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'Start-Up' Humanities Lab To Focus On Collaborative Efforts

Tomorrow's Research

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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.


Rick Reis

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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

top-notch scientists.

"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 , or

phone Kellie Smith, (650) 725-9225, or Schnapp, (650) 725-3270.

The SHL website,, with online application

forms and information, should be up and running in early May. SR