The Write Stuff

Launched in 2007 by English professor Cindy Weinstein, the creative-writer- in-residence program most recently welcomed Irish poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon to campus, as a complement to English professor Kevin Gilmartin’s course on modern and contemporary Irish literature. The program, which has existed through support from the Provost’s Innovative Teaching Fund, now has ongoing support from the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences through the James Michelin Distinguished Visitor Program.

“Students know the challenges of understanding the universe, from the point of view of chemistry or physics. The writers who come to Caltech will show students how literature addresses these challenges as well,” says Weinstein. “The creative process is both different from and analogous to doing an experiment in a science lab,” she adds. “Students welcome the opportunity to meet someone like Paul who explains how one writes poetry.”

For Muldoon, who visited Gilmartin’s classes and met with students in humanities classes, the experience was equally rewarding. “For writers the idea that anyone might be interested in reading their work at all always comes as a bit of a surprise, and the idea that some of these students might actually have been prepared for the visit is quite heartening,” he says.

Weinstein hopes to have a few visitors each year—one per quarter— to teach or sit in on classes, do public readings, or come for a week and write. “My hope is that Caltech will become known as an excellent place for writers to come and be exposed to really smart students. The goal of this program is that Caltech becomes a destination for creative writers, especially writers whose work demonstrates a link between science and literature,” says Weinstein.

–Andrew Allan

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