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Here is a vision statement for a (Digital) Humanities Lab or Hub. It is based upon my experience in forging transdisciplinary networks through the Arts and Humanities over the last fifteen years.

I wrote this in the summer of 2008.


As Head of Archaeology at University of Wales Lampeter (1996-1998) I was concerned with building bridges through the wonderfully diverse disciplinary field that is archaeology. I was hired to bring such an interdisciplinary agenda with me to Stanford where we now have a new interdepartmental Archaeology Center that connects different research and teaching programs under matters of common human concern, such as long term environmental change, human relationships with other species, processes of design and making, the ethics and politics of the past in the present. My own lab in the Archaeology Center, Metamedia, addresses the convergence of archaeology and media with questions of the visualization of the remains of the past, of how social and cultural experience may be documented, of the implications of new media, such as Web 2.0 and VR technologies, for archival and memory practices.

A close and long relationship with the performance arts company Brith Gof Theatre (I was honored to become a company director in 1997) involved the development both of hybrid genres between the arts and academy (theatre/archaeology and deep mapping) as well as finding an institutional means of funding community-oriented arts practice between sponsorship, state subsidy, and academic research. This experience led directly to my associations with Stanford Humanities Center and Stanford Humanities Lab. The former supported a major collaborative arts project based upon residential fellowships (The Three Landscapes Project 2000-2001) and is now working with me and the special collections in our library to set up a digitally-enabled international research network devoted to the antiquarian tradition. Stanford Humanities Lab, of which I have been a co-Director since 2004, was set up in 2000 to champion innovative, experimental and collaborative projects in the Humanities that focus on themes that may escape disciplinary specialization, that integrate different disciplines, that involve a triangulation of arts practice, commentary/critique, and outreach beyond the academy into industry and the public sphere, that merge research, pedagogy, and publication in diverse kinds of practice and output, such as exhibitions and web sites as well as conventional academic publication.

It is not a coincidence, I think, that SHL has always had close links with Stanford Libraries. I chaired the University Library Committee at University Wales Lampeter and, fascinated by the College Old Library, became concerned with digital information futures that would complement the riches of traditional text and image. We are indeed now able to see libraries evolve from academic services into pervasive information environments for us all to explore specialized interest as well as the depths of human heritage. The growth of an open source “commons” of media available for research and reuse is a most welcome trend.

I suggest we are at an opportune moment for revisiting questions of the role of the Arts and Humanities in the Academy and beyond. Interdisciplinary agendas are now clear and firmly established in all forward-looking academic institutions; whether it is in bio-tech, the environment, international relations, or local and global identity, the involvement of Humanities perspectives is accepted as essential. For some, the future of the Humanities may still be seen to lie in new technologies; mass digitization and processing power are at the heart of the achievements of Computational and Digital Humanities. This is good and appropriate. But the easy availability now of turn-key digital tool-kits means Humanists need no longer be led by technology. Humanities questions have come to be again about people and community: how to enable a deep and sustained, collaborative and collegial address to matters of common human concern. I do believe we have sufficient experience in the design and management of knowledge to provide practical guides as to how this can be achieved, and how specialized research can be the foundation for broad address to matters of common and pressing human concern.

The notion of a Humanities Center or Lab as a hub

I am very attached to the way an interdisciplinary center in the Humanities can operate as a kind of institutional hub.

A hub — the flywheel center of centrifugal and centripetal energies and flows in and around the Arts and Humanities. I see it having three components:

Let me elaborate.

An expanded Humanities Hub — matters of common human concern

Crucial questions about what it is now to be human, about experience in a connected world, the boundaries of culture and nature and human impacts upon the environment, the contemporary relevance of global and local cultural heritage, the shifting character of expanding urban experience, transcend the old divisions between the Arts, Sciences and Humanities, between the academy, industry and the cultural sphere. Especially today, with new developments in bio-tech, digital culture, global society.

Characteristically, these are complex, multilayered, inherently transdisciplinary matters. They frequently find no “natural” home in an orthodox disciplinary landscape and often prove resistant to print as the sole vehicle for analysis and documentation. They exceed the boundaries of any individual specialist’s expert field of knowledge even as they are deeply dependent upon the latter. They are, accordingly, collaborative almost by definition, involving as they do many fields of substantive and expert knowledge.

A Humanities Hub would be about a collaborative address to this transdisciplinary landscape of concerns.

Such an expanded Humanistic landscape is not about the vulgarization or watering down of expert knowledge for purposes of outreach or in the service of some sort of throwback to a happily comprehensive Humanism. On the contrary, it is about building ever more ambitious, higher impact, larger-scale mosaics out of the dense tesserae provided by located and specialized forms of knowledge. Individual and specialized research and teaching serves as the foundation, but carried out within a setting where collaboration and teamwork in focused and located projects are the modus operandi.

From cultural custody to design

The expanded humanistic scope just outlined implies an active engagement with the Archive. The Archive here is understood both in the figurative sense, as the cultural storehouse of knowledge of human achievement commonly associated with the Arts and Humanities, and in the literal sense, as the physical institutions entrusted with the organization and preservation of human memory, be they museums, libraries, depositories or historical archives. As much as a heritage to be curated, preserved, and studied, works of art and culture handed down to the present from the past are resources for contemporary work and reworking, all the more so when, under digital conditions, they become readily accessible and manipulable, even within the comfort of one’s own home. The resulting loss of distance between the living present and what remains of the past has already started to knock modern institutions of memory off of their conventional moorings.

The once dominant conception of the museum as a place of collection building, preservation, and controlled display thus finds itself increasingly augmented with a turn towards ever renewable programming, public outreach to elicit visitor involvement, the hosting of gala events, commerce and merchandising. Irrespective of whether one deems the latter a good or bad thing, the museum as institution has multiplied and expanded its scope to encompass forms of material culture and social expression that extend far outside the boundaries of the arts endorsed by antiquity’s Muses. The Archive too has exploded. It now contains not just manuscripts and letters, but vast seas of ephemera, locks of hair, a century of recorded sounds and gestures, legions of celluloid ribbons, terabytes of memories. The library is at once a world of paper and pictures, and a digital repository a million times more extensive than the Library of Alexandria, readable from the office, a coffee house or one’s own living room. In the premodern era, information was scarce and the Muses were put in place for purposes of preservation; in a mnemonically superabundant world, data preservation and retrieval have become decentralized and democratized activities, expressions not only of an institutional will to promote the conservation of collective memory, but also of individuality, personality, and selfhood.

A Humanities Hub would champion the notion of the Animated Archive in order to emphasize the need for active, affective, and effective engagement with the cultural past. It implies an intensified concern with the interface between the lived present and the material remains of human achievement. The “interface” in question refers not just to the usual domains of ergonomics, communicational efficiency, and cognitive clarity, but to the challenge of designing ever fresh and renewable choreographies of interaction between the past and present.

Collaboration and collegiality

Within the academy, collegiality has traditionally been associated with congenial listening and commentary: exposing one's ideas to colleagues that they might react, comment and prompt improvement. Interdisciplinary projects in the Humanities and Arts have not often moved far beyond parallel approaches to a common theme, as exemplified by the themed conference or the standard edited multi-author book. The norm remains centered upon the individual researcher or author endowed with acknowledged expertise, however complementary their work may be to those of colleagues, and however much their expertise may be rooted in the work of their own students and research assistants.

A Humanities Hub would complement this kind of collegiality with team-based collaboration and cocreation. Features of these knowledge networks will be outlined below.

Project-based knowledge and learning

I see a Humanities Hub as a diverse and collaborative ecology of research and pedagogy. The Hub would operate partly as a kind of incubator for work that links the Arts and Humanities to Science and Technology not in abstract terms, but by means of hands-on projects with concrete deliverables as outputs. Much as in a natural science lab, Hub projects would often be based upon teamwork. They would explore matters of common human concern with a risk-taking ethos that involves a triangulation of arts practice, scholarly research rooted in commentary, critique, and interpretation, and outreach beyond the academy in the form of partnerships with museums, public performance spaces, industry, and foundations. Staffed by students working under the supervision of faculty principal investigators, they would wed knowledge acquisition to knowledge production, the development of high-level specialized knowledge to communication with non-specialist audiences. Students and faculty would learn by making, whether the making in question involves producing a piece of original scholarship, writing a piece of code, developing a visualization, storyboarding an animation, or building a physical structure.

Community

Human interest is a centripetal energy and would make of a Humanities Hub an inclusive community.

Collaborative cocreation requires focus upon personal, team, and community dynamics. The Humanities Hub would put people at the heart of projects, in their roles as creators, researchers, learners, audience, or simply as those who pose the questions considered worthy of address. As a corollary, the Hub would tend towards a pragmatic and opportunistic aspect that looks out beyond the traditional confines of the academy and its disciplines and schools in order to establish links wherever they might enhance address to a particular matter of common concern.

Alliances and affiliations with agencies and organizations beyond the academy such as galleries, museums, government agencies and corporate partners, would thus be a key component of the networks at the heart of a Humanities Hub. Cementing these alliances would involve orthodox mechanisms such as institutional partnership, sponsorship, and industrial affiliation. The fundamental basis of the Hub's community would nevertheless be shared interest in matters of common concern centered upon the riches of the Humanities.

Community building involves listening intently to individuals and constituencies and offering them a congenial home. A Humanities Hub would offer short-term fellowships at various levels, and this would be a core of its community. The Hub would be well served by adopting both a grass-roots/bottom-up model for establishing projects, and top-down provision of facilities, networks, experience and tools for reaching a goal. The role of technology in these complementary processes will be outlined below.

Given this inclusive community base, it is somewhat inappropriate to define a precise vision of, for example, the components of a Humanities curriculum or research program centered upon such an institute as a Humanities Hub. Nevertheless, components of such a vision are not at all mysterious. The key is a project structure with rich Humanities content and delivering a substantive output.

Diverse ecologies of interest and the effervescence of ideas

The energy of the flywheel effect of the Hub would lie in the ways it sustains an intellectual "buzz" around issues in the Arts and Humanities, and, of course, as they apply to all kinds of matters of common and pressing human concern in the Sciences too.

Here are some ways of generating such an effervescence of ideas:

The strength of a Humanities Hub's program would not lie in innovation, conceived as change ex nihilo, but in its diversity — of ideas, community, and range of its activities.

Manifestation as well as publication

This diversity enabled by a Hub would notably be evident in a diversity of output. Scholarly publication is now notoriously and appropriately moving from a one-dimensional model of monograph and peer-reviewed paper into many different kinds of possible e-publication and manifestation, not just of polished research, but also of research materials and environments, of course materials and lectures. This is not a zero-sum scenario of either research paper or museum exhibition, but of the complementarity of different kinds of manifestation of a project, as well as its publication. This has, of course, been substantially enabled by the ubiquity of digital media.

I see a Humanities Hub making the most of this complementarity of manifestation, because it perfectly suits a mission of promoting in as many engaging ways as possible the Humanistic riches of our academic institutions.

I will say more of the technological component below.

Permission to take risks, explore and experiment

Project-based learning and research implies an emphasis upon both process and output. The first involves focus upon the ways different forms of work (leading to the creation of objects, textual artifacts, soundscapes, constructions, whatever) are carried out, and assumes the form of iterative trials. Make, monitor process, test reaction, adapt and repeat is the standard pattern. The second, an emphasis upon output, sets the bar high, because a Humanities Hub would be known first for the quality of its output. But a Humanities Hub can also be a structure akin to that provided by the apprentice system. Instead of deferring the moment of “truth” (when what faculty and students do and make is placed in public circulation and evaluated as the product of an expert practitioner) until the end of the period of making and preparation, it demands professional outcomes right from the start. This is a tremendous force for improving research quality and for training graduate students; we do well to remember as well that we are all life-long learners.

Iterative processes and modeling, as well as a transdisciplinary reach that moves one out of established disciplinary domains into ill-defined though compelling new fields of inquiry, work best with an experimental attitude, precisely of making trials, of learning from experience by prompting problems and failures, of criss-crossing media and language boundaries. This complements standard academic practices in the Humanities of sharing early or intermediate iterations of a given research project only with close and unthreatening colleagues so that final publication will be as invulnerable to "failure" as possible. A Humanities Hub would give permission to experiment, because the rewards are quality improvement as well as the excitement of risk.

Designing and enabling knowledge networks

A key to the success of a Humanities Hub would be its design and management of knowledge networks.

My experience, backed by research, leads me to recommend the following tried and tested guidelines. The key principles are sociality, agility, and reciprocity in a devolution of project management that complements top-down design with team decision-making— moving toward a flat project management structure incorporating various levels of expertise from apprentice to expert, from undergraduate to senior tenured faculty. This is also a cost effective management plan, building on people's skills and energies rather than designing costly programs and infrastructures.

Digital technologies as (situated) means

Here is a particular note about digital media.

Digital media are increasingly pervasive and transparent. We are already working not with libraries, but with "cybraries", offering untold resources and facilities such as intelligent customized search, annotation and commentary across vast and distributed information spaces. Infrastructural initiatives aimed at interoperability and robust networking will only enhance these features. There are some vital matters of longevity to be addressed (what will have happened to our digital labor in a century's time?), but, again, we do not have to make a choice of either digital or analog.

Many new digital media are either designed to or have the effect of enhancing the features I have outlined in this vision of a Humanities Hub. I have found social software like wikis and blogs and open-architecture participatory media such as Web 2.0 authoring and content management systems to be extremely useful for enabling collaborative cocreation, agile and iterative project management rooted in teams of complementary researchers and learners. My lab at Stanford has become a leader in the field of Web 2.0 content management, but I have not detailed such technologies in the previous section because I see them as means and not ends. The crucial issue for a Humanities Hub is, I suggest, not innovative technology in the Arts and Humanities, but community building and knowledge management.

Rather than treat digital technologies as a driving force behind, for example, the establishment of a new field such as "Digital Humanities", I locate them within an evolving political economy of creativity, as means and not ends. They are not the stable foundation for a new field of knowledge. The focus upon process, connection, complementarity and mediation in this vision for a Humanities Hub means that, with respect to "media", I see communication and representation as dependent upon material modes of articulation, distribution and engagement— connective fields in a political economy of media.

Rather than ends in themselves or transparent vehicles for representation, media are thus project specific. They are situated in projects. As much as envisaging a single predetermined, normative output for each project—a published monograph or scholarly paper coming at the end of research, a gallery exhibition coming at the end of a period of artistic production, a performance after a long series of rehearsals—this vision for a Humanities Hub embraces the designed-in multiplicities and even redundancies of the digital age. It promotes the multipurposing of scholarship and all forms of cultural practice as expressive and experimental domains in their own right.

Text, image, database, weblog, edited book — media are to be chosen as integral parts of a project for their cognitive and communicative value, at once to enhance the production of knowledge and to cement the bond between theme, researcher, student, and audience. This is again to emphasize that a Humanities Hub would be all about people, community and shared interest in where we have come from and what we are becoming.

Tradition and change: to innovate is to remix

I am very concerned to provide a management vision for research in the Humanities that builds upon time-honored achievement and values. Specialized study will remain the foundation for a Humanities Hub, cherished in a new emphasis perhaps upon revisiting, reworking and repurposing. The creative commons of situated and distributed research and pedagogy reveals truly innovative work in the Humanities as practice that articulates components in new ways and for different constituencies of makers and users. All creation is recreation; every revolution marks a new return and fresh view of what has long been of common concern.

Michael Shanks 2008

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