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A wide range of humanities labs currently exists, from the manuscript clinic to the psych lab working with art materials. In this case however, we focus on those which occupy the middle range, namely humanities labs that combine humanities sensibilities with empirical methods of analysis.

The humanities laboratory is not just a psychology lab with the old-school seal and label of the humanities. The recent humanities lab is a unique event since it operates in the ill-defined borderlands between the humanities and cognitive science.

Where is the “humanities” in the humanities lab?

In many respects, the humanities lab operates in the same fashion as the psychology lab. However, its humanities component adds benefits and nuance to the traditional model of lab operations.

  • Humanities scholars have a complex understanding of matters of art, aesthetics, film, music, narratives, etc., that is not matched by psychologists. Psychologists focus on things they can measure with their tools, but not necessarily that which is interesting to humanities scholars or full in complexity. Only someone with true humanities sensibilities and scholarly expertise can do this.

  • Plurality of perspectives: adherents of different theories and methodologies cannot help but interpret the world through the lens of their discipline, and every discipline has only fragmentary access to the truth. Thus, interdisciplinary research is useful because having more lenses allows us to see more of the truth.   

  • Theory, interpretation, guided speculation: these are some of the chief tools of trained humanists, whose value is in doubt as empirical data becomes ever more cheaply available. However, these skills should not be set aside even as humanists engage in experimental research; they are not pure subjective whim and can be used critically to drive further questions or to triangulate with other forms of evidence to give credence to good ideas. After all, some of the most important papers in cognitive science do not present new data but offer strong stances or reviews of old data. In fact, since the statistics of standard scientific papers also necessitate interpretation, interpretations that emerge from close reading can be considered deeper, more useful, and more broadly agreed upon across disciplines, than the statistical significance of a new finding.  

How to start a humanities lab

The most important starting point of a humanities lab, like other collaborations, is to focus on framing a research agenda and forming collaborations on that basis.

Here are some practical ideas for getting started

There are as many ways of starting a humanities lab as there are ways to run one. Here are just three ways of starting one up: two bottom-up and the last top-down.

  • From the courses you teach, you can recruit students who display an interest in your research and work toward a project together. You now have student collaborations, which can form the social dynamic of your lab.

“I use my intro course on literary text mining as a feeder for lab RAs. I then start them with really mundane tasks to get them used to working with data. If they do that well, then we move them up to doing analytical things.” – Andrew Piper

  • Attend local talks or conferences in a scientific field you have interest in. Talk to scholars whose empirical work you find interesting or relevant to your own. Build a relationship and develop shared goals and lay out how you can each contribute toward them. Now you will have initiated a humanities-science venture and have formed collaborative relationships that ground your humanities lab.

What should you do if you, a humanities scholar, are asked to collaborate with scientists?

Option 1: Hide in the library until they leave

Option 2: Tell them yes, but make sure they will follow your command. Require that they first read your five-volume compendium on Shakespeare and some Derrida for good measure

Option 3: Have a face-to-face conversation about what they hope to gain from your partnership, what you can realistically deliver, and ask them about their contributions to the project.

  • Propose a humanities lab or collaboration in answer to an institutional call for interdisciplinary research or novel approaches. Gain support from deans and committees to secure funding, which can be used to hire graduate students or fund data-driven humanities projects.

What is not required for a humanities lab

A standard set of items immediately comes to mind when humanities scholars consider the idea of running a lab. It needs to be said that the following could help but are not necessary to start a humanities lab.

  • Research grants

  • Lab space

  • Preestablished network of collaborators

  • Graduate students

  • Comprehensive knowledge of statistics

Today, many experiments can be conducted with basic programs, such as Word and Excel, survey software, and free online distribution methods. Many studies find free volunteers as subjects or use student subjects (though we want to stress that there should be a real learning experience for students involved, not just exploitation of free labor). There are also cost-effective platforms, which eliminate the need for traditional lab space and large grants, and the other items on the list are things are logistical or experiential and will come in time. Lastly, most universities provide institutional or technical support with these matters – do not be shy to look for help.

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