Recently I have been watching an older television series that you may know called House MD. Do any of you watch it or know of it? What I love about this show is of course House himself, an anti-social, but brilliant diagnostician whose actions are often so outrageous that I find myself both disturbed and laughing out loud, secretly jealous and wishing I too could stand before you here without having ironed my shirt, in jeans, saying things that might appear inappropriate, but may all be forgotten thanks to a brilliant follow-up remark.
But since I am neither brilliant nor do I plan to be inappropriate, I’ll just tell you about a quote that grabbed my attention from a 2007 House episode.
Female Patient: “Are you going to base your whole life on who you got stuck in a room with? ...
House answers, No, It's a series of rooms and who we get stuck in those rooms with adds up to what our lives are.”
The reason why I like this quote is because it makes me aware of the structures I move in and out of every day and how those structures are determining how I think, who I talk to, who I share ideas with, and who I invite into my mind and work. In other words, the quote gets me unstuck from the one space I have
been feeling most comfortable in--which is usually my home office, in front of my computer, alone, writing.
If you are anything like me, collaborating in research teams seems pretty antithetical to the work I need to do in front of my computer, writing and thinking, usually alone. And Labs are spaces constructed for my colleagues in the sciences. That is what I thought until one day I started working on a book on Generation X in twenty-first century Spanish literature, and I found myself wishing for a non-linear way to express my thoughts. There were dozens of bits and pieces of stories and visual material I had a hard time fitting into my linear narrative. To remedy this, I got permission from the editors to add a series of textboxes--mini rooms one might call them--
within which I could not only add those tidbits of information that were overflowing, but through which I realized I could also enrich my text by including other voices. So I asked the authors whose novels I was analyzing to comment on my analysis of their work. In addition, I invited over two dozen literary critics in my field to add their voices to the pages and create a kind of hyperlinked dialogue in print.
Now, as you know, It is one thing to have your work peer-reviewed by others, behind closed doors, anonymously, but these were the authors themselves and some of the best minds in the field, and I was asking them to openly comment and add to my chapters, good or bad. I did not take any drugs to get through this, although my heart may have skipped a beat every time a new textbox popped up in my e-mail, and I survived. I lived through this because I decided to let go of the perception that I, as a professor of contemporary Spanish narrative, should or could know everything.
This was an important moment for me, one that was actually quite freeing and has led me to open many other rooms and develop structures that work for me on different levels and on different projects. And so I can’t resist but make this rather obvious Disney reference---please forgive-- related to Elsa in the movie Frozen:
I started to enjoy letting go of the rules and becoming “one with the needs of my project” even though in academia this is sometimes a bit hard to do. But as I let go, I realized that I was creating my own “Labs”--although I might not have used that term at the time--which allowed me to embrace my own writing and thinking style but also benefit and enrich myself with the ideas of others, all the while reaching out and making my work more accessible to a wider audience. At that moment when I broke out from the traditional expectations of the book, while writing a book, I began to build my own Elsa-like ivory tower in resistance to our towering ivory institutional expectations. And even though this tower was not particularly revolutionary--it did not add growth hormones to my short hair to climb down from the tower--It was quite a freeing experience, one that got me unstuck and thinking much more creatively and intuitively about how and what I could accomplish in my work.
So in true lab fashion, I stand before you not as a specialist or a supposed “keynote speaker” because the truth is that I have no key here to open a magic door to a room that will tell you exactly what a Humanities Lab is or how to create your Humanities Labs here at Albion College. On the contrary, the key I would like to use today is one that notes a diversity of spaces and leads us all into a series of exploratory rooms.
SLIDE - 6
My goal today is to discover with you, ways in which the characteristics and conceptual approaches surrounding different lab structures from various disciplines, or what some might call antidisciplines, might inspire and structure your thinking about the creation of your Labs here at Albion. Metaphorically speaking, how might the notion of one room lead us into
SLIDE - 7
a series of other houses, rooms or spaces that might get us unstuck from the ways in which we have traditionally viewed the purpose and shape of a “Lab.” So, what I wish to do is offer you glimpses of definitions and examples of Labs interspersed with conversation amongst all of us that might possibly redraw, or simply reaffirm the direction of your Mellon initiative. I have decided to keep examples about specific Humanities Labs to a minimum precisely because I see this as a time of opportunity for you to define Albion’s “Humanities Labs” for yourselves. In fact, you may end up finding that you need not one but, as House would say, a series of Labs that might add up to your “Humanities Lab” infrastructure.
Part of the title of this keyless keynote
is what David Edwards in his book Lab: Creativity and Culture calls the Google model, which is to “innovate first, perfect later, share everything, pursue brilliance, dare to dream, and believe that data and money follow the idea.” While the Humanities have way more to offer than Google, data or money, it is the combination of sharing, of pursuing brilliance and of daring to dream that is and always has been quite exciting in our fields. Especially for those of us in the Liberal Arts, our ability to create more flexible and interdisciplinary “pop-up-like” structures steeped in strong traditions and foundations, is what turns these moments, this so-called crisis in the humanities, into an opportunity for us all.
“Labs” serve as a new type of practical research infrastructure, or a superstructure if you will, that allow us to think critically about how to expand on our humanities-based practices in a way that does not “conform fully to a science and engineering based model or previous layers of scholarly infrastructure” (Svensson). In a sense, we now have the opportunity to turn that model on its head, or remix bits and pieces of elements that we find most valuable:
As Patrick Svensson explains in his essay “From Optical Fiber To Conceptual Cyberinfrastructure,” the Lab is a concept that is emerging in part because of the influence of the digital humanities and the technology-based platforms that are increasingly driving our research in more integrative, collaborative, and distributed forms (qtd Borgman), and in part, I would add, because our global cultural environment is teaching us that collaboration matters and can make a difference, that reaching out to our communities is important, that learning from one another and empowering our students to think deeply, broadly, and for themselves, will affect the future, and that we in the arts and humanities play a significant role in the process of social and educational transformations.
But to note from the onset is that the concept of infrastructure is one that is usually identified with the sciences and engineering in terms of equipment needs; it is therefore typically rarely elaborated on or discussed in the humanities. And this, of course, can work against us in terms of the need for budgets, equipment or rooms, but it could also work for us because we can think outside the box and engage in constructive dialogue about current or future models that are tailored to our individual needs. (Svennson)
Therefore, when we engage with the construction of a “Lab,” we must define this Lab with the knowledge of Lab prototypes in different disciplines, and with the understanding that our “infrastructure turn” as Svennson calls, it, is also laden with disciplinary assumptions, political contexts and some risks.” For instance, we need to be careful not to uncritically buy into a science and engineering paradigm or only use existing infrastructures, such as libraries, as a default model for new spaces. “However, says Svennsson, we also need to learn from each other and from disciplines and areas that have a strong infrastructural tradition.” And “Being a collaborative and intersectional place is critical to the operation.”
So, the 4-course Lab model you’ve created here at Albion is already establishing your place in the Liberal Arts as a highly innovative institutional project geared toward active and experiential learning in collaborative settings that cross disciplines and reach into your communities. I learned that your steering committee had some very fruitful conversations with several other institutions who inspired their vision. One of them was Beloit College’s Labs Across the Curriculum model, which looks something like this:
At this point John- was going to tell you a little bit about how this model and others inspired your thinking.
Because there aren’t many models out there for this type of work in the Liberal Arts, as John mentioned you have some freedom to develop your Labs in creative ways that will work for you. That said, the impact of your labs on the bigger picture of teaching and research approaches in the Arts and Humanities as a whole is something that many of us at other Liberal Arts institutions are going to watch and learn from very closely, and I am particularly happy to be part of this initial process.
This is a transformational period in the Arts and Humanities and what i would like to emphasize is that the process of emerging, growing, and changing is central to the Lab idea itself and can be well-observed in the first Lab at Duke Universities’ Franklin Humanities Institute,
the Haiti Lab founded in 2010, which was inspired by the collaborative and discovery-driven model of research labs and the practical applications to innovative thinking. The Lab emerged 2 weeks after the earthquake with a graduate level course that established the centrality of the Kreyol language and actually led to the emergence of the Lab itself.
To give you a sense of their work, I wanted to share this video with you:
The ideas that led to this and other labs at Duke, including Borderworks and GreaterThanGames, were finite in length, between 1-3 years, and they appropriated a science-model of open engagement that emerged and grew over the years to ultimately add a new infrastructural model to their existing institution, as Dubois explained in this interview. But, what I think warrants underscoring is that this infrastructure was not thought out from the very beginning. In fact it simply emerged from an idea, then happened sometimes by accident, but with a sense of urgency, given the nature of the disaster. Dubois explains that although the central concern was clear, “the rest, we just had to invent. We were invited to experiment and try to figure out what way to go forward.”
The reason why I emphasize the importance of experimenting is because we in the humanities do not tend to define ourselves in terms of the word “discovery.” But, as my colleague at 4humanities, Alan Liu, highlights, we in the Humanities need to insist that when society talks about the importance of invention, innovation or breakthroughs, and usually attributes these terms to the sciences and engineering, we need to insist that the humanities are as vital as any field in this process, because, says Alan, and I quote
“Discovery is what happens when an invention, innovation, or breakthrough occurs in a fully human horizon of understanding that radically multiplies its value, discovering connections to whole worlds of human meaning and possibility. . . .”
Therefore, it is important to engage in the exploration of science-based models while also, as Svennson suggests, “[maintaining] a critical stance and advocating a truly humanities based approach to academic infrastructure. Consequently, we must allow for humanities induced visions and implementations in different kinds of combinations.”
So in order to both learn from other Lab models and build on the value of your own Humanities Lab combination here at Albion, I would like us to remove for just a few moments any walls that you might have already been built around the virtual and physical rooms that are your Labs, and depart from the supposition that the word “Lab” itself could get in the way of us reshaping our projects.
For this reason, let’s start with this word, Lab.
SLIDE - 15
Allow me to ask you to take 2 minutes to write down on your pads of paper, what immediately comes to mind when you hear the word:What images? What words? What characteristics? What else comes to mind?
early 17th century: from medieval Latin meaning labour'.
A room or building equipped for scientific experiments, research, or teaching, or for the manufacture of drugs or chemicals
A laboratory is a facility that provides controlled conditions in which scientific or technological research, experiments, and measurement may be performed,
It mostly refer to fields of sciences and social sciences and engineering, to the inclusion of workbenches or countertops, Cabinets and nowadays at least one computer workstation for data collection and analysis.
Other possible labs quoted are
- film laboratory or darkroom
- clandestine lab for the production of illegal drugs
- computer lab
- crime lab used to process crime scene evidence
- media lab
- medical lab (involves handling of chemical compounds)
- public health lab
Because I myself had very little understanding of the use of the term, I crowdsourced the faculty at Union College.What I found is not comprehensive in focus, but just serves to give us short glimpses into different lab characteristics:
Labs in the Behavioral Sciences
~Carol Weisse, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Pre-Med Program
“Key components to labs in the behavioral sciences are that they allow the collection of empirical data so that students can test a hypothesis and try to answer questions with objectivity, validity, reliability, and statistical power. Following the scientific method is usually the hallmark of a lab (pose a question, launch a hypothesis, design a way to operationally define variables, randomly assign subjects to groups if possible, and then analyze responses to test for statistically significant differences). An important component of the lab is the presentation of data, often through charts, graphs, figures, to illustrate and convey conclusions drawn as the result of the experience. Labs can be less formal, though, and include an experiential exercise designed to reinforce a particular concept.”
~James McGarrah, Lecturer in the Department of Chemistry
“In my discipline the lab is a place where the art of chemistry is performed. A laboratory is a practical experience for students to practice doing chemistry so that they can engage with the material not only in a theoretical way but in an interactive way as well. In other disciplines service learning, study abroad, and cultural learning are pedagogically devices used to achieve the same ends in order to bring context to "book learning" typically done in the lecture hall or classroom.
~ Jeff Corbin, Associate Professor of Biology, says:
“One way of characterizing the labs we do in sciences is that they are a chance to *do* the science that otherwise we read/talk about in lecture. So, we may do a hands-on experiment where the students collect their own data and analyze it, write it up in the scientific writing style, etc. Needless to say the experiments are somewhat contrived, but ideally they are still illustrating techniques and hopefully giving the students a chance to apply their knowledge in new ways. If they've had experience running through the scientific process in their labs, hopefully that translates to being able to go through the thought process (hypothesis, design, analysis, etc.) on their own.
~ David Hemmendinger, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Computer Science
“Computer-science labs are different from labs in the natural sciences in not dealing with physical apparatus that may be expensive or potentially dangerous. Most of what students do in software labs resembles what they might do on their own. What they have in common with other labs is that they are still supervised practice, where students can do exercises or try out techniques with an instructor on hand to give advice or help in dealing with common errors or obstacles -- techniques that they will then use on their own in programming projects.
A humanities lab may thus have more in common with CS labs than with those in the natural sciences. In a few cases, e.g. in teaching the use of power tools for deconstruction, they may more closely resemble the latter. (great title for something)
In Sum, Lab characteristics include:
- Interdisciplinary, hands on approaches
- Practical hands-on and interactive experiences that bring context to book learning or reinforce a particular concept
- The posing of questions, launching of hypothesis, definitions of variables, and analysis of responses.
- The Presentation of data
- Supervised practice that might lead to independent work
Write down any Lab characteristics that grab your attention, and consider why they grab your attention for the work that you are doing here at Albion
The stranger environment I’d like to start with is that of the so-called ArtScience Lab. The Artscience Lab is a program founded and managed by Harvard professor David Edwards and consists of an international network of three small cultural innovation labs, a prize, and an educational program. He defines it as “the simultaneously imaginative and analytical process that underlies all creative thought. It is what takes place in the mind of a child, when, confronted with a closed door, she [or he] dreams of what may be beyond that door, figures out how to open it, then swings the door open and discovers.
““Guided in predictable ways, creators will do predictable things. They surprise less” (David Edwards, The Lab Creativity and Culture, 13).
He continues by explaining that Artscience is also what takes place in the mind of a creative writer, or artist, or scientist when, while chasing an innovative dream, he or she makes that dramatic creative leap that eventually leads to a work of literature or of art or of breakthrough science.
Edwards considers Labs to be intermediary or hybrid spaces of dream and analysis, where participants:
(1) Passionately espouse some idea that they aim to realize in the arts or sciences.
(2) Study deeply and open themselves to invigorating new experiences [in their own or another’s discipline].
(3) Struggle against stiff resistance from colleagues and sometimes even their intended audience [and I might add, themselves].
(4) Repeatedly test and frequently see their original idea evolve in unexpected ways in this new environment.
(5) Throughout it all maintain a determination to arrive at an original artistic or scientific expression.
How does this translate into action?:
The Artscience team created a lab in Paris and at Harvard where they develop up to three experiments each year. These were led by a major artist or designer, working with one or more leading scientists to develop works of art or design in purely cultural, industrial, or humanitarian contexts – and sometimes in all three.
The way they construct their Innovation Workshops and what they do is (video?)
they invite students from all over the world. They bring in prominent speakers, then ask the students to start developing their ideas in teams, with Edwards and others guiding them along and students going through a constant process of prototyping and presenting of ideas and materials. The culmination is a public presentation where the public participates in the creative design process. In other words they engage in a process that is never static, that constantly allows for new doors to be opened, new people to enter and exit different rooms as ideas take shape and continue to evolve and grow.
The Ars Electronica Futurelab is a program born in 1979 in Linz, Austria that focuses on the future at the nexus of art, technology and society. They consider their works as sketches of possible future scenarios in art-based, experimental forms. In other words they juxtapose biotechnology and genetic engineering, neurology, robotics, prosthetics and media art on equal terms and form experimental arrays conducive to testing ways in which we might be interacting and communicating with our surroundings and other human beings in the very near future, and getting an impression of what these changes will mean for us and our society.
All exhibitions focus on issues having to do with how people can deal with their environment, and offer a variety of perspectives on our nature, our origins and our world.
Between 1979 and today, Ars Electronica has developed four different segments.
- An annual FESTIVAL focusing on a specific, timely theme. This festival allowed for the establishment of a solid regional basis by producing large-scale open-air projects and an international profile and
collaborating with world-renowned artists, scientists, and experts—for instance, by hosting the first Sky Art Conference held outside the USA.
- A yearly competition in several categories that received submissions from around the world and quickly made a name for itself as the trend barometer in the global media art scene.
- A CENTER, a year-round platform for presentation and production.
and the FUTURELAB, a prototype media art lab that was originally conceived to produce infrastructure and content for the CENTER and FESTIVAL but has become increasingly active in joint ventures with leading universities and private sector R&D facilities.
Ars Electronica’s four organically grown elements—the FESTIVAL, the PRIX, the CENTER and the FUTURELAB—provide it with a well-balanced structure that is conducive to its international orientation while still enabling it to meet the needs of the local community.
And although the magnitude of these efforts might not work for those of us at small Liberal Arts colleges, I think that there are bits and pieces here that could work, such as the idea of creating a Festival with community members, or developing digital platforms or centers where we archive and publicize our work, in ways that communicate how and why the arts and humanities are significant for the future of our world.
MIT Media Lab is probably one of the most well-known examples here in the US. It opened in 1985 and today the Lab has more than 70 members including some of the worlds largest corporations who provide up to $50 million operating budget (maybe we could ask the Mellon for that). What’s distinct here is that they actually conceive of themselves as a degree-granting program in Media Arts and Sciences and a research program, with 23 research groups who have produced more than 350 projects. [. . .] These research groups are often defined in terms of subcenters or Labs, such as “The Center for Extreme Bionics, or Center for Mobile Learning”. So, the MIT Lab serves as an overarching superstructure term that houses a diverse group of projects.
Although the corporate MIT model is not one we may want to pursue in our Liberal Arts institutions, I do find inspiration in the Media Lab’s definition of itself, which it describes as an
“antidisciplinary culture” as going beyond boundaries and disciplines, encouraging the most unconventional mixing and matching of seemingly disparate research areas.
The MIT Media Lab creates disruptive technologies that happen at the edges, pioneering such areas as wearable computing, tangible interfaces, and affective computing. (But what does “happening at the edges mean for the Humanities”? And how can edginess be better associated with a Humanities whose work is often steeped in history?)
The MIT Media Lab is committed to looking beyond the obvious to ask the questions not yet asked--questions whose answers could radically improve the way people live, learn, express themselves, work, and play.
And they do this through “open studio spaces, research teams, few intellectual property hurdles and a spirit of ‘demo or die” (which was eventually rephrased as “imagine and realize”--or passion, experimentation, interdisciplinary collaboration, rapid prototyping, partnerships with industry, and solid grounding in practical problems.” (Edwards 22)
emphasis was not placed on current market needs but on imagining the future.
And what I find most exciting, is that they talked about “seeing around the corner” and creating renegade research by what some identified as a group of misfits.
EmcArts: Innovation Labs, / example from Performing Arts as an example that is especially significant because of the way in which it relates to your community outreach efforts here at albion.
The Innovation Lab was created to assist nonprofit organizations in designing and prototyping new ideas and to launch real-life projects that address complex challenges facing their organizations and the arts and culture field at large.
The Lab serves as a catalyst
- for the organization’s journey in adaptive capacity building and a journey to new pathways:
- to help arts organizations challenge core operating assumptions,
- to engage in intense planning on a practical innovation project,
- to create a sense of organization-wide investment in change
- and to test innovative strategies with grants that help organizations prototype new practices.
Outcomes? Here is one example that gives light to the power of working with the community through a project called the teatro public of Cleveland
Allow me to give you one last example of a Lab that we don’t usually relate to the Arts and Humanities, in part because when we think of a Makerspace, we see images like these that contain lots of machines, tools and technologies:
Driven by the emergence of the “Maker” movement - a revival of the 20th century’s do-it-yourself (DIY) movement -- the popularity of Makerspaces or Maker Labs has surged with the advent of affordable high-tech prototyping tools such as 3D printers and laser cutters. Common to all Makerspaces is an ethos of tech-driven creativity and innovation and shared spaces equipped with tools. They typically also provide ad-hoc educational resources for equipment training, workshops, and presentations.
The cultural value of Makerspaces lies in their role as a focal point around which a community of crafters, innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs can coalesce and thrive. This is particularly valuable in academic environments, which strive to train and foster the next generation of thinkers and doers.
The pipeline into Makerspaces at most academic institutions is driven by the STEM disciplines, with tools and technologies usually determining the direction of the projects and initiatives and the composition of the student body. In other words the image of a “Makerspace” is that of a tech shop meant for techies, computer geeks, and builders. While most of these students derive from the fields of engineering and computer science, more and more public artists are also participating in the Maker Movement given their century-old roots in making material objects and using new media technologies for costumes,
set designs, installations, artworks, music, fashion, sculpture, etc. Although the digital humanities community has already made connections to the Maker Movement (as can be seen
in the work of the University of Victoria, for instance), the traditional Humanities, if one can still call them that, have been glaringly absent
At Union College, we are in the process joining the Maker efforts in Computer Science and Engineering, to drive a more integrated and Arts and Humanities-centric Maker Community. The goal of this Maker Community would be to materialize and connect doing with thinking, learning with value and knowledge building in context. In other words we seek to emphasize the importance of any Maker to think about and consider culture, society, history, diversity,
language, literacy, ethics, etc. We propose a human-, contextual- and value-centric, not tool-centered Maker Community that places emphasis on the process of self-reflection and articulation. Our goal is to contribute to the reframing of the Maker Movement by emphasizing the role and value of the Arts and Humanities in the process of making. And since this is in the proposal stages, we too are in the process of figuring out how to make our Lab work at our Liberal Arts Institution, and we too will be engaging in discussions similar to the ones you are having here at Albion.
So, to take us back to my framing metaphor,
I believe that we have a unique opportunity to entertain new and transformational infrastructures, different kind of rooms we in the arts and humanities may chose to want to get stuck in our professional lives. And it is in these rooms that we might be able to take a moment
to breath and brainstorm ideas that no doubt will lead initiatives, like your Humanities Labs here at Albion, to redraw the lines of all of our houses in the Liberal Arts.