By Jefferson Beavers, communication specialist, Department of English
Dr. Toni Wein, a Fresno State professor emerita of English, passed away on Dec. 17, 2022, after a bout with brain cancer. She was 70.
A specialist in 18th- to 20th-Century British literature, Wein was an expert on Romanticism and the Gothic novel. She taught courses in literature and writing at Fresno State from 2002 to 2018.
According to Dr. Lisa Weston, professor of English and former department chair, Wein’s students knew her as an inspiring scholar, teacher and mentor.
“Toni’s rigorous scholarship — based on close reading of texts, careful attention to historical context, and informed, critical engagement with contemporary theory — made her well-known in the discipline,” Weston said. “She brought this experience directly into her classroom.”
Weston said Wein’s colleagues can testify to her dedication to the department and to the university, in particular as graduate adviser for the Master of Arts program in English and as coordinator of the campuswide Upper-Division Writing Exam.
Dr. Bo Wang, a professor of English, said Wein’s scholarship crossed disciplinary domains, focusing on the intersections of British literature, cultural studies, women’s studies, media studies, sociology, and more.
“Professor Wein’s work on the Gothic novel, British identities, and nationalism has been frequently cited by scholars in the field and employed in classroom assignments at many universities,” she said.
Wein published articles on 18th- to 20th-Century British literatures in the journals SEL, Genre, English Language Notes, Contemporary Fiction, and Women’s Studies. She also published two books: “British Identities, Heroic Nationalisms, and the Gothic Novel, 1764-1824” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002); and “Monstrous Fellowship: ‘Pagan, Turk and Jew’ in English Popular Culture” (Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2019).
Wang said Wein deeply impacted how the English Department educates its scholars and teachers of literature and writing. Wein initiated the process of integrating a research methods course into the graduate curriculum that remains a cornerstone, and she helped broaden the route to the M.A. degree so that the requirements asked of students reflect the demands they will face as professionals.
“Toni was dedicated to teaching, genuinely caring about students’ growth,” Wang said. “Sincere, candid, and kind, she held her students to high standards and carefully guided them to reach their full potential. She was a transformative teacher who created opportunities for students to experience success, even if that success was just a small step on a longer journey.”
Dr. Jill Fields, a professor of history and founding coordinator of Fresno State’s Jewish Studies Program, said Wein was an early and ardent supporter of Jewish Studies on campus. Wein taught a course on Jewish American writers in 2012 and a course called “Screening the Jewish Mama” in 2015.
Fields said Wein was an active participant in initiating dialogue among Jewish faculty, the local Jewish community and the university administration. These meetings led to the creation of the President’s Jewish Leadership Council.
“Toni’s bright spirit, compassion, institutional knowledge, and generosity contributed so much to the development of the Jewish Studies Program, particularly in its formative stages,” Fields said.
Dr. Ann Berliner, a professor emerita of philosophy, said Wein was noted for her generous heart, her quick wit, and her trenchant insights. Berliner said Wein’s 2019 book, in particular, was brilliant. “Monstrous Fellowship” brings together a range of texts and events, including 19th-Century novels and plays, riots on the streets and stages of London, popular games, artwork, criminal profiles, and political economy.
According to the publisher: “Tying these topics together is the spectacle created around ‘Pagan, Turk and Jew,’ a phrase appearing as early as 1548, and one that came to denominate fictional stand-ins for Irish Catholics, Muslims, and Jews during the long 19th Century. … Unlike other studies of minority experience and culture that concern a single population, Wein’s book casts a wider net, believing racist and religious bias to be a reactionary dynamic, prey to a host of struggles occurring simultaneously that ricochet off one another in the contestatory culture of the Romantic era.”
Berliner said Wein’s passing was not only a personal loss — “Friendships were very important to her, and she had a capacity to understand what you’re saying sometimes better than you could,” she said — but also the loss of what Wein would have continued to do as a scholar.
“Toni looked at such difficult imagery and how it can be misrepresented to further prejudicial thinking,” Berliner said. “It takes a lot of dimensions and understanding to write something of that quality.”
Toni Wein was born in 1952 in Detroit, Michigan. Her father, Bernard Wein, was a jeweler; her mother, Helen Wein, was a homemaker.
According to her niece, Dr. Brynn Shiovitz, Wein developed a taste for bright lights in junior high and high school, first appearing as a teenage model in print advertisements for the family jewelry company. Wein moved to New York City at age 18 to actively study and pursue a career in acting and theatre.
“She pursued acting in a big way,” Shiovitz said. “Live theatre, children’s theatre, you name it. We have so many programs and images.”
After more than a decade in modeling and acting, Wein decided to go to college much later, Shiovitz said.
Shiovitz’s mother — Toni’s younger sister, Esther Wein — invited her big sis to sit-in on one of her classes — a course in French existentialism at the University of Michigan — hoping she would consider attending college. Toni was convinced, soon immersing herself in reading and the study of comparative literature.
In her 30s, Wein earned a bachelor’s degree in English, with honors, from Brooklyn College. And in her early 40s, she earned a Ph.D. in English literature from UC Berkeley. Wein’s dissertation was titled “Cryptic encounters: the invention of the Gothic novel, 1764-1805.”
“Her theatrical background really lent itself to teaching,” Shiovitz said, “getting immersed in a big novel and then teaching it in a meaningful way.”
Before coming to Fresno State in 2002, Wein taught at UC Berkeley, Gettysburg College, and Princeton University.
Shiovitz said her aunt Toni was mostly private about her professional path preceding her Ph.D. But she had a beautiful voice, Shiovitz said, and she wasn’t shy about telling her nieces — Brynn and sister Zoe — to work on their vocal and speaking skills.
From family snapshots, Shiovitz remembers Wein taking her on a tour of the UC Berkeley campus at age 4. When Wein was teaching at Gettysburg College, she invited her niece (then age 8) to sit in on an English class. That was the moment, Shiovitz said, she knew wanted to be just like her aunt Toni — charismatic, big personality, a presence.
“Listening to her teach, she was so intriguing,” said Shiovitz, who went on to earn a Ph.D. in culture and performance from UCLA, and now teaches critical dance studies at Chapman University in Orange, California. “She had great theatrical skills, great presentation skills. I thought, ‘My aunt is really cool, and I want to be like her when I grow up.’”
Beyond her close and impactful relationships with family, friends, and students, Shiovitz said Wein loved everything she did deeply, and she plunged headlong into her many interests. When she wasn’t teaching or writing, Wein volunteered in the Jewish community, tutored disadvantaged kids, studied trends in real estate, went birdwatching, and tended her flowers and rose garden.
When asked what three words best described her aunt Toni, Shiovitz said: dynamic, ebullient, and stalwart.
“To me, she was always the cool aunt, always full of surprises,” Shiovitz said. “She had many lives that people didn’t know.”
Toni Wein is survived by her wife, Karen Kantor; sister, Esther Wein; brother-in-law, Tom Shiovitz; and nieces, Brynn Shiovitz and Zoe Shiovitz. Memorial services were private. In lieu of flowers, remembrances can be made to Congregation Beth Jacob of Fresno.
Dr. Ann Berliner contributed to this story, through a submission to Fresno State Campus News.