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, August 10, 2016

Majoring in Creativity

            Salutations! Fans of E. B. White will know who I am channeling, and perhaps why. As we prepare for the start of the semester, now that I have been Head of the department for almost six weeks, I would like to take this opportunity to remind students, parents, and perhaps even colleagues about what it the programs in English and Creative Writing offer.
            After an economic downturn, the numbers of people who major in the liberal arts decline. It is understandable: people become practical, and that pragmatism makes them focus on the most immediate challenge: will this degree help me get a job when I graduate?
            Liberal arts advocates typically respond by enumerating the practical nature of the skills students acquire in their respective disciplines: in English, we stress the development of students’ analytical abilities, as well as their growing command of the English language, deployed with increasing precision and even eloquence. But there are other benefits that it can be harder to pinpoint: an education in literature can also be an exercise in self-development, self-discovery, and self-preservation. As the novelist Julian Barnes once wrote of Mauriac’s Mémoires intérieurs, “He finds himself by looking in the works of others.”
            Why be an English major? Why learn to read and understand the world’s most complex and beautiful verbal compositions in the era of text messaging and Twitter? What I am about to say next should be obvious, but it has been hidden in plain sight. The liberal arts, as the Latin word libera suggests, are the arts of becoming free (or a little freer). Why do we have to learn to be free? Because society conditions its members to conform (or to rebel, which is not freedom but a knee-jerk resistance to conformity).  The siren call to middle-class young people is to get a job, get married, and have children. Be a success; look attractive; make money. There is nothing wrong with those things, although the sixty-eight year old man sitting across from me in the Flying Machine coffee shop didn’t seem to read the script: he is knitting (very happily, by the look of it). Those who thoughtlessly heed the siren call of society run a risk—the risk of someday seeing those decisions as meaningless because they weren’t chosen but were simply adopted.  What matters most is not what you do but how you do it. Once we’ve learned to live in a given culture we then have to learn to live beyond it: to think independently, to feel for those who are foreign or different; to invent; to convey. Learning to interpret more autonomously can provide antidotes to the fear and knee-jerk obedience that can creep up in times of crisis. It is arguably in times of crisis that we most need “liberal” education, which can give us unexpected tools for creative problem solving. And creative problem solving can even be applied to the vexing challenge of finding a fulfilling job.
Learning to read literature has two major effects: it expands one’s horizons and it develops one’s intellect, emotions, and imagination. This isn’t a short-term effect; it is a long term one, and it is designed to help individuals live more fulfilling lives. When times are hard, people sometimes forget that life is a marathon, not a sprint. In his last play, Henrik Ibsen has one of his characters say, “When we dead awaken we see that we have never lived.” In his play Endgame, Samuel Beckett’s character Clov mourns, “The earth is extinguished, and I never saw it lit.” Why did women and slaves work so hard for the right to be educated? It was not only to have more job opportunities; it was to enhance their experience of life, to get a more realistic perspective on life’s problems and to appreciate its beauty and its fun. As Einstein once wrote, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” That is the primary reason to major in English, one that supports all the others: learning to read literature with precision and self-awareness kindles and then guides the imagination; it becomes possible to go anywhere. It prepares you, not to start a business or to build a bridge, but to find the extraordinary in the ordinary in any occupation or situation.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Awards, Fellowships, and Teaching Excellence (Updated x 4!)

It’s the time of the year when it makes sense to start tallying the awards and fellowships received by Department of English faculty and students during the 2015-2016 year. The season is not over yet, and I will update this list as other news comes in, but there is already a substantial amount of good news to announce—and as anyone following the budget situation in Illinois knows, we need all the good news we can get!

It thus gives me great pleasure to present the following, rather long list of awardees:

Derrick Spires has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities;

Waïl Hassan has received an ACLS Fellowship;

Dennis Baron has won a Guggenheim Fellowship;

Joy Harjo won the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets; her book Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings was an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year;

Irvin Hunt has won a Rutgers University Postdoctoral Fellowship in African American Literature;

Janice Harrington has received a Ragdale Residential Creative Fellowship;

Lori Newcomb won a short-term fellowship at the Huntington Library; 

John Rubins has received a residency from the Bush Creek Foundation for the Arts in Saratoga, Wyoming;

Ryan Flanagan has received a Writer's Fellowship from the Edward F. Albee Foundation; 

Manisha Basu has received a fellowship from the Center for Advanced Study;

Andrew Gaedtke has been named co-winner of the IPRH Prize for Best Faculty Research;

Elizabeth Taveres has been selected as the winner of the IPRH Prize for Best Graduate Student Research;

Patricia Fleming, an English major, has been selected as the winner of the IPRH Prize for Best Undergraduate Research;

John Moore has been named a Humanities Without Walls Pre-Doctoral Workshop Fellow;

Rebecah Pulsifer has been named Andrew W. Mellon Pre-Doctoral Fellow in Bio-Humanities at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities;

Tim Dean has received an IPRH Fellowship;

Graduate students Christine Hedlin and Maggie Shelledy have received Graduate Student IPRH Fellowships;

Eric Pritchard and Sandra Ruiz are the co-winners of the Criticism and Interpretive Theory Junior Research Fellowship from the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory.

J.B. Capino has been awarded Humanities Released Time by the Campus Research Board;

Rob Barrett has received a Mid-Career Faculty Release-Time Award and has also won the LAS Dean’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching;

Wendy Truran has won the LAS Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching by Graduate Teaching Assistants as well as the campus Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching award;

Dave Morris has won the LAS Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching by Instructional Staff;

Kaia Simon, Debora Tienou, and Wendy Truran have won departmental teaching awards in the Graduate Teaching Assistant category;

Natalie Mesnard, Dave Morris, and Isabel Quintana Wulf have won departmental teaching awards in the Specialized Faculty category;

Carol Spindel won the Campus Honors Program Broadrick-Allen Teaching Award;

And, last but definitely not least, a large number of faculty and TAs from our BTW, Creative Writing, English, and Rhetoric classes in fall 2015 have been included on the List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by Their Students:

Iryce Baron, Rob Barrett, Manisha Basu, Paul Beilstein, Adrienne Bosworth, Andrew Bowman, Maria Carvajal Regidor, Michelle Chan, Erin Chandler, John Claborn, Mary Rose Cottingham, Eleanor Courtemanche, David Coyoca,  Chekwube Danladi, Tim Dean,  Michael Don, Dennis Dullea, Chelsea Farmer, Ryan Flanagan, John Gallagher, Eman Ghanayem, Shawn Gilmore, Catharine Gray, Joe Grohens, Ceridwen Hall, Jim Hansen, Joy Harjo, Janice Harrington, William Hechler, Marilyn Holguin, Michael Hurley, Candice Jenkins, Damian Johansson, Jamie Jones, Annie Kelvie, Katherine Kendig, Patrick Kimutis, Susan Koshy, Bruce Kovanen, Allison Kranek, Aaron LaDuke, Mary Lindsey, Trish Loughran, Coral Lumbley, Michael Madonick, Helen Makhdoumian, Bob Markley, Heather McLeer, Zach McVicker, Jessica Mercado, Natalie Mesnard, Matthew Minicucci, Dave Morris, Justine Murison, Hina Nazar, Katherine Norcross, Matthew O’Brien, Michael Odom, Robert Parker, Alexandra Patterson, Alaina Pincus, Samantha Plasencia,  Anthony Pollock, Rebecah Pulsifer, Julie Price, Scott Ricketts, Carla Rosell, John Rubins, Ted Sanders, Julia Saville, William Schwartz, Jordan Sellers, Alex Shakar, Michael Shetina, Kaia Simon, Christine Sneed, Siobhan Somerville, Ramón Soto-Crespo, Andrea Stevens, Alison Syring Bassford,  Eric Thomas, Carl Thompson, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Ted Underwood,  Elyse Vigiletti, Jess Williard, Gregory Webb, Kelly Williams, Jessica Witte, Jessica Wong, Jarvis Young, and Jessica Young.

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.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Joy Harjo Wins Prestigious Wallace Stevens Award

I am thrilled to announce that our new colleague in English, Joy Harjo, has won the prestigious Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets! This award recognizes "outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry," according to the Academy. It also comes with a $100,000 stipend. 

Photo credit: Karen Kuehn

Past recipients of the award include a veritable "who's who" of American poets, including John Ashbery, Galway Kinnell, Yusef Komunyakaa, Adrienne Rich, Gary Snyder, and James Tate. It is wonderful to see Joy taking her well-deserved place in this community of poets!

The very apt citation from Academy of American Poets Chancellor Alicia Ostriker reads as follows: 

“Throughout her extraordinary career as poet, storyteller, musician, memoirist, playwright and activist, Joy Harjo has worked to expand our American language, culture, and soul.  A Creek Indian and student of First Nation history, Harjo is rooted simultaneously in the natural world, in earth—especially the landscape of the American southwest— and in the spirit world. Aided by these redemptive forces of nature and spirit, incorporating native traditions of  prayer and myth into a powerfully contemporary idiom,  her visionary justice-seeking art transforms personal and collective bitterness to beauty, fragmentation to wholeness, and trauma to healing.”

Those of us here in Champaign-Urbana will have the opportunity to see Joy read from her work next Wednesday, September 16 at the auditorium of the Spurlock Museum at 7:30--an event hosted by the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities. Please join us and take the opportunity to congratulate Joy Harjo!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Welcome to the New Academic Year

It’s the beginning of the academic year here at the University of Illinois, a good time to welcome new members of the department and to recognize the achievements of our excellent corps of teachers!

I am pleased to report that we are joined by a number of new colleagues as well as a new class of graduate students and over 100 new majors.

Last night was the New Faculty Reception sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Dean and Acting Chancellor Barbara J. Wilson and her LAS team—which includes our colleague, Associate Dean Martin Camargo—introduced all the new tenure-stream faculty in the college, including Ramón Soto-Crespo and Tim Dean, who are joining the English Department from SUNY-Buffalo. Ramón was our choice for a position in Global Anglophone Literatures; he works on Caribbean and inter-American literatures. Tim was a colleague of many in the department in the late 1990s and early 2000s and is a noted queer and psychoanalytic theorist as well as a scholar of modern poetry; it’s good to have him back and to be joined by Ramón as well.

Tim Dean, Acting Chancellor Barb Wilson, Ramón Soto-Crespo

Two colleagues who have already been affiliated with English will now play a bigger role in the department. The poet Joy Harjo joins our Creative Writing program after moving over from American Indian Studies, and the critic and theorist Jodi Byrd has also moved more of her line from AIS to English.

In addition, we welcome two visiting faculty members. Lucinda Cole joins us from the University of Southern Maine as a Visiting Associate Professor, and Nafissa Thompson-Spires will hold a 25% appointment as Visiting Assistant Professor in English/Creative Writing with the remainder of her appointment in the Department of African American Studies.

The department is pleased to welcome (and in some cases welcomes back) eight new Instructors and Lecturers: Michael Don, Ryan Flanagan, Kyle Garton-Gundling, Ceridwen Hall, Roya Khatiblou, Aaron LaDuke, Alaina Pincus, and E. Jordan Sellers.

We also have a new Director of Graduate Studies, Eleanor Courtemanche, and a new Associate Director of Rhetoric, Kristi McDuffie. I am looking forward to working with Eleanor and Kristi and the rest of our team of departmental officers and administrators.

Our new colleagues join a committed group of teachers. We are a department that believes that teaching and research enhance each other and we are dedicated to excellence in both areas. One indication of that excellence is the yearly List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by their Students. As always, I’m pleased to see that so many of our courses and instructors are recognized for their quality by our students.

Here is the list for Spring 2015 courses:

Iryce Baron, Manisha Basu, Paul Beilstein, Jodi Byrd, Maria Carvajal Regidor, Debojoy Chanda, Jill Clements, Mary Rose Cottingham, Carrie Dickison, John Dudek, Dennis Dullea, Ashley Emmert, Christopher Freeburg, Shawn Gilmore, Philip Graham, Nolan Grieve, Joseph Grohens, Andrew Hall, Jim Hansen, Janice Harrington, Christine Hedlin, Marilyn Holguin, Irvin Hunt, Michael Hurley, Candice Jenkins, Kyle Johnston, Maggie Kainulainen, Katherine Kendig, Allison Kranek, Linda Larson, Mary Lindsey, Trish Loughran, Joshua Lynch, Michael Madonick, Vicki Mahaffey, Helen Makhdoumian, Michelle Martinez, Tom McNamara, Zach McVicker, Jessica Mercado, Natalie Mesnard, Matthew Minicucci, Dave Morris, Andrew Moss, John Musser, Richard Nardi, Katherine Norcross, Valerie O’Brien, Michael Odom, Samantha Plasencia, Anthony Pollock, Joseph Post, Julie Price, Rebecah Pulsifer, Isabel Quintana-Wulf, Scott Ricketts, Anna Robb, Michael Rothberg, John Rubins, Steve Runkle, Lindsay Russell, Ted Sanders, Julia Saville, Michael Shetina, Kaia Simon, Carol Spindel, Christine Sneed, John Stone, Sarah Sutor, Alison Syring Bassford, Elizabeth Tavares, Eric Thomas, Debora Tienou, Renee Trilling, Wendy Truran, Ted Underwood, Gregory Webb, Rebecca Weber, Kirstin Wilcox, Kelly Williams, Zachary Williams, Jess Williard, Elaine Wood, Charlie Wright, David Wright

Monday, March 9, 2015

Excellent Teaching and the English Major: It's Not Just a List

I am certain that one of the reasons I became an English major--and, later, an English graduate student--is because I had such excellent teachers. To be sure, that fortunate experience goes back a long way--at least to junior high, where I first really learned to write by being asked to revise essays again and again by a demanding teacher to whom I remain indebted; and to high school, where I was introduced to the canon of European literature by another demanding public school instructor.

But it was definitely in college that I became an English major and a future English professor. The things that attracted me back then remain central to the way we do things today here at Illinois: small classes, lots of attention to student interests, encouragement of free-wheeling discussion, and an emphasis on the craft of writing and making an argument.

There are a lot of good reasons to major in English, but the two main ones for me continue to be these: you get to spend your time reading and discussing really great books with interesting peers; and you learn to think and express yourself by working closely with teachers who care about your mind and your intellectual development. Of course these experiences will help you later in life when it comes to building a successful and fulfilling career; but they are also experiences worth having in their own right.

Here in English, we know that great teaching cannot be reduced to a number between 1 and 5. Yet, we take student evaluations seriously because they do give us an indication of whether what we're doing in the classroom is coming across. I'm happy to report that, as per usual, faculty and graduate students in the English Department do very well when it comes to those evaluations.

Without further ado, then, I'm pleased to give you the List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by their Students for Fall 2014 courses:

Iryce Baron, Rob Barrett, Manisha Basu, Paul Beilstein, Maria Carvajal, Silas Cassinelli, Debojoy Chanda, John Claborn, Megan Condis, Mary Rose Cottingham, Eleanor Courtemanche, Kristin Dean, Esther Dettmar, John Dudek, Dennis Dullea, Meghan Dykema, Stephanie Foote, Philip Graham,  Catherine Gray, Joe Grohens, Evin Groundwater, Andrew Hall, Ceridwin Hall, Jim Hansen, Gail Hapke, Mary Hays, Janice Harrington, Chris Hedlin, Marilyn Holguin, Evan Hrobak,  Michael Hurley, Brandon Jones, Jamie Jones, Maggie Kainulainen, Brigit Kelly, Allison Kranek, Melissa Larabee, Jean Lee,  Mary Lindsey, Trish Loughran, Michael Madonick, Vicki Mahaffey, Calgary Martin, Michelle Martinez, Caitlin McGuire, Tom McNamara, Zach McVicker, Natalie Mesnard, Matthew Minicucci, Feisal Mohamed, Dave Morris, Andrew Moss, John Musser, Hina Nazar, Richard Nardi, Scott Nelson, Katherine Norcross, Valerie O’Brien, Michael Odom, Robert Dale Parker, Tony Pollock, Julie Price, Rebecah Pulsifer, Isabel Quintana-Wulf, Thierry Ramais, Scott Ricketts, Greg Rodgers, John Rubins Steve Runkle, Lindsay Russell, Julia Saville, Alex Shakar, Kaia Simon, Andrea Stevens, Jon Stone, Eric Thomas,  Debora Tienou, Sara Weisweaver, Kelly Williams, Zach Williams, Jess Williard, Greg Wilson, Jessica Wong, Elaine Wood, and Charlie Wright.

You can find the full list for the university here