Historian and Dean at Cleveland State University Liz Lehfeldt describes her modest proposal for her “lab in the cloud” over at Inside Higher Ed today (h/t Susan Amussen on Twitter!), making an argument for humanities scholars to talk about libraries and digital resources as the sites of our research:
We know what a scientific lab looks like and requires, but what about the work of historians and literature scholars whose labs are far-flung, overseas, and sometimes even reside in the cloud, in the form of electronic resources?
. . . . .
So let’s embrace the vocabulary of our scientist colleagues. Let’s talk about our labs and how flexible and efficient they are. I’m no Pollyanna. I don’t think this conceptual shift will result immediately in more funding for the humanities or a greater valuing of humanities research. But I do think we risk the further erosion of the status of our work within the academy unless we come up with new and more resonant ways of talking about it.
I’ve made this argument on this blog before, way back in the previous decade, but I was focused on libraries as physical (rather than virtual) spaces, and books (rather than digital archives or subscription services.) Lehfeldt does a much better and more thorough job of talking about libraries the way humanities scholars use them now, just six years after I made my argument about calling the library “the humanities lab.”
The only place I disagree with Lehfeldt is in her emphasis on how comparably affordable the Humanities Lab is by comparison to science labs:
But, some people will be quick to argue, my lab doesn’t make money for the university in the form of external grants — or if it does, those grants are typically tiny when compared to grants in the sciences. To that, I reply with the following: my lab is remarkably efficient and flexible. The cost of a research trip pales in comparison to the costs incurred in helping a new bench scientist start a lab at a university.
And if you make a small investment in a collection of online primary sources, I can reach a staggering number of students. Because my lab is a flexible, almost virtual space, and students don’t have to occupy the physical space of a science lab, I can expose even more of them to the research opportunities that these electronic repositories create. All 75 students in my Western Civilization survey can begin to learn the transferrable skills of identifying a research question and leveraging the evidence to answer it. All 35 students in my upper-division course for majors can further hone those skills and habits of mind.
It’s counterintuitive in the humanities, where we adapt all too speedily to poverty thinking about university resources, but I actually think that getting the university to invest MORE MONEY rather than LESS in the Humanities Lab will be a better long-term strategy. In universities (as opposed to management consulting, for example) sunk costs become an excuse for spending more money to keep programs going. After all, it would be a shame to cut off funding this year, or next year, or in four years, to the Humanities Lab after we’ve already invested so much! (Amirite?) There must be an effective balance between noting the lab’s efficiency and reminding administrators just how much has already been invested in it.
I also wonder about Lehfeldt’s strategy of bringing undergraduate students into the argument. Scientists actually get prestige out of the specialized mystification of their labs–so could associating our labs with teaching undergraduates (rather than producing specialist knowledge and graduate training) potentially undermine our efforts? I suppose these are questions whose answers depend on the specific institutions where we work, so I’d love to hear from you all, dear readers, any thoughts you have about Lehfeldt’s article or my comments here.