Jess Libow ‘16 Finds an Intersection of Health Studies and English

The English major was the second speaker in this year’s Young Academic Alumni Lecture Series, detailing her path in academia and current research.

On November 3, Jess Libow ‘16 spoke at the second installment of this semester’s Young Academic Alumni Lecture Series in Lutnick Library. Libow, an English major with an interest in disability studies, earned a Ph.D. in English from Emory University in 2021, and now teaches courses on disability and health at the University of Pennsylvania.

Libow explained that her passion for disability studies was born from her first-year writing seminar, “Portraits of Disability and Difference,” taught by Director of College Writing Center Kristin Lindgren. She furthered that interest by taking two independent studies with Lindgren, and writing about disability in many of her English courses, particularly in those of English Department Chair Professor Gustavus Stadler and Associate Professor Lindsay Reckson.

“Kristin was and continues to be an immensely supportive mentor as well as a friend,” Libow said.

Libow’s senior thesis focused on disability and physical therapy in the fiction of American author Flannery O’Connor. Advised by Associate Professor of English and Associate Provost for Strategic Initiatives Laura McGrane, Libow’s thesis allowed her to, for the first time, connect her long-standing interest in literary disability studies with the history of medicine. Her interest in both subjects only flourished even further when she attended Emory University for graduate school, inspired by the school’s active community of researchers studying disability in American literature.

“I was eager to find an intellectual community of disability studies scholars,” she said, “and was lucky to meet close friends and brilliant colleagues through the Disability Studies Initiative.”

Emory not only introduced Libow to a community of like-minded scholars, but, as she taught courses on disability, feminism, and public health, she uncovered her love of teaching as well.

Her time at Emory culminated in a dissertation on the domestic health science of physical education and 19th-century U.S. women writers. Now, she teaches courses in disability studies and the health humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, a school she once took classes at as part of the Quaker Consortium. Her courses are part of the Critical Writing program, the same style of course which initially ignited her interest in disability studies when she was at Haverford.

“I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to teach first-year students at Penn, especially since my own interest in disability studies began in a first-year writing seminar at Haverford,” she said. “I’ve also enjoyed returning to Penn after taking courses there as a Haverford student—I studied American Sign Language at Penn for four semesters.”

Libow’s recent on-campus talk focused on her dissertation, which she is now turning into a book manuscript. 

“The project examines how an array of 19th-century American women writers used domestic health science as a tool of social reform as well as how their ideas about health were shaped by experiences of illness and disability,” she said. “My presentation focused specifically on transcendentalist writer Margaret Fuller and turn-of-the-century Indigenous writer Zitkala-Ša.”

Libow said that Haverford introduced her to a community of scholars whose interests mirrored her own, allowing her to make her own path as a researcher and a teacher. Now she wants to pay that forward. For students looking to follow her footsteps into the world of academia, she offered one piece of advice:

“I advise students interested in pursuing graduate school to reach out to current students and recent Ph.D.s—including me!”