[For the “Theories and Practices of the Literary Lab” roundtable at MLA yesterday, panelists were asked to speak for 5 minutes about their vision of a literary lab. Here are my remarks from that session–#147]

I take the descriptor “literary lab” literally, and to help explain my vision of a literary lab I want to describe how the Stanford Literary Lab that I founded with Franco Moretti came into being.

The Stanford Lab was born out of a class that I taught in the fall of 2009. In that course I assigned 1200 novels and challenged students to explore ways of reading, interpreting, and understanding literature at the macro-scale, as an aggregate system. Writing about the course and the lab that evolved from the course, Chronicle of Higher Ed reporter Marc Parry described it as being based on: “a controversial vision for changing a field still steeped in individual readers’ careful analyses of texts.” That may be how it looks from the outside, but there was no radical agenda then and no radical agenda today.

In the class, I asked the students to form into two research teams and to construct research projects around this corpus of 1200 novels. One group chose to investigate whether novel serialization in the 19th century had a detectable/measurable effect upon novelistic style. The other group pursued a project dealing with lexical change over the century, and they wrote a program called “the correlator” that was used to observe and measure semantic change.

After the class ended, two students, one from each group asked to continue their work as independent study; I agreed. Over the Christmas holiday, word spread to the other students from the seminar and by the New Year 13 of the original 14 in the seminar wanted to keep working. Instead of 13 independent studies, we formed an ad-hoc seminar group, and I found an empty office on the 4th floor where we began meeting, sometimes for several hours a day. We began calling this ugly, windowless room, the lab.

Several of the students in my fall class were also in a class with Franco Moretti and the crossover in terms of subject matter and methodology was fairly obvious. As the research deepened and became more nuanced, Franco began joining us for lab sessions and over the next few months other faculty and grad students were sucked into this evolving vortext. It was a very exciting time.

At some point, Franco and I (and perhaps a few of the students) began having conversations about formalizing this notion of a literary lab. I think at the time our motivation had more to do with the need to lobby for space and resources than anything else. As the projects grew and gained more steam, the room got smaller and smaller.

I mention all of this because I do not believe in the “if we build it they will come” notion of digital humanities labs. While it is true that they may come if we build them; it is also true, and I have seen this first hand, that they may come with absolutely no idea of what to do.

First and foremost a lab needs a real and specific research agenda. “Enabling Digital Humanities projects” is not a research agenda for a lab. Advancing or enabling digital humanities oriented research is an appropriate mission for a Center, such as our Center for Digital Humanities Research at Nebraska, but it is not the function of a lab, at least not in the limited literal sense that I imagine it. For me, a lab is not specifically an idea generator; a lab is a place in which ideas move from birth to maturation.

It would be incredible hyperbole to say that we formally articulated any of this in advance. Our lab was the opposite of premeditated. We did, however, have a loosely expressed set of core principles. We agreed that:

1. Our work would be narrowly focused on literary research of a quantitative nature.
2. All research would be collaborative, even when the outcome ends up having a single author.
3. All research would take the form of “experiments,” and we would be open to the possibilities of failure; indeed, we would see failure as new knowledge.
4. The lab would be open to students and faculty at all levels–and, on a more ad hoc basis, to students and faculty from other institutions.
5. In internal and external presentation and publication, we would favor the narrative genre of “lab reports” and attempt to show not only where we arrived, but how we got there.

I continue to believe that these were and are the right principles for a lab even while they conflict with much about the way Universities are organized.

In our lab we discovered that to focus, to really focus on the work, we had to resist and even reject some of the established standards of pedagogy, of academic hierarchy, and of publishing convention. We discovered that we needed to remove instructional barriers both internal and external in order to find and attract the right people and the right expertise. We did not do any of this in order to make a statement. We were not academic radicals bent on defying the establishment.

Nor should I leave you with the impression that we figured anything out. The lab remains an organic entity unified by what some might characterize as a monomaniacal focus on literary research. If there was any genius to what we did, it was in the decision to never compromise our focus, to do whatever was necessary to keep our focus on the literature.