The Humanists: Jennifer Jahner

Jahner arrived at Caltech in 2012, immediately after completing her PhD in English at the University of Pennsylvania. Her specialization in medieval poetry has taken her through the study of history to an examination of multilingualism, as she strives to understand how the poetry of that era was a vehicle for political and legal discourse. Her current book project, tentatively titled The Conjured Realm: Poetry and Political Formation in the Era of Magna Carta, examines 13th-century British poetry and its connection to the political reforms of the day.

Before I had set foot in an actual Caltech classroom, I imagined humanism and empirical science as remote islands, and my task as that of a literary tour guide, explaining our strange customs and ways. Upon starting here two years ago, I quickly realized that I needed to revise my metaphors. First, as it turns out, we are all denizens of the same small island—Caltech—and across the disciplines we share a common dedication to discovery, analysis, and intellectual integrity. Second, it became clear that Caltech students are hardly strangers to literature, nor to the questions of ambiguity and interpretation that literary texts inevitably raise. Teaching literature at Caltech, then, is simply the work of teaching literature: providing students with the context necessary to ask good questions about texts, and the tools necessary to pursue and demonstrate their answers.
One of the most dramatic differences between Caltech and more traditional research universities, however, is the fact that those of us in the humanities belong to a department combining English, history, and philosophy. The interdisciplinary collaboration that many universities hold as a desideratum, we practice on a day-to-day basis. This proximity to other methods and types of training shapes how we think about the boundaries of our respective fields. For instance, part of my research looks at how scholars in the Middle Ages put their university training to work in the service of political causes, penning propagandistic verses for and against documents like Magna Carta.

Medieval writers did not recognize the same disciplinary divisions that we do today, and those of us who study the medieval past regularly confront what, to modern readers, are startling conjunctions of genre and subject matter: poetry that conveys philosophy, history that explicates natural science, or philosophy that speculates on literary fiction. Caltech promotes a similar sense of intellectual capaciousness and juxtaposition, allowing those of us who work at the seams of various fields to develop truly interdisciplinary projects. All of us cultivate relationships beyond the Institute as well, through local partnerships and international collaborations. We are fortunate to have the scholarly community and resources of the Huntington Library only a mile away.
Since the advent of the universities in the Middle Ages, the humanistic disciplines have been at the core of higher learning, teaching students how to articulate and interpret what they see, and how to situate bodies of knowledge in relation to each other. The humanities constitute a vital part of the Caltech mission as well. Literature, history, and philosophy teach us how to communicate our expertise to others and to translate our research across specialties and beyond the boundaries of academe. Even more fundamentally, the humanities teach us about the histories of knowledge and creative endeavor, allowing us to see that truths are products of their time and place as well as products of the minds and methodologies that discern them.

-J. Jahner