Designing a Lab in the Humanities

February 06, 2017

Randy Lyhus for The Chronicle
The humanities suffer from a structural crisis. We have little to offer young undergraduates to do, explore, and contribute on their own to our fields. Likewise, we send our graduate students to the library with good advice: "Come back in 10 years. Then we’ll talk."

That is what happened to me. I went to the dungeons when I was 20 and do not regret the years in the dust. A decade later, when I came back out of the library, the world seemed so bright and remarkable. It has ever since, and would not have without the years in the cave. But I regress.

Today’s undergraduates are different. They long for something they can do, experience, and accomplish now — in their freshman year. And I do not blame them. Our world seems to be ticking fast. The questions for me are: How can the humanities — and critical thinking in general — fit into this new world? What challenges do we have that will get the attention of a first-year student?

By accident, I stumbled into a possible answer. Like many good things, it started with a highly motivated student who ended up in my office more by mistake than planning. He had not gotten into the science lab he wanted and was looking for an alternative. We tried to figure out common ground. Our mental Venn diagram exercise revealed that we both like working with morality. I was already interested in the empirical context of narratives, so the student and I decided to spend a semester asking people to retell short moral stories to us. We wanted to look at which narrative factors would influence their implicit moral judgment.

Over the course of the semester, we realized that although the specific project was interesting, the alluring aspect was more that we both had something to play with intellectually: story retellings. My office became the sandbox. OK, we did not have sand, but papers, and lots of them. We gathered thousands of retold stories and used whatever was available to us as tools, ranging from hermeneutics to quantified linguistic analysis.

The goal is not to imitate the sciences, but to reclaim what the humanities have always done: Ask questions, observe, question our world, and, yes, experiment and gather data.
Soon, other students and colleagues became interested in what we were doing, and some joined in. Suddenly, there were five, then up to 10 people. Little by little, we figured out the methodologies and jargon and found studies that had used similar approaches of massive story retelling, which we then knew to call "serial reproduction." We found that few if any groups in the world had collected and generated as many short narratives as we had. There was and is terra incognita.

After a while, I noticed that the students called our weekly gatherings "lab meetings." Sure, we had done several joint presentations and written some small articles, with more pending. But was this a lab?

My training in the humanities, and some in law, did not teach me what a lab is or how to run it. Labs have rats, coats, and big money, I thought. What we were doing here seemed less like a lab and more like a playground. As always, I learned most from the students, some of whom happened to be in "real" labs. If they called our humanities work a lab, it was a lab.

The goal of our Experimental Humanities Lab is not to imitate the sciences, but to reclaim what the humanities have always done: Ask questions, observe, question our world, and, yes, experiment and gather data. If that is what happens in a lab, then surely we might have a lab. Why should labs be reserved for the sciences?

As a lab director, I suffer from many weaknesses. The worst is that I waited too long to ask for advice, and so continued in the playful mode as an autodidact for many years. This fit the students’ and my curiosity but may not have been so smart when presenting our work to the world or gathering skills such as working with statistics. For me, statistics had been a thing I did in school, pulling red and blue marbles from a bag. Or was that probability? Not sure, but I needed to learn.

Another learning curve has been grant applications. Science labs have big money (did I already mention that?). So I met with one of our very able grant officers at the university. She understood my humanities background all too well and explained to me what it means to get big grants. "Are you ready to take a grant from the military to study terrorist narratives?," she asked. For humanities scholars of my generation who grew up with notions like the "military-industrial complex" before it became the "surveillance-industrial complex," that seemed like a simple No.

Internal grants seemed more safe and clean. It may be no surprise that the first grant I got for the lab came from the science division of my own university.

To be clear, my strategy is not to abandon ship to swim over to another vessel called science. Rather, I think it is time that we humanists try pirating some other ships to notice that they were once our ships, too. Empirical psychology, for example, started when a German literary writer and critic, Karl Philipp Moritz, collected and edited life stories. The humanities have more freedom than other fields, and we need to use this freedom to excite people, beginning with our students.

This excitement has been a gift. Many students in the lab have become the driving force behind projects and ideas. They come from different backgrounds and want to study different ideas: interactions between medical doctors and patients, legal affairs, empathy, and also what it means to fall in love.

Each of those projects has a narrative component that we can study. And yes, there have been a lot of typical humanities and literary questions as well. Not all projects have led to something stellar or publishable, but the difference is that these challenges were fully self-imposed. Instead of filling niches of research, we can create the components of what we want to study. When I get asked why I do it, I can simply state, "it is fun."

Through the lens of this new playground/lab, I have come to re-evaluate my beliefs about humanities education. There is something missing. Call it the fun factor. It is the excitement that students have when leaving a meeting or class eager to try things out and do something.

In the humanities, when else do students return for the next meeting excited to tell us what they have found out? It does happen, but not often enough.

Whether students head to the library or set up an experiment is secondary for me. The traditional classroom certainly has its limitations and we should evaluate it from the overall purpose of education. I will not go there now, but I would like to remind us that we do need to inspire undergraduates and give them meaningful challenges. The overall goal is to catch the fancy of our students again by giving them a playground of discovery and exploration.

When I do exit interviews with students or meet alums, I always ask them what was most exciting to them and most shaped who they are. Often, they tell me about a big experience — something they faced alone, like a study-abroad trip, or a real-world challenge, such as being part of a play or an opera in which a large group of people had to rely on everyone’s absolute commitment.

My hope is that, soon, I will hear that what most shaped a student was a challenge in the art of critical thinking in the humanities.

Fritz Breithaupt is professor of Germanic studies and an affiliated professor of cognitive science at Indiana University in Bloomington. His website for these projects is