The posting below describes a new effort at Stanford to bring about a
greater collaboration among scholars in the humanities. Borrowing
from some of the practices more typically found in engineering and
the sciences, the Stanford Humanities Laboratory seeks to develop
outputs that will have an appeal to a non-specialist audience.
The article is from the April 9, 2000 issue of The Stanford Report
and reprinted with permission.
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'START-UP' HUMANITIES LAB TO FOCUS ON COLLABORATIVE EFFORTS
It will be a lab like many others on campus, with a number of
long-term projects run by a principal investigator who oversees a
team of faculty and postdoctoral researchers.
But the new Stanford Humanities Laboratory (SHL) that is scheduled
for launch in September will boldly go where professors of
literature, history and the arts have only tiptoed until now.
"In current Silicon Valley parlance, one might say that SHL aims to
serve as a sort of intellectual 'venture capitalist,' and the
collaborative research projects that it 'invests' in could be
envisaged as intellectual 'start-ups,'" says Jeffrey Schnapp, the
Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature and chair of the
Department of French and Italian.
Schnapp, who will serve as director of the new SHL, sent a letter to
more than 300 faculty in the humanities and area curators at the
Stanford Libraries and the Cantor Arts Center April 17, calling for
proposals for pilot projects for the academic years 2000-2001 and
2001-2002. The deadline for submission is June 15, and notifications
of acceptance will be made on July 15.
Projects that receive funding will have one overriding goal: They
will be collaborative in nature, drawing together teams of senior
faculty, advanced undergraduates and postdocs, as well as museum
curators and individuals from area cultural centers and industries.
And the end results just might look different -- a performance,
perhaps, or an exhibition, website, course curriculum or book that is
aimed at a non-specialist audience.
"Over the past few decades increasingly smaller niches of
specialization have been carved out within the humanities," Schnapp
says. "That's had a positive side, but it's also had the unfortunate
consequence of sealing off areas of specialization from one another
and reducing the scope of the conversations that take place.
"So one of the more exciting and more difficult features of the lab
is to create incentives for groups of scholars to work together and
to think creatively about ways to produce and present new forms of
Schnapp approached President Gerhard Casper and then-Provost
Condoleezza Rice with the idea for the lab last spring, at a time
when the Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and
Arts were nearing the end of their initial programming.
"Questions were being discussed about what came next and about which
parts of the experiment had been most successful," Schnapp says.
He drafted a proposal for the lab and the president's office agreed
to provide funding.
"This literally is an initiative that is building upon the first
presidential initiative," Schnapp says. "The symposium part of the
budget will be moved over to support the lab in the first phase of
Three SHL brainstorming sessions were held in October, November and
December 1999, where faculty from various humanities departments,
centers and programs met to imagine research projects that might
replace the traditional individualized model.
A number of faculty members at those meetings, like Schnapp, could
draw on their own experience.
Trained as a medievalist, the SHL director is a self-described
"eccentric literary historian" and specialist in 20th-century
culture. In recent years, he says, his work more often has put him in
touch with architects and designers than with literary scholars.
"Like a monk in a medieval cell, I used to sit and gather material in
isolation over a period of years," Schnapp says. "Eventually maybe an
essay or two, or a book would come out of that process.
"But these days I tend to wander pretty widely in terms of
disciplinary range, and in Europe I've had the experience of working
in collaboration with museums on exhibitions and public
presentations. That has required working with people in different
areas of competence and expertise, and that has told me what an
extremely exciting and enlivening process research can be."
Schnapp can envisage, for example, a collaborative research project
on the material history of literature that would look at how texts
are organized in various cultures and how systems of notation and
alphabets function. The project, which might also explore the
evolution of objects such as pens and writing surfaces, could
conclude with a global reference manual.
"I can imagine that project might interest a whole range of
businesses that are actively engaged in information technology here
in Silicon Valley," Schnapp says. "And as director of SHL, I would go
out there and pitch the project to businesses and get them involved
in supporting research in the humanities."
In the start-up phase of the lab, seed monies will be provided for
between three and eight pilot projects for the academic years
2000-2001 and 2001-2002, with budgets ranging from $20,000 to
$50,000. In the second phase of the lab, scheduled to begin in Spring
Quarter 2002, between four and eight large-scale projects will be
funded per year, primarily supported by foundation grants.
A distinctive feature of the research teams, as Schnapp envisions
them, is the prominent role humanities postdocs will play. In fact,
research projects will be advertised -- "we'll post the research and
say we're looking for postdocs who want to work as part of the team."
In the sciences, Schnapp says, young scholars often choose a
compelling postdoc opportunity over a beginning assistant
professorship to develop their profiles by working in a lab with
"But postdocs have not been the royal road to success in the
humanities the way they are an absolutely essential stepping stone in
the scientific disciplines," he adds. "So the lab is conceived of as
helping young humanists carve out a space that's been a missing link
in their career track."
Questions about the application process for the Stanford Humanities
Laboratory can be addressed via e-mail to SUHUMLAB@stanford.edu , or
phone Kellie Smith, (650) 725-9225, or Schnapp, (650) 725-3270.
The SHL website, www.stanford.edu/group/shl, with online application
forms and information, should be up and running in early May. SR