Q&A: Gennifer Weisenfeld on Duke's Plan for New Humanities Labs

Weisenfeld, dean of the humanities at Duke, discusses initiative that will bring nine new humanities labs to campus

Gennifer Weisenfeld: For undergraduates in particular, because it’s not easy to go from zero to findings in a short time span, but they can still really benefit from the process, experiencing how we think.
Gennifer Weisenfeld: For undergraduates in particular, because it’s not easy to go from zero to findings in a short time span, but they can still really benefit from the process, experiencing how we think."

The new Humanities Unbounded initiative will take Duke’s existing humanities lab structure in a new direction.

The $3 million program, underwritten by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will fund nine new humanities labs that pattern Duke’s existing labs in some ways, but take research and study in new directions as well.

Here, Gennifer Weisenfeld, dean of the humanities, discusses these new labs and how they will help students understand the research process.

There are nine new humanities labs in the works over a five-year span as part of the new Humanities Unbounded initiative. How are they influenced by the current labs, and what will be different about them?

The first set of labs, funded by the Humanities Writ Large initiative, were enormously successful and we’re going to sustain them. They have become national models of extracurricular, project-based, collaborative work in the humanities.

What we want to do now is to tie that model more to our curriculum and departmental structures. The original labs were outside the departments, housed in the Franklin Humanities Institute (FHI), open to faculty across the university. We now want to see how connections to the curriculum can benefit faculty within departments. So they will be much more tied to course development within departments.

“We think of research as results-based -- what did you find? But the process is so important, and that’s what these labs are for.”
- Gennifer Weisenfeld
 

In many ways it’s the same idea, in that project-based work is important, but based in the departments. We feel that departments are really craving space to do this type of work.

 

There will be actual, physical space for them?

Yes, but different from the purpose-built FHI labs in bricks and mortar. The new departmental labs will shift; they will have borrowed space depending on what the needs are. If a department has space, we will use that. But we might also have space in the library, for example, to use. So that’s a difference, and it also makes us more nimble in that we’re not tied to a specific space. The library is an incredibly important partner with us on this; they have a lot of really terrific space for us to use.

And it’s faculty driven?

Yes, that’s so important. It’s out of their own interests and research. Our pilot lab -- called Representing Migration -- turned out to be a really interesting theme that a lot of faculty were working on and teaching about. They already had a working group to discuss it, so we had a critical mass of people who were interested. So when we asked for people who were interested, we found five faculty members in one department -- English -- who found intersections that made sense. Migration was a big enough concept that they could come at it from a lot of different angles.

 

Will these labs function as classes?

The labs are in conjunction with regular classes. There’s a lot of independent work that will come out of them. They are geared towards making research accessible to undergrads with the mentoring of faculty and graduate students.

 

These labs are designed to give students experience conducting research. Why is that so important?

We think of research as results-based -- what did you find? But the process is so important, and that’s what these labs are for. For undergraduates in particular, because it’s not easy to go from zero to findings in a short time span, but they can still really benefit from the process, experiencing how we think and change our questions depending on what we discover. That’s how the humanities work.

One of the things distinctive about the humanities at Duke is that we’re never resting on our laurels. We’re always trying to find new ways to engage students, and this is part of that. The labs are very student-centered. When people think of humanities at Duke, we want them to know it’s driven by research. Every undergraduate coming in here wants to do research; this is an opportunity to do that in a layered, mentored way.