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WORD LAB: a room with a whiteboard

Several years ago, I attended Digital Humanities 2011 at Stanford and had the opportunity to meet with Franco Moretti. When Franco asked what I was interested in, I admitted that I badly wanted to see the Literary Lab I’d heard so much about, and seen so much interesting research come out of. He laughed and said he’d show it to me, but that I shouldn’t get too excited.

Why? Because Literary Lab is a windowless conference room in the middle of the English department at Stanford. Literary Lab is a room with a whiteboard.

I couldn’t have been more excited, to Franco’s amusement.

A room with a whiteboard. A room dedicated to talking about projects, to collaborating, to bringing a laptop and getting research done, and to sharing and brainstorming via drawing and notes up on a wall, not on a piece of paper or a shared document. It was an important moment for me.

When I was in graduate school, I’d tossed around a number of projects with colleagues, and gotten excited about a lot of them. But they always petered out, lost momentum, and disappeared. This is surely due to busy schedules and competing projects – not least the dissertation – but I think it’s also partly due to logistics.

Much as our work has gone online, and despite these being digital projects – just like Literary Lab’s research – a physical space is still hugely important. A space to talk, a space to brainstorm and draw and write, a space to work together: a space to keep things going.

I had been turning this over in my head ever since I met with Franco, but never had the opportunity to put my idea into action. Then I came to Penn, and met a like-minded colleague who got just as excited about the idea of dedicated space and collective work on projects as I was.

Our boss thought the idea of a room with a whiteboard was funny, just as Franco had thought my low standards were kind of silly. But you know what? You don’t need a budget to create ideas and momentum. You don’t need a budget to stimulate discussion and cross-disciplinary cooperation. You just need space and time, and willing participants who can make use of it. We made a proposal, got the go-ahead, and took advantage of a new room in our Kislak Center at Penn that was free for an hour and a half a week. It was enough: the Vitale II lab is a room with a whiteboard. It even has giant TVs to hook up a laptop.

Thus, WORD LAB was born: a text-analysis interest group that just needed space to meet, and people to populate it. We recruited hard, mailing every department and discipline list we could think of, and got a mind-boggling 15+ people at the first meeting, plus the organizers and some interested library staff, from across the university. The room was full.

That was the beginning of September 2014. WORD LAB is still going strong, with more formal presentations every other week, interspersed with journal club/coding tutorials/etc. in OPEN LAB on the other weeks. We get a regular attendance of at least 7-10 people a week, and the faces keep changing. It’s a group of Asianists, an Islamic law scholar, Annenberg School of Communication researchers, political scientists, psychologists, and librarians, some belonging to more than one group. We’ve had presentations from Penn staff, other regional university researchers, and upcoming Skype presentations from Chicago and Northeastern.

A room with a whiteboard has turned into a budding cross-disciplinary, cross-professional text analysis interest community at Penn.

Keep up on WORD LAB:
@upennwordlab on Twitter
WORD LAB on Facebook