English PhD receives Governor General’s Gold Medal


Recent English graduate Denae Dyck has been awarded the Governor General’s Gold Medal for “best doctoral thesis”—the university’s top award for graduating PhD students.

Dr. Dyck’s dissertation, “Forming Wisdom: Biblical Criticism, Creative Interpretation and the Poetics of the Victorian Sage,” which she defended last summer, considers the complex relationship between Victorian literature and the Bible.

While traditional scholarship tends to suggest that many in Victorian England suffered a “crisis of faith” caused by new readings of the Bible that questioned its authority and historicized its authorship, Dyck asks a different and more provocative series of questions about how certain writers responded creatively to this new form of biblical criticism.

How, she asks, did such authors such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George MacDonald, George Eliot, John Ruskin and Olive Schreiner respond to the idea that the Bible might be a fragmentary, dialogic text rather than the received word of God, as it had traditionally been understood? What positive roles did doubt, questioning or questing for truth play in their creative works? 

“My dissertation basically argues that Victorian writers responded to the pressures exerted by new methods of biblical criticism by creatively adapting forms characteristic of wisdom literature — a genre that includes the Book of Job, the Book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the parables, all of which emphasize dialogue and questioning,” Dyck explains. “This genre helped authors re-frame their own experiences of uncertainty and doubt. It helped them find new ways of making meaning in an increasingly fragmented and ideologically diverse world, creating a more flexible and personal expression of spirituality.”

Hailed as a remarkably mature, insightful and original work by her supervisory committee, Dyck’s project has been recognized through this award as the most outstanding doctoral dissertation completed at the University of Victoria during the 2020-21 academic year.

“Denae’s writing demonstrated a profound knowledge of the Bible and of the many threads of intellectual and religious thought in Europe in the 19th century. Her conclusions establish new readings of canonical writers in a truly outstanding dissertation.”

Lisa Surridge, professor of English and Humanities Associate Dean Academic, who supervised Dyck’s dissertation.

Born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, Dyck completed a BA in English at Ambrose University in Calgary and an MA in English at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before starting her PhD here at UVic in 2015.

Among her many academic accomplishments over the last five years, Dyck has presented her research at major national and international conferences organized by the Midwest Victorian Studies Association, the North American Victorian Studies Association, and the Victorian Interdisciplinary Association of the Western United States, among others. She has also published in a number of highly regarded peer-reviewed journals, including Ariel, BRANCH, Christianity and Literature, European Romantic Review, Victorian Poetry and Victorian Review.

In 2018, she co-convened a new research caucus on “Religion and Spiritualties” for the North American Victorian Studies Association.

Dyck’s academic excellence has been recognized with a SSHRC doctoral fellowship, a Vandekerkhove Graduate Student Fellowship at UVic’s Centre for the Study of Religion and Society, an Ana and Peter Lowens Scholarship in Victorian Literature at UVic, a Visiting Scholars Research Fellowship at the Armstrong Browning Library, and a Mairi Riddell Memorial Book Prize for the best essay in the English graduate program at UVic. Twice she received an honourable mention at the annual conference of the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada for the Founders’ Circle Award, given for the best presentation by a graduate student or emerging scholar, before winning the award in 2019.

Currently Dyck is teaching in the English Department at UVic, developing open-education resources on university student writing for the Faculty of Humanities’ Academic and Technical Writing Program, collaborating on the SSHRC-funded online series Crafting Communities and working for the Stigma-Free Society, which designs educational programs and provides peer support for those facing mental health challenges.

“I feel honored and grateful and humbled to receive the Governor General’s Gold Medal — all at the same time. One of the first and most lasting emotions that it brings up for me is gratitude to the many people who believed in me and helped me to reach my academic goals. This is certainly something that I wouldn't have been able to do without such a wonderful research community.”

— Denae Dyck, English PhD graduate and recipient of UVic’s 2020-21 Governor General’s Gold Medal for best doctoral thesis.