Laurier prof earns literary prize

On Nov.16, Wilfrid Laurier University’s Jennifer Esmail, a professor in the English department, was one of five recipients who were awarded with the 2012 John Charles Polanyi Prize for Literature. The Polanyi Prize, which is worth $20,000 for each recipient, is given out by the Ontario government each year to researchers to help jumpstart their careers.

“I was really happy,” Esmail expressed to The Cord. “I was so pleased to be recognized by this really important award, and I was also happy because it’s nice to shed light on Laurier [and] on Laurier’s researchers, and I was happy to have the funding to do this next stage of my project.”

Esmail explained that she had applied to the award herself after a colleague in her department drew attention to it. In order to apply, in her application she outlined her pervious research, and the research she intended to do if she won the award.

“The research I’ve already done is forthcoming in a book in 2013 in the spring … it’s about cultural representations of deafness and sign language use in the Victorian period,” Esmail said. “It’s about essentially how we conceived of what it means to be deaf. That is, is it a disability, is it not a disability, is it just a different way of using language?”

She explained a movement within Victorian society called oralism influenced the topic for this work, which attempted to force deaf peoples to learn to speak rather than use sign language.

“That was basically the question of my book, why [was] sign language a problem, why shouldn’t deaf people be allowed to use sign languages,” she continued.

Her initial interest regarding this subject began with questioning why some forms of the English language are seen as superior to others, as well as human behaviour.

“Why is it a problem to not be able to hear?” was one question that sparked her initial interests. “Why is that something we judge people on, or why does a culture think that that’s a disability when it’s just a different sensory way of being in the world.”

The second stage of her research, which will be supplemented by the monetary award from the Polanyi Prize, will look at human and animal cognitive abilities and disabilities.

“It’s about how did Victorians imagine what made humans distinctive from other kinds of animals, and often they said it’s about our cognitive abilities: we can reason, we can speak … all of those kinds of things,” Esmail explained.

“So I’m looking at how did we measure that, and why was it so important to differentiate ourselves in that sort of way and what sort of cognitive abilities did we give to animals or take away from animals.”

While Esmail’s end goal is to produce a second book, she also explained that there were underlining goals of both an intellectual and ethical nature. She stressed that it is important to look at the relationships between humans and animals, and analyze why humans think they can exert such power over animals.

She concluded by explaining that the money from her Polanyi Prize will be used to collect more archival data and attend academic conferences.

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