My Lab Is in the Cloud

Humanities scholars conduct their research in an arena that is flexible, efficient and cost-effective, and they should be funded accordingly, writes Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt.

November 24, 2015

ProQuest (an online repository of “information content and technologies”) decided several weeks ago to cancel its group subscription to Early English Books Online for members of the Renaissance Society of America. This decision sparked a huge uproar on Twitter and across social media.

Scholars whose libraries don’t subscribe to this collection of early texts watched helplessly as their research agendas eroded before their eyes. And there were pedagogical implications, too: many academics used the access to these materials to give their undergraduate students the opportunity to do significant research with primary sources.

This furor raises a host of questions about the work of humanities scholars and access to archives and other materials. We know what a scientific lab looks like and requires, but what about the work of historians and literature scholars whose labs are far-flung, overseas, and sometimes even reside in the cloud, in the form of electronic resources?

My colleagues in chemistry and biology can give me the location and physical address of their labs somewhere on our campus. And chances are good that the university has given them funding to help finance that lab. My lab, however, is in Madrid. And London. There I have worked in archives and libraries, reading manuscripts and rare books that I cannot access any other way.

My current research, for example, hinges on a 15th-century manuscript that’s only available for 20 hours a week in the library at the royal palace of San Lorenzo El Escorial, an hour north of Madrid. And sometimes my lab is even in the cloud -- for example, when I rely on electronic resources like collections of digitized books or manuscripts. And certainly I use a host of online collections to aid the research of my undergraduate and graduate students.

All of this, then, should prompt humanities scholars to reimagine humanities research and to frame it within the conceptual model of the sciences, which has greater currency -- and funding -- in the academy.

First, the lab is a physical space, a destination, a place where you go to gather evidence and do research. So when I go to the National Archives in London, I am not simply traveling overseas to look at some things; I am going to my lab. And while I don’t need a lot of materials for that lab (a laptop and a pencil will usually stand me in good stead), I do need an airplane ticket and money for food and lodging. That is my equipment equivalent. And I should be funded accordingly. If my lab is in the cloud and the resources are available electronically, I should also have the financial support to access them.

Second, for academics in all disciplines, the lab is a collaborative space where we engage not just with our scholarship but also with our students. We invite them into our world to help them learn the research methods of our discipline, thereby equipping them with transferrable skills. So if I require access to online resources to make that possible, I should be funded accordingly.

But, some people will be quick to argue, my lab doesn’t make money for the university in the form of external grants -- or if it does, those grants are typically tiny when compared to grants in the sciences. To that, I reply with the following: my lab is remarkably efficient and flexible. The cost of a research trip pales in comparison to the costs incurred in helping a new bench scientist start a lab at a university.

And if you make a small investment in a collection of online primary sources, I can reach a staggering number of students. Because my lab is a flexible, almost virtual space, and students don’t have to occupy the physical space of a science lab, I can expose even more of them to the research opportunities that these electronic repositories create. All 75 students in my Western Civilization survey can begin to learn the transferrable skills of identifying a research question and leveraging the evidence to answer it. All 35 students in my upper-division course for majors can further hone those skills and habits of mind.

So let’s embrace the vocabulary of our scientist colleagues. Let’s talk about our labs and how flexible and efficient they are. I’m no Pollyanna. I don’t think this conceptual shift will result immediately in more funding for the humanities or a greater valuing of humanities research. But I do think we risk the further erosion of the status of our work within the academy unless we come up with new and more resonant ways of talking about it.

And it never hurts to stand up for our labs. The Twitterverse erupted with a quick and pointed campaign when the news of ProQuest’s decision landed. This backlash definitely played a major role in its reinstatement of the group subscription within less than two days after the original announcement. Pretty successful defense of humanities labs, I’d say.


Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is dean of the Jack, Joseph & Morton Mandel Honors College and Mandel Professor in Humanities at Cleveland State University. She blogs at Tales Told Out of School.


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