowledge is being made every day.

And if you come to Illinois you should come to LAS. Why? Because LAS is the heart of the university. The core disciplines and majors are found here: biology, history, psychology, English, math, philosophy. It’s the place where you come to learn about the world: both the physical world—its geography, geology, and chemistry—and the social world—its sociology, anthropology, economics, and politics. It’s where you discover “foreign” languages like German, Italian, Japanese, Russian, or Turkish—and also where you re-learn our own national story—in departments like African American Studies, Asian American Studies, and Latina/Latino Studies (not to mention history itself). In other words, if you come to LAS, you have the world at your fingertips. With 70 possible majors, you’ve got more to choose from and more opportunities to grow and explore than in any other college.

Once you arrive in LAS, I hope you’ll take advantage of the chance to choose classes in the humanities and to consider majoring or minoring in one of the humanities fields. Put simply: the humanities are the disciplines where you get to think about what it means to be human; about who we are, what we know, the world we have created, the religions we practice (or don’t practice), the cultures we inhabit, our relations to the non-human world. You also get to shake things up a bit: to question and critique the way things are, to imagine different and potentially better worlds. The truth is that humanities courses tend to be the ones where you’ll have the most contact with your professors; where you’ll have small classes and an opportunity to read and talk with other smart people about the things that matter to you.

[Credit: Allison Branson Photography]

But I also know what matters to your parents: return on their investment. College is not cheap and in recent years a lot of prominent voices have tried to tell you that it’s impractical to major in the humanities; that it will hurt your career choices and leave you jobless. But if you’ve been reading the newspapers and magazines lately, you might have noticed that that tune is changing. More and more, the press is reporting on the practical value of the humanities. Forbes magazine published an article last year called “Surprise: Humanities Degrees Provide Great Return on Investment.” Just last week they published an essay by a physicist on why humanities courses are even beneficial for scientists. Forbes is not alone in making the case for the humanities. Why this change of tune?

Let me turn to my own discipline, English, to explain what’s going on here. In English—and the humanities more generally—we do not prepare you for one specific job; we give you the capacity to flourish in a rapidly changing world where you can’t possibly know what careers will be out there even by the time you graduate. We also know that most Americans change careers multiple times during their adulthood. What you will get from English—besides what I hope will be a lifelong love of literature and art—are foundational capacities that will serve you well in the “real world”: we will teach you to analyze texts and contexts closely, to reason and communicate more effectively, and we will foster the curiosity and agility that you need to thrive in whatever career you decide you have a passion for.

If you’ve been following the news lately, you know that being an English major can prepare you for almost any post-graduate career: from snowboarding instructor to Prime Minister of Canada—and that’s just what one person did with his study of literature. Admittedly, Illinois may not be fertile ground for either of those particular jobs, but we do have alumni who go into politics: English grad Kelly Burke is in the State Assembly, where she works on issues of health care, higher education, and the enhancement of museums, arts, and culture; one of my own students became a diplomat and now works for the State Department in Vietnam (after previously being based in Nigeria and Indonesia)! Maybe you’re interested in politics but not really in doing politics. Well, our alumna Carol Felsenthal, who spoke at our graduation two years ago, is a journalist who covers politics for Chicago magazine; she’s also the biographer of Bill Clinton and has been working on another biography of, um, Rod Blagojevich. Perhaps you’re thinking of journalism and writing, but politics isn’t your thing: remember that Roger Ebert studied in my department (a little before my time). Or you’re more business-minded. Our graduation speaker this past year was Matt Garrison, who majored in Creative Writing. In 2014, Matt was on Crain’s Chicago Business “40 under 40” list because he runs one of the most successful real estate investment firms in the city.

Those are just a few actual examples of what English alumni have done. Right now we’re in the midst of creating new possibilities for our future alums. Not only do we offer great courses by award-winning teachers on everything from Shakespeare and American lit to graphic novels and video gaming; we also have a fantastic internship program that will connect you to potential employers on and off campus, we give you opportunities to edit and contribute to journals, and we have a careers course that will help you develop now the skills you will need later when you enter the job market.

I’ll be honest: I didn’t think about careers when I was in college; I majored in English because I loved talking and writing about literature, history, politics, and ideas. There are many reasons, practical and idealistic, why you might find your way to us. Once you do, though, you won’t look back.