Faculty Spotlight: Jonathan Strauss

photo of Jonathan Strauss

  • professor of French and chair of the Department of French and Italian
  • teaches courses in French literature
  • taught a course on medical humanities and epistemology in 19th century France
  • received a 2017 Distinguished Scholar Award from Miami
  • has 3 published books, and currently working on several more
  • has a hang gliding license


"I grew up in southern California. I got both my BA and PhD at Yale — first in literature, and then in French. I chose literature because of the influence of my father, who was a writer. My family on my father's side has a long tradition of people who very much lived in words. They were held together by language and writing, so I've always been fascinated by the creativity and power of literature. A lot of what I do is putting philosophical thinking together with literary thinking to understand the power, depth, and potential of literary use of language.

"At some point in my life I was in France, and it seemed like the most intellectually, culturally fascinating place. It just seemed incredibly exciting, especially coming from California, which to me felt like the end of the western world. I always had a kind of longing for something that was more central, especially when I started doing my graduate work. France had an incredibly intense intellectual scene, with an interdisciplinary universe of people in linguistics, literature, philosophy, the arts, and psychoanalysis, so it seemed very much the place to be."


"I mostly teach French literature, though I've taught classes in the medical humanities, including an honors course on medical epistemology and medical thinking in 19th century France. The course was intended to expose students to ways in which cultural and aesthetic forces can influence medical thinking. Nineteenth century France is a good example for that, because modern medicine pretty much emerged in Paris during that period.

"My favorite thing about teaching is getting an unexpected question or comment from a student that reveals something new about our discussion. For that reason I always make a point to listen carefully and adapt to student needs."


"For the 2015-2016 academic year I was a residential fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University. Then, in 2016-2017, I was an Altman Scholar at the Miami University Humanities Center and was presented with a Distinguished Scholar Award by Miami in 2017.

"Aside from the books and articles I am writing, presently I have begun organizing a group for non-quantitative research at Miami. The goal of this research is to identify aspects of different disciplines that cannot be expressed or understood in strict quantitative terms and so therefore would support interdisciplinary collaborations. Ideally, for example, hard scientists and poets would engage in mutually beneficial interchanges leading to unexpected discoveries in their respective fields.

"I develop my research into books or articles, and I've published three books so far. Now I'm working on several others that are related to poetry and philosophy, particularly how poetry affects the perception of time.

"Overall, I would say that I'm motivated by challenges. I like intellectual ideas that involve varying levels of difficulty and enjoy working on texts and thinkers that I find conceptually and emotionally complex. I did a lot of work on mortality, particularly its relationship with individuality and subjectivity. I'm trying to think through what nothingness is and how it relates to our experience of life. It's not a happy-go-lucky kind of topic, but I find it attractive!"

Outside the Classroom

"I really, really like being around people. I have a two-year-old, and it's hard to have a toddler and not find things pretty funny. I also like funny people.

"One of my personal goals is getting my hang 3 level hang gliding license. Hang gliding is like having a flying dream, but it's real. When I talk to people about how they got into hang gliding, they mention having flying dreams as well — it's very interesting. If you could fly, why not? My mom was a stewardess in the 1950s for United Airlines, and that was a very glamorous job back then, so maybe I got it from my mom's side. We like things that fly, and we like to fly. What's cooler than that?

And when you're in a hang glider, you discover things. Evaporation makes things colder, taking energy and heat out of the ambient air. When it condenses in clouds, it releases that energy — so if you're flying around a cloud in a t-shirt, you feel this sort of warmth. How else are you going to find that out? By doing it."

[February 2018]