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Is There a Lab in This Class? Beyond Humanities Seminars

February 6, 2014

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), English scientist and mathematician. Artist’s engraving of apocryphal story of Newton’s pet dog knocking over a candle and setting fire to his papers. Sir Isaac Newton had on his table a pile of papers upon which were written calculations that had taken him twenty years to make. One evening, he left the room for a few minutes, and when he came back he found that his little dog “Diamond” had overturned a candle and set fire to the precious papers, of which nothing was left but a heap of ashes. It was then that he cried, “Oh, Diamond! Diamond! thou little knowest what mischief thou hast done!”

A few days ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece titled “Undergraduate Science Gains Are Tied to Hands-On Lab Experience,” by Paul Basken. The Chronicle article gives a summary of a study published by Tuajuanda C. Jordan et al. in the open-access journal mBio–and the Chronicle author, Basken, emphasizes the success of science students engaged in “hands-on laboratory experience.” In the “Importance” section of the original scientific article, the authors claim, “Engagement of undergraduate students in scientific research at early stages in their careers presents an opportunity to excite students about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines and promote continued interests in these areas.” While focused on laboratory work in the hard sciences, this study also has applicable results for teaching and research in the humanities.

The most obvious application is for digital humanities, since this area of teaching and research brings together both humanities and STEM. Just the other day, I was discussing the benefits of combining laboratories with seminars in digital humanities–an idea not my own, but which I wholly endorse. Why not give students ample opportunities for workshops to explore digital culture and tools along with work in their seminars? It is no surprise that lab experience is vital for students to grapple with their own learning: it promotes experimentation, community building, innovative exploration, even a sense that scholarship can include aspects of play. While traditional seminars can certainly teach foreign and historical languages like French, German, Old English, and Latin, time in computer labs is necessary to fully grasp digital languages like HTML, XML, Java, and Python. In fact, even traditional language learning may be fruitfully pursued with computers rather than textbooks and lectures (I am helping to develop one project like this, known as Old English Collaborative Education Online). For another example, we can look to the broad area of digital literacy. Through exploration of Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress, Drupal, and other social media and web development platforms, students learn much about how digital culture works; again, this necessitates exploration–and sometimes guided workshops–on computers.

These concepts, however, also apply more broadly to humanities beyond whatever boundaries (real or imagined) may exist around “digital humanities.” If the humanities is built on analyzing culture, the entire world serves as a lab for exploration, and it is not difficult to lead students to these sites of experimentation, to create spaces of lab work to engage them. A cathedral may open up ways of thinking about analyzing space, lived religion, performativity, and a host of other approaches. An archive provides ways to look at, handle, and think about materialities of different media. A street intersection can help students to work out the analyzable aspects of urban planning, electrical engineering, and socio-economics in lived contexts. All of these spaces present ways of studying human culture, and all of these environments can be used as profitable labs for humanistic questions. The hardest part is stepping out of the traditional humanities classroom to harness these labs.

Furthermore, promoting laboratory engagement brings another benefit (though it is often not seen as such in scholarship): failure. Failure happens. (The image of Isaac Newton and humorous anecdote at the head of this post indicate as much.) By promoting laboratory engagement, we can also show students and researchers that they are free to fail–just as scientific experiments fail–because even failure yields results; and these results can lead to innovation in their own ways. In this, failure should not be considered the opposite of success, but a supplement to it, a part of the process of scholarship and academic inquiry, no matter what the discipline.

To return to the study published by Jordan et al., it is easy to use their conclusions for humanities teaching as well. And this is one way in which we can look toward interdisciplinarity, to make the knowledge of the sciences applicable to the humanities. If we were to do so, we could find that we can adapt the results of Jordan et al. to work toward something like the following claim: Engagement of undergraduate students in hands-on research at early stages in their careers presents an opportunity to excite students about humanities disciplines and promote continued interests in these areas.

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