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CONTACT: Meg Worley, associate director, Stanford Humanities Laboratory: (650) 736-1761,

John Sanford, writer, News Service: (650) 736-2151,

Lab brings a scientific model to humanistic research

Think of putting technology to the service of scholarship, and you likely will think of, say, supercomputers humming away in a Human Genome Project laboratory.

But humanistic research is crossing into the 21st century as well, and nowhere is this more evident than at the Stanford Humanities Laboratory (SHL). The lab was established in April 2000 to fund nontraditional, collaborative projects in the humanities. For example, one team of scholars is building a hypertextbook about medieval Spain; another is developing a multimedia website devoted to performance studies; a third is working on a way to translate complex data, such as meteorological information, into a kind of music (imagine listening to a weather pattern).

Stanford professors, students, staff and university officials -- including Provost John Etchemendy, Vice Provost John Bravman and Cantor Center Director Thomas Seligman -- gathered two weeks ago at the Humanities Center Annex to view these projects, among others, in their various stages of development and to celebrate the lab's one-year anniversary.

Bravman told a large crowd gathered in the backyard of the annex that he had looked up "laboratory" in the Oxford English Dictionary and been unable to find a definition that covers what's going on at the SHL.

"Clearly, we're going to have to contact our good friends in Oxford and tell them that we have a new definition for 'laboratory' -- one that includes the humanistic disciplines. And what better place than Stanford University to bring that about," Bravman said.

Spearheaded by Professor Jeffrey Schnapp, lab director and chair of the Department of French and Italian, the SHL is an effort to push the envelope of humanities research and teaching by providing seed money -- grants between $20,000 and $50,000 -- to projects that meet two main criteria: They must be collaborative, and the research results must be in a form that is nontraditional for the humanities. Currently, five projects are funded through SHL, but more are slated to receive grants in the near future, lab officials say.

Digital performance

Just as the SHL is redefining "laboratory," dpResearch: A Digital Performance Journal is exploring and expanding the notion of performance. The project will result in a website that is a cross between an online journal and exhibition space, said Ehren Fordyce, a principal investigator and assistant professor of drama.

Project organizers hope to make performance research more collaborative and process-oriented, Fordyce said. For example, articles can be added to or revised over time. In addition, entire performances can be stored on the website, allowing researchers to see a full production as opposed to just still shots.

Indeed, when the website is launched -- probably sometime in the fall -- one of the first "publications" will be a digital model of a light-emitting diode installation. The actual installation, by conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, was on display earlier this year at the New National Gallery in Berlin.

Prior to that, Holzer collaborated with Greg Niemeyer, director of the campus Digital Art Center (SUDAC), and Ben Dean, a lecturer at the center who holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Stanford, to develop a digitally animated model of the project.

"Holzer was so pleased with Greg's animation and the way that it envisioned her ideas that, after watching the animation, she momentarily questioned the necessity of actually going ahead and creating the piece in the gallery," said Gwen Allen, a project coordinator and graduate student in art history.

Medieval Spains: a 'hypertextbook'

Finding a textbook that presents a comprehensive history of medieval Spain is, well, impossible. Just ask Assistant Professor Kathryn Miller of the History Department.

"It's really not feasible for the traditional textbook to convey all the cultural complexities of pre-modern Spain," she said. "It's virtually impossible that a noncollaborative enterprise could cover Roman, Visigothic, Jewish, Christian and Muslim history."

Miller, who specializes in medieval Christian-Muslim relations in Spain, North Africa and the Mediterranean, contacted some colleagues from various other colleges and universities and pitched the idea of working together on a hyptertextbook about medieval Spain. Thus, Medieval Spains: Antiquity to the New World (A.D. 100-1550) was born.

Michael Gonzalez, academic technology manager for the Overseas Studies Program, designed a system that allows the collaborators to send images and text directly to the website.

Indeed, one of the virtues of this cyber-collaboration is that the scholars need not meet in one room. Whether historians are in Barcelona or Boston, they can contribute a translation of, say, Arabic poetry or images of Roman gladiators to the website.

Cyber-collaboration is efficient and also allows the team to work more creatively, Miller said. In contrast to a printed textbook, a hypertextbook can offer a range of resources -- original Arabic, Hebrew and Latin manuscripts; images of archaeological remains; soundtracks of the popular Cantigas -- you name it.

"We think it will attract multiple audiences," she said. "And this is a way for all of us to share our research as well."

How They Got Game

While they are not yet part of the Western canon, video games and interactive simulations are getting some serious scholarly attention these days.

History Professor Tim Lenoir and University Libraries Curator Henry Lowood have teamed up to explore the history and cultural impact of this segment of new media. Undergraduates, whom Lenoir described as the real experts in the field, and graduate students also are collaborating on the project, which is titled How They Got Game: The History and Culture of Interactive Simulations and Video Games.

During Winter Quarter, Lowood taught a course on the history of computer game design -- probably the first critical course on video and computer games offered anywhere.

"Henry has put together this marvelous collection of video games," Lenoir said. "It constitutes our laboratory."

Building on research from their project and elsewhere, the two are constructing a digital archive of source materials related to the history of computer graphics and virtual reality. It will be used to create a web-based documentary on interactive media and the military-entertainment complex.

Other projects being funded through SHL are Crowds, which focuses on the rise and fall of the crowd -- particularly the revolutionary crowd -- in the western sociopolitical imagination from 1789 to the present, and De Natura Sonoris: The Music and Science of Sonification of Complex Data, which turns source data into musical entities.

Schnapp, who described the SHL initiative as scholarly "venture capital," said it is meeting a real need.

"I think the new Humanities Laboratory has tapped into something that's really just beginning to happen but was already happening below the surface -- bubbling away, so to speak," he said. "And I think a great deal of it has to do with the fact that the traditional isolation that humanists feel is one whose time, perhaps, has passed. I think it's also a sense of impatience, especially among younger scholars, with traditional ways of disseminating the kind of knowledge that one produces."

Schnapp also said he hopes the pedagogical component of the lab will have a big impact.

"One of the really exciting implications is the model of teaching that's involved -- of involving graduate and undergraduate students in literally producing knowledge, not just studying books and regurgitating knowledge. It's very much analogous to what goes on in the sciences."



By John Sanford

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