When Northern Illinois State Normal School opened on September 12, 1899, to 173 students taught by 16 faculty, it offered courses in composition, rhetoric, and literature under what came to be called the "Department of Ancient and Modern Languages." No formal organization lay behind these courses, which included Latin, English Grammar, and Composition. However, Ida S. Simonson, who joined the faculty in 1901 with a degree from Northwestern University, took charge of these offerings and ultimately became the first Head of the English Department. Having founded the Department and created its structure, she remained its head until she retired in 1935, making her one of the longest-serving heads of any discipline in the history of the University.
Under her leadership, the Department offered, for the first time in 1922, a baccalaureate degree in English. In 1951, when the University had grown to 1,893 students and was called Northern Illinois State Teachers College, the Department offered an MS in English, under the leadership of J. Hal Connor, who succeeded Ms. Simonson.
In 1955, Northern Illinois State Teachers College became Northern Illinois State College, and then in 1957, Northern Illinois University, signaling a transformation that was second in importance only to the founding of the school. Over the next ten years NIU's enrollment tripled, while the goals, mission, and orientation of the University changed dramatically. At first the English Department did not register these changes radically. However, under the leadership of Orville Baker, who had earned his PhD at Harvard in Renaissance literature, English initiated a PhD program in 1961, when 8,111 graduate and undergraduate students sought NIU degrees here. Baker's interests were in Freshman English (now First-Year Composition), which he organized and oversaw. Professor Baker and his wife are commemorated by two awards: The Orville and Adra Baker Scholarship, an endowed award granted each spring by the Department and the Orville Baker Essay Award, awarded for the best essay in an undergraduate English course during the academic year.
The implementation of the English Department's PhD program and the professionalization of the Department associated with it were begun by Charles W. Hagelman, Jr., who was hired by Dean Paul Burtness for that task in 1967. With enrollments rising rapidly (18,057 in 1967), Hagelman undertook an ambitious and broad hiring program, offering positions to newly-minted PhDs and established scholars with ambitious research agendas. Hagelman, a well-known scholar of the Romantic Period, began to shape the Department as it currently exists, a graduate and an undergraduate division offering the BA, the MA with seven concentrations, and the PhD with traditional, innovative, and interdisciplinary focuses.
Professor Hagelman's contributions to the Department's evolution are memorialized in a scholarship in his name, granted to students participating in the Department's summer program (established in 1970) at Oxford University's Oriel College in the United Kingdom. Founded by Robert Self, a popular sister program to the departmental course offerings in Oxford operates each summer in Dublin, Ireland.
Today, NIU is a comprehensive teaching and research institution with a diverse student body of more than 25,000, and the English Department is one of the University's largest, most active, and most distinguished departments. Currently, English counts over five hundred majors and nearly one hundred minors. The Graduate Program is home to approximately sixty MA and PhD students with graduate assistantships, along with other graduate students from the region. Since 1969, the Department has been home to Sigma Tau Delta, the international English Honors Society, which has 750 chapters throughout the country.
The faculty teaches a wide variety of courses that include offerings in traditional literary history, English pedagogy, linguistics, and grammar as well as, at the undergraduate level, special topics courses like "Writing Creative Nonfiction," "New Literatures in English," "The International Short Story," "American Ethnic Literature" and, at the graduate level, "Shakespeare on Film," "Literature of the Modern South," and "Writing for the Electronic Media." The scholarly books of department professors have been published by such presses as Oxford, Cambridge, Cornell, California, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Illinois, while their essays have appeared in distinguished journals like Comparative Literature, English Literary History, the Huntington Library Quarterly, PMLA, Critical Inquiry, and American Literature. Alumni of the Department teach in primary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions across the state and the nation and are active in businesses, publishing, and non-profit organizations, as well as in a broad array of fields that include medicine, healthcare, law, the environment, and public interest.