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Stanford Report, April 19, 2000

'Start-up' humanities lab to focus on collaborative efforts

It will be a lab like many others on campus, with a number of long-term projects run by a principal investigator who oversees a team of faculty and postdoctoral researchers.

But the new Stanford Humanities Laboratory (SHL) that is scheduled for launch in September will boldly go where professors of literature, history and the arts have only tiptoed until now.

"In current Silicon Valley parlance, one might say that SHL aims to serve as a sort of intellectual 'venture capitalist,' and the collaborative research projects that it 'invests' in could be envisaged as intellectual 'start-ups,'" says Jeffrey Schnapp, the Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature and chair of the Department of French and Italian.

Schnapp, who will serve as director of the new SHL, sent a letter to more than 300 faculty in the humanities and area curators at the Stanford Libraries and the Cantor Arts Center April 17, calling for proposals for pilot projects for the academic years 2000-2001 and 2001-2002. The deadline for submission is June 15, and notifications of acceptance will be made on July 15.

Projects that receive funding will have one overriding goal: They will be collaborative in nature, drawing together teams of senior faculty, advanced undergraduates and postdocs, as well as museum curators and individuals from area cultural centers and industries.

And the end results just might look different -- a performance, perhaps, or an exhibition, website, course curriculum or book that is aimed at a non-specialist audience.

"Over the past few decades increasingly smaller niches of specialization have been carved out within the humanities," Schnapp says. "That's had a positive side, but it's also had the unfortunate consequence of sealing off areas of specialization from one another and reducing the scope of the conversations that take place.

"So one of the more exciting and more difficult features of the lab is to create incentives for groups of scholars to work together and to think creatively about ways to produce and present new forms of knowledge."

Schnapp approached President Gerhard Casper and then-Provost Condoleezza Rice with the idea for the lab last spring, at a time when the Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts were nearing the end of their initial programming.

"Questions were being discussed about what came next and about which parts of the experiment had been most successful," Schnapp says.

He drafted a proposal for the lab and the president's office agreed to provide funding.

"This literally is an initiative that is building upon the first presidential initiative," Schnapp says. "The symposium part of the budget will be moved over to support the lab in the first phase of operation."

Three SHL brainstorming sessions were held in October, November and December 1999, where faculty from various humanities departments, centers and programs met to imagine research projects that might replace the traditional individualized model.

A number of faculty members at those meetings, like Schnapp, could draw on their own experience.

Trained as a medievalist, the SHL director is a self-described "eccentric literary historian" and specialist in 20th-century culture. In recent years, he says, his work more often has put him in touch with architects and designers than with literary scholars.

"Like a monk in a medieval cell, I used to sit and gather material in isolation over a period of years," Schnapp says. "Eventually maybe an essay or two, or a book would come out of that process.

"But these days I tend to wander pretty widely in terms of disciplinary range, and in Europe I've had the experience of working in collaboration with museums on exhibitions and public presentations. That has required working with people in different areas of competence and expertise, and that has told me what an extremely exciting and enlivening process research can be."

Schnapp can envisage, for example, a collaborative research project on the material history of literature that would look at how texts are organized in various cultures and how systems of notation and alphabets function. The project, which might also explore the evolution of objects such as pens and writing surfaces, could conclude with a global reference manual.

"I can imagine that project might interest a whole range of businesses that are actively engaged in information technology here in Silicon Valley," Schnapp says. "And as director of SHL, I would go out there and pitch the project to businesses and get them involved in supporting research in the humanities."

In the start-up phase of the lab, seed monies will be provided for between three and eight pilot projects for the academic years 2000-2001 and 2001-2002, with budgets ranging from $20,000 to $50,000. In the second phase of the lab, scheduled to begin in Spring Quarter 2002, between four and eight large-scale projects will be funded per year, primarily supported by foundation grants.

A distinctive feature of the research teams, as Schnapp envisions them, is the prominent role humanities postdocs will play. In fact, research projects will be advertised -- "we'll post the research and say we're looking for postdocs who want to work as part of the team."

In the sciences, Schnapp says, young scholars often choose a compelling postdoc opportunity over a beginning assistant professorship to develop their profiles by working in a lab with top-notch scientists.

"But postdocs have not been the royal road to success in the humanities the way they are an absolutely essential stepping stone in the scientific disciplines," he adds. "So the lab is conceived of as helping young humanists carve out a space that's been a missing link in their career track."

Questions about the application process for the Stanford Humanities Laboratory can be addressed via e-mail to , or phone Kellie Smith, (650) 725-9225, or Schnapp, (650) 725-3270.

The SHL website, www.stanford/edu/group/shl, with online application forms and information, should be up and running in early May. SR