ASU scholars led humanities lab discussion in D.C.

By

Susan Anderson

Faculty and students in higher education might be surprised to see the words "humanities" and "lab" in the same sentence. However, that combination is becoming increasingly common in universities in the U.S. and Europe. 

Through a National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman’s Grant, ASU has taken a leadership role in this development. From July 9-13, representatives from several labs, as well as from foundations and federal agencies, met at NEH headquarters in Washington, D.C. to participate in “The Humanities Laboratory: Discussions of New Campus Models.”

The event was conceived and led by ASU scholars, including Sally Kitch, founding director of the Institute for Humanities Research and Regents’ and University Professor; George Justice, dean of humanities; Jim O’Donnell, university librarian; Steven Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts; and Sha Xin Wei, director of the School of Arts, Media and Engineering.

Although lab models vary by institution, those who gathered in Washington agreed that labs in general promote greater intersection between the contents and methodologies of the arts and humanities and the grand social challenges of our time.  

Over the course of three days, conference participants engaged in a range of discussions from the meaning of sustainability within a humanistic framework, to how changing institutional configurations challenge and augment traditional research paradigms, to what kind of research methodologies can be mobilized to address the wicked problems of the twenty-first century.

In order to infuse current visions of the purpose of the humanities with new relevance and energy, the participants in the H-Lab discussion also explored ways to foster creative collaboration between humanities, the arts, and STEM scholars by developing innovative spatial design, integrating student scholarship and innovation with professors’ projects, and reenergizing current relationships between the academy and policymakers.

Conference attendees concluded the event newly committed to fostering innovative and creative approaches to dynamic and collaborative arts and humanities research, to mobilizing humanistic methodologies and theories to address grand social challenges, and to repositioning the arts and humanities as central in addressing questions of sustainability, possibilities for global human wellbeing, and approaches to conceptualizing the future.

Discussions in Washington also focused on the importance of assembling intergenerational transdisciplinary teams in a lab’s experimental space to craft targeted approaches to problems such as climate change, poverty, global health, and violence. Although the social and natural sciences have dominated the marketplace of ideas and methodologies related to such problems, the arts and humanities expand solution possibilities by providing insights into human motivation and values, historical contexts, and the role of language in determining thought. 

Such insights are necessary to defining and addressing complex social challenges. By the same token a lab approach promises an innovative, flexible future for the humanities in which guided missions and serendipitous innovation meet. The humanities lab concept also builds upon the role of digital humanities labs, such as ASU’s Nexus Lab for Digital Humanities and Transdisciplinary Informatics, in positioning the humanities as relevant to data-driven disciplines. Humanities labs seek to involve the academy, students, and the broader public in sustainable, impactful, interdisciplinary humanistic endeavors.

Next the ASU team will be moving forward to make a transformative humanities lab a reality at Arizona State University.