Research Centers Excerpt -- Alan Liu

Recently, Professor Alan Liu wrote the following about the department's research centers:

  • Centers self-organize from the bottom up. They spring from nascent concentrations of strength in the department--e.g., clusters of faculty and graduate students who have been meeting in ad hoc reading groups and are just waiting to crystallize. Put inversely, centers are not started by top-down administrative fiat, though the conditions and incentives for bottom-up self-organization can be seeded by an enterprising chair or dean. The challenge for a department then becomes supervising such bottom-up activity without killing the goose that lays the golden egg--e.g., through insisting on some form of review and the periodic rotation of leadership.
  • Centers evolve intellectually around a topic (or staged series of topics) instead of just fields and periods. Of course, fields and periods continue to be important architectural principles in humanities departments. But adding topic generates new kinds of job searches, research programs, and curricular tracks. My department now routinely defines half its job searches by topic and half by field/period. In 2007-8, for example, we ran searches in "Literature and Environment" and "Medieval Literature"; and in 2008-9 for "Literature and Media" and "Renaissance Drama."
  • Centers create projects, especially digital projects. While centers stage talks, colloquia, conferences, and other humanities "talking events," they also create concrete projects such as online sites or editions, software applications, journals, curricular tracks, and pedagogical experiments. Focusing on projects alters the ecology of knowledge-production in the humanities so that talking events are repositioned as part of the process for making projects while, reciprocally, projects (especially buggy ones) supply a reason for further talking, brainstorming, and research publications leading to new project iterations. Some of the major projects recently started by my department's centers include the English Broadside Ballads Project (EBBA), the UC Transliteracies Project, and the Race and Pedagogy Project.
  • Centers are collaborative. The operative research/teaching unit in a center is a cluster of scholars working across fields and periods. For smaller or mid-size departments, this strategy has the additional advantage of creating critical masses of interest compensating for the lack of deep bench strength in individual fields/periods. There may not be six or more romanticists, in other words, but there may be a romanticist, an eighteenth-century scholar, a medievalist, a modernist, and others all collaborating on such topics (hypothetically) as "early media," "environmental justice," "disease and culture," "migration cultures," and so on.
  • Centers vertically integrate faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates. In an early experiment, for instance, Transcriptions awarded stipends to a few undergraduates in its curricular specialization to work on digital projects under the supervision of a graduate student, who in turn was supervised by a faculty member. All three levels of personnel convened in working meetings that were as much about the undergraduates teaching their betters as the reverse. An especially robust, mature version of this model now typifies our Early Modern Center. On any given day, the center hosts a combined cast of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty all working together on the online EBBA project.
  • Centers are entrepreneurial. Several of the centers and projects mentioned above are funded by NEH, University of California system-wide, or other grants ranging in size from small to large. Indeed, acquiring even a small amount of extramural support can have the effect of winning university cost-matching that would not otherwise have been available. (One thing that humanists discover when they break out of their individual carrels to start collaborative projects is that there is a fair amount of non-routine funding circulating in universities looking for a reason to exist in some particular location. Acquiring an extramural seed grant, as it were, gives such funding a reason to exist here.) Even if no extramural support is achieved in the near term, the very process of applying for grants generates detailed plans that substantially strengthen research and teaching and prepare for future opportunities.
  • Centers are anchor points for interdepartmental collaboration. I call this the "strong tinker toys" model of cross-departmental collaboration. The idea is not to build strength in new intellectual areas by exiling the best minds into inter-, meta-. or para-organizational entities located outside departments. Instead, the goal is to build up thick nodes of people (in this case, working in the digital humanities) inside a particular department; then link by elective affinity with similar nodes forming in other departments. The result will be a network of informal and formal collaboration much more robust than would otherwise be possible--a network through which faculty, students, ideas, and resources are swapped on an everyday basis. It is through this strategy that my English department has built up strong collaborative networks with such other nodes of interest in digital technology on our campus as Art, Film and Media Studies, and Media Arts and Technology. My recent courses and projects, for instance, regularly draw graduate students from all the above.
  • Centers have a public humanities dimension. Because they focus on topics that are urgent enough to motivate bottom-up organization and can be explained to grant agencies, centers tend to reach beyond the scholarly community to address a wider public. This accords well with the nature of the Intermet, especially in its Web 2.0 form. For example, the EBBA project was created by our Early Modern Center to focus on recent interest in the history-of-book field in "ephemera" (in this case, broadside ballads). But this research interest also speaks indirectly to the general contemporary interest in ephemera, e.g., blogs.
  • As a result of the above intradepartmental center model, I now work in a department where faculty and graduate students normally identify with one or more topical research clusters alongside their fields/periods; where collaborative work meaningfully complements monographic work; where talk leads to hands-on building (and vice versa); where one has substantive intellectual engagements with scholars outside one's own area; where I learn from cool, tech-savvy undergraduates as much as they from high-literate me; and where the usual academic command chain of the academy (from president or chancellor down) gets scrambled in new circuits that involve collaborations with students, grant officers, and members of the public representing broader spheres of interest.


--from Alan Liu, "Digital Humanities and Academic Change," English Language Notes 47 (2009), special issue on "Experimental Literary Education": 17-35