Welcoming Sungkyunkwan University to the Consortium

April 20, 2023

SKKU in full bloom; the perfect place to read Dickens or take a page from his book and go for a walk. - Photo Courtesy of Ji Eun Lee

 This interview was conducted by Courtney Mahaney, Assistant Director of the Dickens Project, who interviewed Ji Eun Lee, Assistant Professor of English Language and Literature at Sungkyunkwan University. 

Courtney: We are delighted to welcome you back to the Dickens Universe this summer as a faculty member from Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU)! This return marks an essential tradition of scholars who first encounter our programs as undergraduate or graduate students, who then go on to become faculty members themselves and then introduce their students (the next generation of scholars) to the Dickens Project.   

    To reintroduce you to our community, I'd like to first ask when you encountered the works of Charles Dickens, and how has his writing and those of other Victorian authors figured in your teaching and research?

Ji Eun: I probably first encountered the works of Charles Dickens through graphic novels and abridged versions of his famous novels that were popular among children growing up in Korea in the 1990s. I first read Oliver Twist and Great Expectations that way, in Korean, and later read the full English versions of those works after entering college. The same can be said for Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Maybe because I was a girl, I felt more attached to Jane Eyre and read it more than a dozen times in Korean, so when I first read Jane Eyre in English after acquiring strong English reading skills, I could expect exactly what sentence to appear after each sentence, which felt boring! 

    Since then, Dickens, the Brontë sisters, and other Victorian writers such as Bram Stoker, H. G. Wells, and Thomas Hardy have been very important to my teaching and research, which centers on urban life, cities and countries, landscapes, animals, and more recently, ecological justice of Victorian Africa and the global readership of Victorian literature in colonial Korea. As a native city-girl who grew up walking around in Seoul, when I moved to Los Angeles for my Ph.D., I was surprised that I could not walk as easily in LA as I did in Seoul. In LA, you have to drive! Yet when I went to London with Prof. Saree Makdisi as part of a summer course where we shepherded UCLA undergraduates through the alleys full of unexpected encounters and dense air, listening to the stories embedded in every corner we passed and thinking about the Dickensian characters who walked these same streets, I could see that the individuality we associated with the rise of the novel could be contested if we look at agency we experience in the city and the novelistic narratives born out of it. In my first book project, Walking London: Urban Gaits of the British Novel, I trace the history of the novel alongside the emergence of the city instead of the development of the nation. By defining walking as an act of convergence between the self and the environment, I explore how walking reshapes agency into multiple forms and restructures novelistic narratives into unintentional collisions, acts of animal intelligence, and unsettling accelerations. 

    My teaching and research further expand on this theme of walking in the city by exploring the dynamics between cities, countries, and ecological landscapes, reading how people (and animals!) walk in cities described in Dickens’s novels. In my teaching and research, I also consider how landscapes in David Livingstone’s travelogues collapse the imperialistic distance between the observer and the observed in their articulation of nature, animals, and humanity as the interconnected network that does not conform to the hierarchical binaries of empire. This was the topic of my plenary talk at the NAVSA conference last fall. Most recently, inspired by my relocation to Seoul and my initial encounter with Victorian literature before I knew about the presumed otherness of Asians in Anglo-American academia (because I grew up in a country where almost everyone was Asian, I never felt to be considered as “the Other” until I moved to the states and saw racial diversity in real life), I have begun studying how my Korean ancestors read and wrote about Victorian aestheticism and decadence with “transimperial solidarity” as a way of developing a Korean model of literary criticism that defied Japanese colonialism.


Courtney: How did you learn about the Dickens Universe and the Dickens Project? 

Ji Eun: I first learned about the Dickens Universe from Prof. Jonathan Grossman and some fellow students who had attended when I was a first-year grad student. Everybody said so many good things about it and advertised it to new grad students as a marvelous and magical experience that was worth an entire week as a summer vacation. Many graduate students had already signed up for it and been waiting for their turn to attend. At the time, I was not yet a Victorianist, but I signed up for it after some consideration because I liked Charles Dickens as a child. 


Courtney: As a graduate student who attended the Universe and the Graduate Winter Conference twice, what did you gain from these events, and how did they help you in your academic career? 

Ji Eun: My academic development is much indebted to the inspirations, connections, and collaborations made possible by the Dickens Universe and the Graduate Winter Conferences. By the time it was my turn to attend the Dickens Universe after years of waiting, I was so happy to discover that we were going to read Little Dorrit—the novel I was writing about in a chapter in my dissertation—that year. Perhaps in part because my adviser Jonathan Grossman was organizing the Dickens Universe that summer (he did not intentionally select the novel; it just happened!), I felt as if everyone was gathering to help me read and write about the novel for my dissertation! For me, that summer was blissful. By chance I had meals with professors whose works I read and cited in my chapter, and the talks, which were later collected and published in Nineteenth-Century Literature in 2020, were all amazing. I also cherish the friendships formed and nourished that summer. Now, whenever I go to a conference, familiar faces appear to say hi and ask me questions during Q&A sessions, and we immediately recognize each other from the summer 2018 cohorts. The graduate conference the following winter gave me a chance to connect with fellow graduate students who worked on the environmental aspects of Dickens’s novels in the panel “Vital Dickens.” I received generous feedback from professors and colleagues, and I am especially grateful to Devin Griffiths and Hilary Schor at USC for their very helpful feedback. The winter 2021 conference, which I attended via Zoom as a postdoc, finally connected me with Sukanya Banerjee, whose work I’d been reading on the recommendation of my mentor Jonathan Grossman. Thanks to this encounter, she invited me to join the MLA panel she was organizing on “Victorians in Location.” She encouraged me to think about what it means to study Victorian literature in Korea after hearing about my relocation there. Thanks to her inspiration and support, I was able to start my second book project, Victorian Humanity in Colonial Korea, an initial sketch of which was published in Victorian Literature and Culture this spring.


Courtney: With your encouragement, we are thrilled that SKKU joined the Dickens Project Consortium. It is our first member school from East Asia. (We also have member institutions in North America, Europe, Australia, and Western Asia.) We are very proud of this, but it wouldn't have happened without your advocacy. What do you hope the SKKU faculty and students will gain from this partnership?

Ji Eun: Thank you for asking this question. I am also very proud that SKKU (Sungkyunkwan University 성균관대학교), which was established in 1398 and is now run by Samsung, joined the Dickens Project as the first member from East Asia. I hope that my fellow SKKU faculty and SKKU students will enjoy the diversity of experiences and build good networks with people we would not otherwise encounter. Though the number of non-Koreans and non-Asians living in Korea has increased recently, most of the people living and working in Korea and SKKU are ethnically homogeneous Asians who grew up in Asia’s very rigorous education system. I myself arrived at high school by 7am and stayed until between 5pm and 9pm everyday. I hope my students enjoy some relaxation and forward-looking American spirit during their stay in college dorms amid beautiful nature, the California sunshine, and diverse colleagues from around the world. I also hope that the SKKU faculty, most of whom have PhDs from American universities, get a chance to reconnect with the scholars outside Korea and build a global partnership that could help propel different critical and cultural perspectives to the other side of the planet. 


Courtney: What recommendations do you have for graduate students attending their first Dickens Universe conference this summer?

Ji Eun: Jostle (figuratively, not literally aggressively!) just like Dickensian characters do. The unintentional collisions inherent in jostling at the Dickens Universe may lead you somewhere unexpected. Please enjoy the crowd because “someone in the crowd could be the one you need to know” (to quote the film La La Land), and these chance encounters will help you grow as a scholar and a person. Take care not to fall. Embrace the moment safely and enjoy it to the fullest!