How an innovative group of PhD students and interdisciplinary scholars are building a dramatic new approach to research in the arts and humanities

Students congregate in the Metalab

As revolutionaries go — and he is one, embracing a dynamic new conception of humanistic research in the digital age — Jeffrey Schnapp is really quite grounded. He’s a medievalist, for one thing, a Dante scholar with impeccable credentials and a long track record in all the traditional scholarly forms. And although he founded a collaborative research lab at Harvard to incubate experimental models of knowledge creation and dissemination, he still publishes books, and still uses conventional channels to distribute them.

In short, Schnapp, one of the leading theorists of an emerging set of scholarly practices referred to as the digital humanities, doesn’t intend to shock anyone with talk of a book-less, print-less e-future for the academy. Instead, he makes a persuasive case for what he calls a “print-plus” model of inquiry — a model that exploits the power of new analytic and narrative tools, a model in which iterative process, not just outcome, is important, a model in which print is one of many knowledge-sharing media.

Schnapp helped pioneer this new way of thinking about humanistic practice as the founder of the influential Humanities Lab at Stanford, where he held the Pierotti Chair of Italian Studies before moving to Harvard in 2011. Now he is the faculty director of metaLAB at Harvard, a new research engine for the arts and humanities that is housed at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, a University-wide initiative. He is also a professor of romance languages and literatures and of comparative literature, building productive ties with PhD students across FAS disciplines, who are among metaLAB’s co-founders and most active members. And as a cultural historian who has curated art and architecture installations, he is on the teaching faculty at the Graduate School of Design (GSD).

Design for Knowledge

With metaLAB, Schnapp and his collaborators — including co-founders Jesse Shapins, an advanced PhD student in GSAS’s interfaculty architecture program with the GSD, and James Burns, who just earned his PhD in economics in 2011 — are building a community of scholars, technologists, artists, journalists, and architects who are engaged in a series of experiments in what Schnapp has taken to calling “knowledge design.”

Among their early projects is an evolving effort to model new forms of access to multimedia library collections, a collaboration with Harvard Library Lab and the emerging  Digital Public Library of America. The project casts users in a proactive, participatory role, channeling the democratic impulses that drove the public library movement in the 19th century. The tools developed will allow users of Harvard’s digital multimedia collections to annotate and remix those materials and to connect them with other high-quality digital holdings across the web.

Another project is Sensate, a multimedia online journal, in which Schnapp and another metaLAB co-founder, Kara Oehler, recently debuted a multimedia, mashed-up teaser for a book he put out this fall called The Electronic Information Age Book (Princeton Architectural Press). That book itself studies a mash-up moment from the late 1960s and early 70s, when some writers sought to reconceive the paperback novel for the cybernetic age. The genre’s most famous example is The Medium is the Massage, an experimental book (and accompanying LP) that was created by Marshall McLuhan, graphic designer Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel, who was credited as “producer.”

What I see in this experimental space is the opportunity for reconnecting forms of high-level research and knowledge in arts and humanistic fields to that very big and frankly expanding audience for culture and knowledge.

MetaLAB is also an incubator for projects that extend beyond the Harvard campus. It has been supporting Zeega, an open-source platform for creating interactive documentaries and inventing new forms of storytelling, founded by Shapins, Burns, and Oehler (an independent journalist and a current Radcliffe- Film Study Center Fellow). Zeega, an independent nonprofit, recently secured funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation when it won the highly competitive Knight News Challenge. Like other metaLAB projects, it harnesses the power of digital technology without erecting forbidding technical barriers that might deter producers or users. [Read more.]

MetaLAB members are also involved in launching the Digital Public Library of America, a Berkman Center project funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and with the creation of a digital archive of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, a project initiated by Harvard’s Reischauer Institute for Japanese Studies.

Schnapp experiences all of this activity, powerfully shaped by the distinctive opportunities that digital tools create, as a balm for what ails the humanities. “For the past half-century, there’s been this rhetoric of crisis that has been a recurring feature of the conversation in the humanities,” he says. “I read that as a symptom, rather than a reflection of the situation of fact. I think if you look at our era from almost any standpoint, even a very conventional standpoint, involving the production of different forms of culture, the consumption of different forms of culture, the level of public participation in cultural institutions, we’re in an extraordinary era, where there’s really been a tremendous democratization of all kinds of forms of knowledge.”

But people “in the business of humanities” often feel disconnected from that public realm, Schnapp says. “What I see in this experimental space is the opportunity for reconnecting forms of high-level research and knowledge in arts and humanistic fields to that very big and frankly expanding audience for culture and knowledge.”

In urging that reconnection, he does not espouse a leveling out of achievement, or a generalizing of knowledge, he says. “Where digital humanities and digitally inflected arts practice open up these new horizons is not in the direction of recreating some kind of concept of Renaissance man or Renaissance woman. We live in an era where fields are far too complex. It’s inherent that specialization and expert knowledge are fundamental. But the possibilities for building bigger pictures out of those fragments, those small areas of expert knowledge, particularly with the kinds of digital tools we have — that for me is the really exciting horizon for people in the arts and humanities today.”

"A Collaborative, Project-Driven Model"

Jeffrey Schnapp sits in a pile of books

The scholars who affiliate with metaLAB are people who are drawn to “a collaborative, project-driven model of research. That’s just innately how we operate,” says Jesse Shapins, the metaLAB co-founder and Zeega designer. This same ethos is echoed by many of metaLAB’s campus partners, including the Film Study Center, which hosts a newly approved secondary PhD field in Critical Media Practice that allows students to incorporate media-based work into their dissertations.

“One of the core principles of metaLAB was simply that it would be a context in which you would have a group of people who would be working together on projects. It sounds banal, but in a humanities context at a university, it’s actually quite radical. The standard model of scholarship tends to be extraordinarily individualized. It doesn’t tend to be very iterative; it doesn’t necessarily operate in public. For us, genuine experimentation — the concept of the lab — seemed very appropriate.”

Although the context may be nontraditional, the motivation is familiar. “Our starting point is always a concept, experience, or set of ideas,” Shapins says. “We don’t start with ‘wouldn’t it be cool if that window could fly and become a hologram.’ We start from a theoretical or cultural base, and then the technology and the media come out of that cultural and theoretical exploration.”

This approach is what drew Burns from his theoretical research in economics into the world of software design and development. “I love making things, and thinking through making,” he says. “As someone with a social science and mathematics background, I love working in close collaboration with humanists and artists, testing new theoretical ideas using media in broad contexts that deeply engage multiple publics.”

Part of working in an experiment-based setting is embracing the fact that the detours or frustrations inherent in any research process will be public, as they often are in science and engineering settings. This reality, along with the fact that many of the tools driving these new practices are themselves unfamiliar, may fuel skepticism among some humanists who are following from the sidelines. “We’re really inventing new genres of what scholarship looks like,” Schnapp says. “I think the most powerful thing you can do to bring people along, people who may not be familiar with the tools or may not have worked with them, is to create models that they can actually engage with.”

Crowd-Sourcing in the Humanities

Metalab Feature Experimental Space.jpg

But becoming comfortable with the unknown — becoming less risk-averse, as Schnapp puts it — is a challenging proposition. “If you’re doing a piece of research in an archive and writing an essay, we have a very clear understanding of what an essay means, what it looks like,” he says. “That’s not so clear when you’re working in an experimental genre like database documentaries, which are multilinear. What is a multilinear narrative? What is a good one?”

And then there are questions of authorship and recognition, which is where this new work may bump up most noticeably against standard protocol in humanistic scholarship. “To work in this realm is to begin to open the door to this more iterative concept of what learning and knowledge are,” Schnapp says. “Which means a more open-ended model, both in terms of where things start and end, but also in the sense of being participatory. Many digital projects in the humanities are really cumulative projects.”

These questions “will only become more challenging for PhD programs,” says Shapins, “but in a good way. Programs will have to think through and come to terms with the fact that work that will be done in PhD programs will not be exclusively individual, and that there should be modes of recognizing and supporting that.”

These are concepts that may not seem alien once current and recent undergraduates come into the academy, especially as job postings in the digital humanities expand. In his own teaching, Schnapp explores ideas of how “the classroom can become a place where knowledge is produced, literally – where student projects are cumulative. It’s the idea that a database of all the student papers from a class becomes a kind of patrimony that travels from one version of a class to the next. So students are developing research projects that are shared with future generations of students that they will never know.”

He cites a Stanford course in which, a decade ago, undergraduates began to write micro-histories of video games and other forms of interactive media. Over the ensuing years, that trove of papers has continued to grow, and now “it’s by far the biggest resource in the historiography of interactive media,” he says. “There are books on that subject, but none of them have anywhere near the depth of knowledge that has been produced by undergraduates. But is it a publication in the conventional sense? No.”

Shapins, who is on the faculty of architecture at the Graduate School of Design, also explores new methods of knowledge building in his own teaching. Last year, working with collaborators who included Burns and faculty members Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ernst Karel, he developed an inventive new Harvard course called Media Archaeology of Place, cross-listed in the FAS departments of Visual and Environmental Studies and Anthropology and in the GSD. The assignments included readings that dealt with the major intellectual and cultural questions at hand, Shapins says, “but as opposed to a weekly response paper or a final research paper, all of the student research was built around evolving multimedia projects. Each student was assigned to find an area of Boston that they’d focus on for the semester, look for archival representations of that place, and invent their own new multimedia projects out of those archival assets, also using their own recordings.”

The class was small, but the student response was strongly positive. “You have the feeling that you’re part of something new and exciting,” Shapins says — “because you are.”

But for all that is new, Schnapp argues, these approaches propose no significant discontinuity from traditional humanistic goals. “There’s so much hype around the tools,” he says. “But tools never answer the fundamental questions about what is an interesting research problem and what is a trivial research problem.

“We’re at an incredibly early moment in this history. I think it’s a really exciting moment, but I think we also need to understand that the fundamental stakes of what is interesting versus trivial knowledge, what is quality versus poor scholarship — these questions are abiding questions, and they remain just as operative in terms of looking at digital humanities as they do in traditional work.”

Story credit: Bari Walsh, from the Fall/Winter 2011 edition of Colloquy. Photographs: Charles Gauthier.

In With the New