On the many flavors of the digital lab in the humanities

One of the most sardine-packed sessions at the 2013 MLA conference brought the idea of the digital lab into critical scrutiny in a way I had not seen before. Let’s face it, the digital lab has arrived to the humanities. I sat on the floor and listened to some of the most successful lab leaders in the humanities describe the pros and cons, lessons learned, gestures to the future and agonize over the appropriateness of the word over other options like studio or atelier. Though many models of the lab where on display, they all had two things in common: they all have an expert at the helm and they are all meant to last. Missing from this equation are precisely the sorts of labs that Dennis Tenen and I are advocating at Columbia University. I am a fan of the ‘ephemeral labs,’ Dennis prefers ‘open labs.’ I just came from a meeting right now with some of the good folks of CCNMTL who provided a third option, ‘eval labs.’

The ‘ephemeral’ lab I favor was born of an experiment run at UVa to figure out ways to rescue orphaned academic works from copyright limbo. In that experiment we attached a lab to a Jerry McGann class on 19th century poetry. The digital lab was designed to last only as long as the class lasted. You may be familiar with this model because this is the seminar/lab model used by most ‘Intro to DH’ courses across the land. The one thing I have since added to this model is the possibility of having the lab attach to a class taught by any faculty, DH or not. I’m now trying to set up a couple of these prototypes here at Columbia. An advanced graduate student we train would run the lab. We design the lab to integrate smoothly with the syllabus of the course. We gather expertise from the community depending on the demands of the lab. Once the lab is over we dismantle and move on.

Dennis’ ‘open lab’ is more or less the same as the ‘ephemeral lab’ except the lab is run by the professor expert. The ‘open’ part comes from the flexibility of the hours and the participation policy. Open means open, and that means you and I are welcome to drop by the lab while in session.

The ‘eval lab’ can be even more ephemeral as I learned today. The idea was born of a positive experience had by a team from CCNMTL. The team was asked to observe a class that was using the house-rolled Mediathread (a.k.a. one of the coolest DH tools you probably haven’t heard about). While the team had a chance to offer some pedagogical feedback, they also had a chance to help the students get comfortable with the tool. In our meeting today we talked about the enormous benefit of having an evaluation component attached to digital instruction. We talked of a range of evaluation models, from the eval of the one-off session to fully documenting a semester long digital humanities lab, ephemeral, open or whatever. Such documentation would help us make our arguments more convincingly to administrators who are starting to hear about our new pedagogies and new modalities of soft-hierarchy collaborative research.

Needless to say, you will hear more  from me on digital labs in the near future, as we get ready to launch and run our studio@butler.

Take home message: If we’re going to do labs, let’s play with the format beyond the expert and the long term, but also let’s consider documenting.