New Book Examines Work of Victorian Authors, Links Fears of Imperial Decline with Today’s Free Speech Debates

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In Refiguring Speech: Late Victorian Fictions of Empire and the Poetics of Talk, Dr. Amy R. Wong, professor and chair of English at Dominican University of California, studies stories about the British empire by authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, and Joseph Conrad, and argues that a preoccupation with controlling different forms of speech in these late-19th century fictions indicates a "crisis" of English language and dominance at the time.

Wong traces the resonances of this fear of Western imperial decline with today’s debates on what constitutes admissible speech, especially on college campuses.  

“At its core, Refiguring Speech is a polemic against the many ways in which supposed notions of "free" speech are in fact regulated by cultural norms about property and ownership that American culture has inherited from the British empire: specifically, racialized notions of who is even capable of speech, and who has the right to possess their own speech,” Wong says.

On May 6, Dr. Wong, joined by literary scholars Dr. Christopher Rovee (Louisiana State University) and Dr. Omar F Miranda (University of San Francisco), will celebrate the publication of Refiguring Speech (Stanford University Press) with a conversation about how the historiography of 19th century English – both the language and the field of study – relates to current debates about free speech, today’s power structures, and the "crisis of the humanities" in higher education.

The May 6 conversation “A Nostalgia for English: Rethinking Language, Refiguring the Discipline” will be held at San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore, beginning at 7 p.m. PST. It will also be broadcast on zoom. Register here.

Dr. Wong is a scholar of Victorian studies and an associate professor in Dominican’s English Literature program in the School of Liberal Arts and Education. Her primary areas of research and expertise include Victorian literature and culture, media theory, critical race studies, and anticolonial approaches to literary studies.

This spring, Dr. Wong incorporated her research into a first-year core course on photography, visual culture, and community engagement.

“Although the focus of this course was on how we represent and replicate power imbalances in visual practices, the course material resonates with Refiguring Speech's emphasis on how our conventions around what constitutes legitimate speech also unknowingly replicate existing power structures,” Wong says.

This shows up, for example, in how educational institutions from kindergarten through higher education inadvertently devalue speech capacities, norms, vernaculars, and languages of BIPOC, neurodivergent, and disabled students.

“The sense of students who are learning English as deficient (rather than multilingual), for instance, and the idea that "fluency" and "self-possession" are inherently "good" forms of embodied communication, neglect the ways in which human communication becomes far more interesting when we also attend to dysfluency, gaps, silences, and what remains unspoken.”

Wong was awarded a 2022 Graves Award in the Humanities to support her sabbatical work on Refiguring Speech. Administered through Pomona College, the Graves Award recognizes young faculty in the first decade of their careers to “encourage and reward outstanding accomplishment in actual teaching in the humanities.”

As Dr. Wong noted in her Graves Award proposal, Refiguring Speech “is a book that argues that everyday talk’s seemingly mundane realities can challenge hegemonic and ultimately colonialist ideas about speech as the property of individuals.”

“When we talk with one another in the classroom, interlocutors co-own speech, and mediations of speech through gestures, tone, affect, accents enacted by different bodies in the same space compel interactions among people that might be unruly, conflictual, harmonious, humbling, embarrassing, joyful, or difficult,” she says. “These are the encounters and the emotions, I argue, that will preserve and enact democracy, rather than all of us clamoring to speak before or on behalf of others.”

“Even as our continued debates on free speech insist on adjudicating content, our attitudes encode something different: almost viscerally, we demarcate which bodies are incapable of controlling speech, and incapable of self-possession.”

Dr. Wong’s ideas for her book  project largely owe to her experiences in the classroom and her desire to learn from her students. Indeed, Dr. Wong’s scholarship and teaching naturally inform one another. Her teaching philosophy emphasizes the classroom as a democratic space for shared growth where all are teachers and learners. Dr. Wong is committed to a pedagogy that connects the humanities to our lived experiences in the 21st century.

“I have learned to attend closely to language, power, and speech’s non-neutral embodiments,” Dr. Wong says. “The distinct privilege of always engaging diverse student populations has formed my deep intellectual and pedagogical commitment to what live, co-owned spaces of interaction can generate in the way of bettering our relations with others who may not look like us, think like us, feel like us.”

Dr. Wong began teaching at Dominican in Fall 2015. Her courses have covered such topics as 19th-century British literature, children's literature, dystopian science fiction, literary monstrosity, critical media studies, reading popular media, the study of film and drama, and expository writing through the lens of identity formation and community engagement. Before her career in academia, she was a public school teacher in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, specializing in English Language Learner (ELL) education.

Dr. Wong is also the co-editor of “Undisciplining Victorian Studies” in Victorian Studies (with Ronjaunee Chatterjee and Alicia Mireles Christoff, 2020). The introduction to this special issue won the Donald Gray Prize for best essay in Victorian studies in 2020. Her other publications may be found in Victorian Literature and Culture, Mediations, Narrative, Victorian Review, Modern Philology, SEL: Studies in English Literature, Studies in the Novel, Literature Compass, ASAP Journal, Post45, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Parapraxis Magazine, and Public Books. Dr. Wong received her PhD in English from UCLA, a MSc Education from Long Island University, and her BA in History and Literature from Harvard College.

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