The posting below is an article on the new Stanford Humanities
Laboratory that funds nontraditional, collaborative projects in the
humanities It is from the June 19, 2001 issue of the Stanford
Report. Reprinted with permission.
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BRINGING A SCIENTIFIC MODEL TO HUMANISTIC RESEARCH
BY JOHN SANFORD
Think of putting technology to the service of scholarship, and you
likely will think of, say, supercomputers humming away in a Human
Genome Project laboratory.
But humanistic research is crossing into the 21st century as well,
and nowhere is this more evident than at the Stanford Humanities
Laboratory (SHL). The lab was established in April 2000 to fund
nontraditional, collaborative projects in the humanities. For
example, one team of scholars is building a hypertextbook about
medieval Spain; another is developing a multimedia website devoted to
performance studies; a third is working on a way to translate complex
data, such as meteorological information, into a kind of music
(imagine listening to a weather pattern).
Stanford professors, students, staff and university officials
--including Provost John Etchemendy, Vice Provost John Bravman and
Cantor Center Director Thomas Seligman -- gathered two weeks ago at
the Humanities Center Annex to
view these projects, among others, in their various stages of
development and to celebrate the lab's one-year anniversary.
Bravman told a large crowd gathered in the backyard of the annex that
he had looked up "laboratory" in the Oxford English Dictionary and
been unable to find a definition that covers what's going on at the
"Clearly, we're going to have to contact our good friends in Oxford
and tell them that we have a new definition for 'laboratory' -- one
that includes the humanistic disciplines. And what better place than
Stanford University to bring that about," Bravman said.
Spearheaded by Professor Jeffrey Schnapp, lab director and chair of
the Department of French and Italian, the SHL is an effort to push
the envelope of humanities research and teaching by providing seed
money -- grants between $20,000 and $50,000 -- to projects that meet
two main criteria: They must be collaborative, and the research
results must be in a form that is nontraditional for the humanities.
Currently, five projects are funded through SHL, but more are slated
to receive grants in the near future, lab officials say.
Just as the SHL is redefining "laboratory," Research: A Digital
Performance Journal is exploring and expanding the notion of
performance. The project will result in a website that is a cross
between an online journal and exhibition space, said Ehren Fordyce, a
principal investigator and assistant professor of drama.
Project organizers hope to make performance research more
collaborative and process-oriented, Fordyce said. For example,
articles can be added to or revised over time. In addition, entire
performances can be stored on the website,
allowing researchers to see a full production as opposed to just still shots.
Indeed, when the website is launched -- probably sometime in the fall
-- one of the first "publications" will be a digital model of a
light-emitting diode installation. The actual installation, by
conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, was on display earlier this year at
the New National Gallery in Berlin.
Prior to that, Holzer collaborated with Greg Niemeyer, director of
the campus Digital Art Center (SUDAC), and Ben Dean, a lecturer at
the center who holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Stanford, to
develop a digitally animated model of the project.
"Holzer was so pleased with Greg's animation and the way that it
envisioned her ideas that, after watching the animation, she
momentarily questioned the necessity of actually going ahead and
creating the piece in the gallery," said Gwen Allen, a project
coordinator and graduate student in art history.
Medieval Spains: a 'hypertextbook'
Finding a textbook that presents a comprehensive history of medieval
Spain is, well, impossible. Just ask Assistant Professor Kathryn
Miller of the History Department.
"It's really not feasible for the traditional textbook to convey all
the cultural complexities of pre-modern Spain," she said. "It's
virtually impossible that a noncollaborative enterprise could cover
Roman, Visigothic, Jewish, Christian and Muslim history."
Miller, who specializes in medieval Christian-Muslim relations in
Spain, North Africa and the Mediterranean, contacted some colleagues
from various other colleges and universities and pitched the idea of
working together on a hyptertextbook about medieval Spain. Thus,
Medieval Spains: Antiquity to the New World (A.D. 100-1550) was born.
Michael Gonzalez, academic technology manager for the Overseas
Studies Program, designed a system that allows the collaborators to
send images and text directly to the website.
Indeed, one of the virtues of this cyber-collaboration is that the
scholars need not meet in one room. Whether historians are in
Barcelona or Boston, they can contribute a translation of, say,
Arabic poetry or images of Roman gladiators to the website.
Cyber-collaboration is efficient and also allows the team to work
more creatively, Miller said. In contrast to a printed textbook, a
hypertextbook can offer a range of resources -- original Arabic,
Hebrew and Latin manuscripts; images of archaeological remains;
soundtracks of the popular Cantigas -- you name it.
"We think it will attract multiple audiences," she said. "And this is
a way for all of us to share our research as well."
How They Got Game
While they are not yet part of the Western canon, video games and
interactive simulations are getting some serious scholarly attention
History Professor Tim Lenoir and University Libraries Curator Henry
Lowood have teamed up to explore the history and cultural impact of
this segment of new media. Undergraduates, whom Lenoir described as
the real experts in the field, and graduate students also are
collaborating on the project, which is titled How They Got Game: The
History and Culture of Interactive Simulations and Video Games.
During Winter Quarter, Lowood taught a course on the history of
computer game design -- probably the first critical course on video
and computer games offered anywhere.
"Henry has put together this marvelous collection of video games,"
Lenoir said. "It constitutes our laboratory."
Building on research from their project and elsewhere, the two are
constructing a digital archive of source materials related to the
history of computer graphics and virtual reality. It will be used to
create a web-based documentary on interactive media and the
Other projects being funded through SHL are Crowds, which focuses on
the rise and fall of the crowd -- particularly the revolutionary
crowd -- in the western sociopolitical imagination from 1789 to the
present, and De Natura Sonoris: The
Music and Science of Sonification of Complex Data, which turns source
data into musical entities.
Schnapp, who described the SHL initiative as scholarly "venture
capital," said it is meeting a real need.
"I think the new Humanities Laboratory has tapped into something
that's really just beginning to happen but was already happening
below the surface -- bubbling away, so to speak," he said. "And I
think a great deal of it has to do with
the fact that the traditional isolation that humanists feel is one
whose time, perhaps, has passed. I think it's also a sense of
impatience, especially among younger scholars, with traditional ways
of disseminating the kind of knowledge that one produces."
Schnapp also said he hopes the pedagogical component of the lab will
have a big impact.
"One of the really exciting implications is the model of teaching
that's involved -- of involving graduate and undergraduate students
in literally producing knowledge, not just studying books and
regurgitating knowledge. It's very much analogous to what goes on in