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Wilfrid Laurier University Communications, Public Affairs & Marketing
December 6, 2016
Canadian Excellence


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Communications, Public Affairs & Marketing

Laurier professor earns Polanyi Prize for Literature

Nov 16/12| For Immediate Release


Jennifer Esmail, Assistant Professor
Department of English and Film Studies
519-884-0710 ext. 3186 or


Kevin Crowley, Director
Communications, Public Affairs & Marketing
519-884-0710 ext. 3070 or

WATERLOO – Jennifer Esmail, an assistant professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, has been awarded one of the most prestigious academic awards in Canada: the 2012 John Charles Polanyi Prize for Literature. The prize, awarded annually to outstanding researchers in five different fields, has a value of $20,000.

“It is very fitting that the Polanyi Prize has chosen Dr. Jennifer Esmail as one of this year's recipients,” said Deborah MacLatchy, vice-president: academic and provost. “An emerging scholar in critical Victorian Literature, this high-level acknowledgment recognizes her excellent scholarship and potential to be a leader in the field in years to come.”

Esmail’s expertise is Victorian literature, with research interests in deaf and disability studies, animal studies, and the history of media and technology. Her book, Reading Victorian Deafness: Signs and Sounds in Victorian Literature and Culture, is scheduled for publication by Ohio University Press in spring 2013. Her book examines Victorian understandings of deafness and sign language, including the influential “Oralist” movement that forced deaf people to speak and lipread in English instead of sign.

The Polanyi Prize will help fund Esmail’s new research project, titled “Minding Victorian Animals: Science, Sympathy and the Human-Animal Boundary in Victorian Literature and Culture.” After Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, evolutionary theory caused a shift in how Victorians perceived animal-human relations. Scientists and novelists alike strove to understand what distinguished humans from other animals, with attention given to how and what animals think.

“I am so pleased to have my research recognized by a major research award that values a humanistic inquiry into today’s pressing issues,” said Esmail. She argues that Victorian efforts to define humanity and animality continue to inform current theories and practices, and are especially important in today’s environment- and ecology-minded society. “There were extraordinary ideological and ethical implications at stake in granting significance to the minds of animals, and these effects still resonate in a vast swathe of our current preoccupations with neo-colonialism, human genetic screening, euthanasia, genetic modification and cloning, factory farming, animal testing and environmental sustainability.”

“The Department of English and Film Studies is gratified to know the excellence of new faculty members like Jennifer, who is being recognized in a tough competition outside Laurier,” said Ute Lischke, chair of Laurier’s Department of English and Film Studies. “Congratulations to a very bright young researcher.”

About the Polanyi Prize
In honour of the achievement of John Charles Polanyi, recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the Government of Ontario established a fund to provide up to five prizes annually to outstanding researchers in the early stages of their career who are continuing to post-doctoral studies or have recently started a faculty appointment at an Ontario university. The prizes are available in the areas of Literature, Chemistry, Physiology, Medicine and Economic Science.


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