Labs Are for the Humanities, Too

Conference delves into best practices and rationale for the institutions.

July 12, 2016
Humanities lab workshop at Arizona State

WASHINGTON -- Most scientists are accustomed to spending time in a lab. But for many humanities scholars, the lab is unfamiliar territory.

The humanities lab aims to change that. Faculty members and students in humanities labs seek to use inquiry to advance collaborative, often interdisciplinary research. The emphasis isn't on the type of experiments one might find in a physics lab, but on the collaborative aspect of conducting research together.

Humanities labs exist in early or experimental stages on a handful of campuses, including Arizona State University, the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago. On Monday, representatives from these campuses converged for a two-day conference at the National Endowment for the Humanities headquarters entitled “The Humanities Laboratory: Discussions of New Campus Models.”

The conference comes at a time when many humanities professors feel a lack of support -- financial and otherwise -- from administrators and politicians. But the event painted a portrait of the humanities -- in particular the digital humanities -- as entering an exciting period.


When it comes to humanities labs, collaboration is key. Especially for graduate students.

Such was one of the take-home messages of a presentation by Peggy McCracken, professor of comparative literature, French and women’s studies and a coordinator of the Michigan Humanities Collaboratory at the University of Michigan.

A key requirement of the projects funded by the Michigan Humanities Collaboratory is that they be collaborative in nature, McCracken said. “We’re hoping to document how our teams work together -- and their successes and failures -- so we can develop habits of collaboration in the humanities,” she said.

The University of Michigan has admitted fewer graduate students in humanities in recent years, partly in response to the job market and partly out of a desire to concentrate funding per student, McCracken said. As a result, the number of humanities graduate seminars offered each semester has declined, she said.

The Michigan Humanities Collaboratory seeks to counteract the consequences of this decline. “We’re wondering if collaborative research is a way to involve graduate students in research that they might not be as prepared for as they used to be by taking graduate seminars,” McCracken said.

Collaborative research can also benefit graduate students in terms of mentoring and publication, said Patrick Jagoda, assistant professor of English and new media studies and co-founder of the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab at the University of Chicago. “I have more time with my graduate students when they’re in the lab,” he said. “I’m writing papers with my graduate students and building their CVs.”

In addition to graduate students, faculty also stand to benefit from engaging in collaborative research, Jagoda said. “We involve faculty coming from nondigital fields,” he said. “We also form new relationships between people in the humanities and the sciences. We constantly have people from the humanities and sciences sitting at the same table.”

But faculty members without tenure can be hesitant to participate in collaborative research, according to McCracken. “We’re stymied by the lack of clear criteria pertaining to collaborative work for promotion and tenure,” she said. “We’ve heard from associate professors who said they’re not going to take on anything collaborative until they’re promoted.”

That’s why tenure committees should take collaborative research into account, said Sha Xin Wei, director of the School of Arts, Media and Engineering at Arizona State. “Our engineering school had the provost’s support for changing the criteria for the unit so that our faculty are evaluated on not just research, teaching and service but also collaboration,” he said. Indeed, while it is the norm in much of the physical and biological sciences for breakthroughs to come from teams, many humanities professors have historically been evaluated on sole-author books or journal articles.

Social Issues

What role can humanities labs play in addressing pressing social issues such as climate change and pandemics? A pivotal one, said Sally Kitch, director of the Institute for Humanities Research and professor of women's and gender studies at Arizona State.

Kitch has devoted much of her career to developing the Nexus Laboratory for Digital Humanities and Transdisciplinary Informatics at Arizona State. During her presentation, she highlighted three lessons she has learned during her career about how humanities labs can tackle social issues.

“One thing I’ve learned is that the humanities can and should address grand social challenges that confront human beings not only in the contemporary world, but also in the historical world,” Kitch said. “I’ve seen firsthand how a concern from the humanities can be brought to bear on social issues.”

“The second thing I’ve learned about the humanities is that they cannot act alone,” Kitch said. Humanists must partner with people from other disciplines, such as engineering and chemistry, she said. “The final thing that I’ve learned is that the humanities can actually be effective in addressing these social challenges.” This is because humanities scholars are not afraid to give new names to problems, she said, noting that scholars in women's and gender studies coined new terms including “domestic violence” and “date rape.”

Humanities labs can be particularly effective in addressing public health issues, such as teen pregnancy and sexual assault, Jagoda said. The Game Changer Chicago Design Lab has created several games that seek to educate local high school students about public health issues, he said.

For example, a video game called Bystander seeks to train players in bystander intervention by exposing them to scenarios at high schools and parties, Jagoda said. “We’ve found that we need to start earlier with this kind of intervention,” he said. “College is too late in some ways.”

As another example, Jagoda cited a card game about sexually transmitted infections called Infection 4. Researchers in the Game Changer lab created the game for use in a sexual education class at a Chicago high school, he said.

A 'Fragile Enterprise'

Funding for humanities labs can trickle in from provost’s offices or outside organizations. But many conference attendees said that humanities labs are still in their early, experimental stages and therefore involve a measure of uncertainty -- financial or otherwise.

Matrix, the Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at Michigan State University, has received funding from the university as well as organizations including the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation. But the center often pursues projects before securing funding for them, said Dean Rehberger, director of Matrix and associate professor of history at Michigan State.

“With a lot of our projects, we actually build a prototype before we apply for money,” Rehberger said. “It really depends. Sometimes we do wait for the money before we get started.”

“One of the hardest things for humanists to understand is that when you apply for a grant and you fail, that’s only the first step,” Rehberger added. “We have to fail a lot. With one project, we applied for a grant four times.”

The provost’s office at the University of Michigan allocated $5 million of internal funding to the Michigan Humanities Collaboratory for its first four years, McCracken said. But in its initial round of funding, the lab was only able to finance five out of 18 proposals.

“I wish we could have funded all of them,” McCracken said in an interview. “They were so imaginative and creative. It was really hard.”

The Price Lab for Digital Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania has had access to funds from the Mellon Foundation as well as a $7 million naming gift from the Price family, said James English, director of the Penn Humanities Forum and the Price Lab for Digital Humanities and professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania.

“But this is still a pretty fragile enterprise, despite these strong signs of support,” English said. “It remains challenging.”

“Other attempts to run digital humanities operations at Penn … have tended to fizzle out,” English added. “We’ve tried to make something that has flexibility for the future.”

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