Humanities Labs

Like their counterparts in the sciences, humanities labs foreground inquiry, exploration, and collaboration. Often based on the creation or development of a specific project, humanities labs are spaces (physical or intellectual) where transdisciplinary teams convene to respond to a hypothesis or problem of pressing significance in the world and across communities. 

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Funded Humanities for the Public Good (HPG) Working Groups Design Humanities Labs, Innovative Curriculum 

In 2020-2021, HPG Working Groups composed of faculty, staff, and graduate students met regularly to design Humanities Labs, courses, and programs that offer experiential, interdisciplinary, and applied learning experiences for humanities graduate students. Working Groups began with a wicked problem, too large and complex to address with one approach or discipline alone. They focused on Environmental Change, Racial Justice, Pandemics, the Public Good. Some Working Groups designed labs around innovative, transdisciplinary curriculum that engaged their wicked problem, such as the Environmental Change and Healthcare and Racial Justice Working Groups. Other groups focused on programmatic design for the HPG doctoral degree, such as the Public Good Working Group’s vision for a project-based comprehensive exam via an internship with a community partner, and the Pandemics Working Group’s design for a mentoring and advising structure that offers graduate students intentional and holistic support throughout their degree. We invite you to read more about the lab design process of the Working Groups and other HPG programs in our 2020-2021 Annual Report.

Hearing from Humanities Labs Directors: 

To help us understand the many forms and approaches of humanities labs, we asked humanities labs directors at universities across the U.S. and Canada to describe their own labs. In September 2020, national lab leaders generously offered their insights about the learning made possible by humanities labs, compiled together in the following video:

(View the time-toggled transcript of the video by selecting the three dots [⋯] to the right of the Like button [👍 ] at the bottom of the video and then selecting Open Transcript.)

At a November 2020 virtual retreat hosted by Humanities for the Public Good, lab leaders from the U.S. and Canada shared their insights about the tangible steps that can make successful labs a reality. Read their thought pieces here

Humanities Labs (an incomplete list of 20+ and counting…) 

  • Arizona State University’s Humanities Labs, where lab courses are team-taught and centered on “grand social challenges,” including
  • Aging in American Culture, Deconstructing Race, and the intersections of Food, Health, and Climate.
  • University of Michigan’s DISCO (Digital Inquiry, Speculation, Collaboration, and Optimism) Network is a new consortium of interdisciplinary labs across five universities that will address topics such as racial and gender inequality, disability justice and techno-ableism, and digital racial politics. New labs include: Purdue University’s Humanities and Technoscience Lab, University of Maryland’s Black Communication and Technology Lab, and University of Michigan’s Digital Accessible Futures Lab. 
  • University of Illinois Chicago’s The Freshwater Lab, which engages students, community members, grassroots leaders, academic researchers and elected officials to tackle pressing Great Lakes issues, encouraging creative engagement through courses, events, fellowships, and digital story collections. 
  • University of Minnesota’s River Life, which concluded in 2020 after more than eleven years and which continues to foster ongoing river and water work, the Open Rivers journal, and community-engaged work around Indigenous water history and practices.
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Headwaters Lab, an interdisciplinary group of researchers working at the intersection of public engagement and freshwater ecosystems and conducting social and ecological research about stream restoration, flooding, watershed-based agricultural conservation, and fisheries management. 
  • Philadelphia’s Monument Lab, an independent art and research studio that emerged from a series of courses at University of Pennsylvania. The Monument Lab works with artists, students, educators, activists, municipal agencies, and cultural institutions on participatory approaches to public engagement and collective memory. 
  • Indiana University’s Experimental Humanities Lab, a collaborative research-based lab that uses qualitative and quantitative methods to understand narrative. The lab team has published on topics like empathy, moral reasoning and moral ambiguity, side-taking, untold stories, memory and retelling, and excuses in legal and medical settings. 
  • Lehigh University’s Humanities Lab, spotlighting the intersections of research and teaching through interdisciplinary and co-taught courses in fields like anthropology, architecture, Asian studies, environmental science, and mechanical engineering. 
  • Colby College’s Humanities Lab, which promotes experiential learning by incorporating observation, hands-on experimentation, and skill-building perspectives more commonly associated with the natural sciences. Courses have partnered with the Colby Museum of Art, Special Collections in Miller Library, and off-campus locations across Maine. 
  • The Immersive Reality Lab in the Humanities, an independent workgroup for digital and experimental humanities directed by a professor of English at Amherst College. Projects include a digital memorial to Black Brooklyn as well as creative remixings of poetry, prose, and dance in digital spaces. 
  • Emerson College’s Engagement Lab, a research-based design lab focused on studying and designing media and technology that is reshaping civic life. The Engagement Lab offers an MA in Media Design, taught through the lens of civic media, which aims to design media interventions that support positive civic and social impact in the world
  • University of Colorado Boulder’s Unstable Design Lab, a group of technologists, artists, designers, and researchers who share an approach that pairs design and making with critical thinking and reflection, combining and developing methods that blend anthropology, art, and engineering. 
  • Harvard University’s Gender Sci Lab, a collaborative, interdisciplinary research lab dedicated to generating feminist concepts, methods, and theories for scientific research on sex and gender through research, teaching, and public outreach.
  • Vanderbilt University’s Critical Design Lab, a collaborative of disabled artists, designers, and design researchers. They use digital media and social practice to craft replicable protocols that support accessibility and disability justice, such as workshops, journals, maps, showcases, podcasts, and dance parties. 
  • Virginia Tech’s Tech4Humanity Lab, a transdisciplinary laboratory focusing on the impact of technology on the human condition and combining practices from political science, law, computer science, humanities, engineering, business, biology, public health, and area studies.