In early November, Dr. Daniel Wright, an assistant professor in the English and drama department at UTM, was awarded the Polyani Prize for his research in Victorian political creativity within Victorian novels and poems.
This prize was created in honour of U of T’s John Charles Polyani, the recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The Council of Ontario Universities awards this honour to researchers currently in the early stages of their career.
“The thing which is especially nice about this particular award is that it recognizes humanities scholars, so scholars of literature, alongside researchers in physics, economics, and medicine,” Wright explains. “These are fields that literary scholars don’t often get to be recognized alongside. So I think it’s a really great award for just acknowledging the importance of research in literature to the life of this province.”
Wright describes himself as an academic. He began his undergraduate journey as a philosophy major at McGill University. Partway through his degree, he slowly shifted his focus towards English, and began studying both disciplines. He then continued on to receive his M.A. in English at the University of Toronto and his Ph.D. at Columbia University in New York City.
“I mostly do research on novels, the Victorian novel, and I think what drew me to that field was the sense that novels create alternate fictional worlds that at the same time help us to see our own world in clearer ways,” he says. “So the Victorian novel is often aimed at presenting the real world as it really is. But in doing so, it also creates alternate universes that we can explore and interpret and interact with. This always feels very powerful to me as a way of interacting with the world through literary representations of it.”
His research studies what he calls the “Victorian political creativity,” and investigates how Victorian writers of political novels and poems understood the role that literature plays in pursuing political change.
“Those writers often worry that writing a novel or a poem may not be the most effectual way to get political change to happen, so they often thought quite consciously about how to imagine the kind of effect the literature would have. Part of my argument is that they do so by thinking about creativity as one way that the individual sort of connects to the bigger social world.”
Wright’s interest in this research topic began as a graduate student, during a class on the Victorian industrial novel. The course studied 19th century novels grouped together for their similar topics: industrialization, the rise of factory towns in England, and the problems of labour and poverty.
“So it was actually in that course that I started thinking about those really big and straightforward questions, like why would one write a novel in order to make a political argument? And of course, many people have tried to answer that question, but I think not always in the ways that I wanted them to answer it. So I thought that I’d give it a shot,” he says.
Since the fall semester of 2013, Wright has been teaching English at UTM, with a focus on topics such as Victorian novels and poetry. Among other courses, this semester he’s teaching ENG323, Jane Austen and Her Contemporaries.
Students hoping to pursue English during their post-secondary careers often receive criticism from family and friends who encourage them to pursue a more science-based field. However, Wright believes that English and other humanities are at the core of what it means to get a university education.
“They help us to become critical thinkers, better citizens of the world, clearer writers, and communicators. There are all kinds of things that come along with an English degree that are important and useful,” says Wright.
“They’re useful for all of those practical purposes of getting a job. Businesses love to hire English graduates because they’re good writers, good thinkers and communicators, but also for all of those other reasons, the more intangible reasons that we think we’re supposed to get a university education for, which is to just become a better citizen of the world. I think that leaving out the humanities can miss the point in that sense.”