Caltech postodctoral scholar Leah Klement

Dialogue About Difference

Leah Klement wants to know how medieval literature described and addressed social differences, especially during times of civil unrest. What she uncovers will shed new light on the societal struggles of the Middle Ages—and of today.

As the Anne Rothenberg Postdoctoral Instructor in the Humanities at Caltech, Klement also is engaging Caltech undergraduates and graduate students in this exploration. In her course Ethics of War, for example, her students read the works of Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, and Bartolome de las Casas. Then, the class delves into weighty discussions. How do societies perceive difference? How do they frame the enemy? And how do they justify war?

These conversations can be “messy” and challenging, but they are also necessary for educating students to be thoughtful citizens, Klement says.

“I know most Caltech students will go on to be scientists and engineers,” she adds. “It’s important to me that my courses help them navigate society. I want them to understand how difference is used to justify and motivate violent behavior, and also how ideas about difference that can seem stable to us—like race—have changed over time.”

When Difference Leads to Violence

Just as important as teaching is belonging to two institutions that support innovative research, Klement says.

She is part of an interdisciplinary community of scholars—the Caltech-Huntington Humanities Collaborations (CHHC)—who come together to tackle a well-defined interdisciplinary research theme during a two-year period. The inaugural theme, “Violence and Order Past and Present,” began in 2016 and seeks to define violence and the role it has played in political and social order.

As a member of CHHC, Klement has engaged in discussions with leading thinkers who have expertise in areas ranging from history to political science to terrorism. Whereas she once viewed violence through her own research lens—literature in the Middle Ages—Klement now has greater appreciation for how scholars of other disciplines focus more on legal or ethical definitions of violence. These various perspectives have encouraged her to think beyond the medieval context of her work.

Klement’s appointment at Caltech also gives her access to the nearby Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

“To have a world-leading research library with collections in medieval British literature down the street is pretty amazing,” she says. “A few historical manuscripts there have been really evocative for me and have opened a new window into my research.”

 

“My research agenda has expanded during my time at Caltech. I have the freedom to teach what I want, and I have found this wonderful colony of medievalists to push ideas forward.”
- Leah Klement

A Gift of Freedom

Advancing promising research like Klement’s is a priority for Break Through: The Caltech Campaign. Klement’s position was underwritten by the Anne Rothenberg Fund for the Humanities, which was established by Anne Rothenberg and her late husband, James Rothenberg. The Rothenberg Fund provides flexible resources to support the humanities at Caltech as well as to strengthen collaborations with the Huntington.

The fund honors the Rothenbergs’ strong ties to Caltech as well as the Huntington. Anne Rothenberg recently retired after some 13 years as a Huntington trustee; James Rothenberg served on the Caltech Board of Trustees from 2006 until his death in 2015.

Finding Her Colony

As the “Violence and Order Past and Present” research theme approaches its conclusion, Klement and her CHHC colleagues are collecting their writings and will produce an edited volume. Afterward, Klement will continue her appointment at Caltech for another academic year. She is already looking forward to teaching more Caltech students and continuing her research.

“My research agenda has expanded during my time at Caltech,” Klement says. “I have the freedom to teach what I want, and I have found this wonderful colony of medievalists to push ideas forward.”

Giving Priorities

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