Caltech professor of English Jennifer Jahner

Probing the Past and Present

In graduate school, Jennifer Jahner became intrigued by the medieval equivalent of the “protest song”—verses that took the thorniest and most controversial matters of the time, like war and taxes, and presented them in an artful, persuasive way. When she poked around and found that many of these poems remained understudied and unknown, she took them on and has spent the years since examining the origins of propaganda in the Middle Ages.

“We live in a time of heightened political rhetoric and tend to think of that rhetoric as a specifically modern problem,” Jahner says. “My research looks at the long history of the language of polarization. For as long as people have been arguing about the public good, about fiscal responsibility and security, writers have been shaping the emotional terms of that debate.”

When she came to Caltech in 2012 as an assistant professor of English, she quickly recognized that her colleagues were a cohort of sleuths who could help her analyze the context of the poems—and pose intriguing questions that offer new perspectives on her research at the intersection of poetry and politics.


“In traditional departments, being interdisciplinary is something people try very hard to cultivate. Here, it’s just the way we work.”
- Jennifer Jahner

Her collaboration with Caltech history professor Warren Brown led to the inaugural two-year program of the Caltech-Huntington Humanities Collaborations (CHHC). The CHHC is a series of targeted interdisciplinary research “modules” that Caltech launched in partnership with The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in fall 2016. Titled “Violence and Order Past and Present,” Jahner’s and Brown’s program centers on theories and practices of violence in the Middle Ages, with implications across history and in contemporary society.

“It’s an area of interest that we share in broad terms,” Jahner says. “Warren has been investigating the medieval precursors of modern terrorism, and I have been trying to parse how literature understands war and other forms of political violence.”

The CHHC module brings together people from different backgrounds and viewpoints—from historians to those studying contemporary terrorism—to understand the role of violence in political and social order. The group includes postdoctoral instructors, research fellows, and faculty members from Caltech and The Huntington as well as scholars from universities around the world who present lectures and participate in workshops here in Pasadena.

“This module is a dream opportunity,” Jahner says. “It allows you to think about the people you’d most like to talk to about a problem and then invite them to talk to you.”

Jahner considers teaching Caltech students a dream opportunity, too. When faced with the complex subject of medieval literature—which can look nothing like the literature students studied in high school—she sees them rise to the challenge. “There’s a lot you need to puzzle out about medieval texts, and our students are great at it,” she says. “They ask interesting questions and recognize patterns and idiosyncrasies—and that’s what makes for a really satisfying literature class.”

Giving Priorities