In a joint ceremony held earlier this fall, the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences celebrated the investitures of Tim Dean as James M. Benson Professor in English and Robert Dale Parker as Frank Hodgins Chair in American Literature.
These investitures, which represent one of the highest honors that faculty members can receive, recognize two of the Department of English’s most accomplished and esteemed professors. “Tim Dean and Bob Parker exemplify some of the best humanities scholarship now being written. Both have had distinguished careers, and both help to make the University of Illinois a world class institution,” department head Robert Markley said in a statement.
Venetria K. Patton, the Harry E. Preble Dean of the College of LAS, read a message from professor emeritus and former department head Richard Wheeler praising the honorees and their contributions to the field. “Professor Wheeler wrote that these investitures reminded him ‘why humanities departments matter, even in, perhaps especially in, this moment in history when they are so clouded over by what seem to be large shifts in perceptions of what a university is supposed to be.’
‘Thinking about what [professors Dean and Parker] have done for the department and the profession, as scholars and teachers and good citizens, has enabled me to realize anew what is best about the profession and what our department has contributed to it.’
Dean has had an accomplished career as a scholar despite following a somewhat unconventional career path. He grew up in the British city of Coventry, and after leaving school at 16 he worked as a civil servant before becoming the first in his family to attend university. His program in American studies afforded him the opportunity to study abroad in the United States and opened doors that eventually led him to pursue a PhD at Johns Hopkins University.
Dean held teaching positions at Johns Hopkins, Stanford, the University of Washington, and SUNY-Buffalo prior to joining the University of Illinois. His extensive research in poetry and poetics, the history and theory of sexuality, and psychoanalytic theory has resulted in seven published books and more than 170 journal articles, book chapters, and reviews. Having been translated into six other languages, his scholarship has earned recognition around the world.
“It is stunning how much and how early and then how steadily Tim has published across a capacious variety of fields,” remarked fellow honoree Robert Dale Parker. Despite this exceptional level of scholarly productivity, Dean has always been willing to impart the knowledge he has gained onto all others who ask, according to Parker. “He’s one of the great knowledge archives we offer at this university and in our English department. I find it a privilege and an honor to work with Tim and learn from him,” Parker said.
The professorship earned by Dean is named after alumnus James Benson. After graduating with a degree in economics, Benson earned an MBA from the University of Southern California and holds a DBA from Bryant College. Having served as president and CEO of several major insurance companies, Benson is a nationally recognized expert in the fields of financial services, insurance, investments, and compensation. In addition to his extensive career as a financial professional, Benson also has a history of philanthropy, founding World T.E.A.M. Sports, an organization dedicated to providing opportunities through sports for people with disabilities.
Having previously held the James M. Benson professorship, Robert Dale Parker was named the Frank Hodgins Chair in American Literature for his extensive scholarship in poetry, fiction, literary form, critical theory, and the sociopolitical roles of literature.
Over the course of his career, Parker reinvented himself as a scholar several times. Following his work on American poetry and fiction after 1900, he turned to Native American literature, setting out to recover forgotten early American Indian poems and publishing a book called “The Invention of Native American Literature.” Working with Native American graduate students and newly hired faculty, he co-founded the American Indian Studies Program and the Native American House.
“By way of his work, he has vastly expanded the canon of Native American literary writing, which is both an extraordinary contribution to scholarship and a lovely gift to subsequent generations of researchers, readers, and writers,” said Dean of fellow honoree Parker. “I have come to regard him as a friend, an unofficial mentor, and an exemplary colleague. Among the very best things about working in the Department of English at Illinois is having Bob Parker as a colleague.”
Parker is also known as a generous and caring teacher. “Bob has a burning desire to share, rather than to hoard his hard-won knowledge, hence the impressive collection of teaching awards he has racked up during nearly four decades at Illinois.”
Committed to merging scholarship with readability and theory with interpretation, Parker wrote the book “How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies,” which is now widely read across the world, to meet the needs of his students.
“The students at Illinois never stop teaching me, both by their ability to find pleasure in literature and learning, and by the challenges they throw at me,” said Parker as he praised the department’s commitment to teaching.
Parker is the first to hold the title of Frank Hodgins Chair of American Literature, which is named after professor emeritus Frank E. Hodgins. The professorship was made possible by his wife Audrey Hodgins, who generously supported the College of LAS in honor of her husband after his passing in 1996. Audrey Hodgins was an educator, writer, and editor who, like Frank, was known for her devotion to teaching, mentoring, and intellectual curiosity. Audrey, who passed away in 2016, and Frank are survived by their daughter Jessica, who is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
Executive vice provost for academic affairs William Bernhard, who also gave remarks at the event, stated that these investitures are an important part of the university’s mission as a land grant institution.
“In a society that has become increasingly commoditized, digitized, impersonalized, we need the humanities now more than ever to help our students become successful,“ said Bernhard.