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English Lab? - I've been inspired.

dglasser's picture

So, I've been interning this week for a publishing company called, Just World Books, LLC. I was lucky enough to secure this position through Bryn Mawr's externship program and fortunate enough to be welcomed by the company's wonderful founder Helena Cobban. 

Perhaps this is still premature, because on my limited experience, but publishing seems right for me. I want to share this with you all since, first off, this is an English class, and second... there is so much I was unaware of, and this whole experience has got me thinking about English as a profession.

Most people won't admit it, but we very often claim to know more than we do. We nod our heads, pay close attention and interject when it seems safe. This is helpful in many situations, and I'm glad I've learned to do it. After all, "knowing" is a key to gaining opportunities- a necessity when trying to climb whatever ladder you set before yourself. But anyway, there comes a time when "knowing" can only take you so far. Eventually, when it comes time for you to take the reigns, asking questions is more important than just saying "yes". We've all heard this before and it seems obvious, but practice in doing is very different than learning how to appear knowledgeable. A fact that hit me like a hammer this week when I learned where ISBN numbers come from! Did you know you have to buy them? Anyway… 

So why am I writing this here? Simply because, in our classes, including this one, we talk a lot. we theorize, debate, discuss and debate again. I love to theorize-I honestly do a lot of living in my head-and debates do lead to progress. However, I am wondering if there is a way to combine the field work that accompanies the sciences and social sciences and the theory studies that accompany more of the humanities like English. How could we create field-English-work? Is that the equivalent of teaching English? I don't think so. I think there is so much more to English, Philosophy, etc that people often over look. What would a philosophy lab or an English lab class look like?

No clue.


I would like to create one. It would take a very long time talking with others, thinking to myself, and out loud (which I very often do), but there is potential here. A lab where those interested in English use their knowledge of Austen or Cavendish or Vonnegut in a hands-on, active way to test the boundaries of literary application. Again, what would a lab like that look like?

No clue.

But I'm inspired, and if anyone is inspired by reading this, please join me in my project. I feel something great could come of this! Yay, inspiration.  


dglasser's picture

maybe not a LAB

There is so much to think about, and it’s taken me so long to respond because I’ve been trying to think about everything at once, which is obviously impossible. Instead I’m going to back up. I’ve asked myself why this whole idea intrigued me in the first place as a way to focus my thoughts. The answer I’ve come up with is that I’m intrigued by the idea of applying literary theory in physical creation. Is that a lab? Perhaps in some sense, but I guess it is more specifically a question of method; applying the scientific method to literature. That’s the relation I want to explore. That’s what gets me excited. This method is already applied to basically everything we do, but no one pays it much attention. No one calls the discussions in English class part of the scientific method. People use this method without giving it credit, and that strengthens the divide between the sciences and humanities; the divide I want to bring down. I want to call attention to this. I guess I’m not interested in creating English Labs so much I’m interested in creating an English Methods Exhibit or something like, that but with a catchier name.

Therefore, perhaps the best way to move forward is to slow down and ask how this should be set up to really highlight the process; the space between thought and action. Perhaps the best way to set this up is to be blunt, have the exhibit move in the way of the scientific method. Have the exhibit separated into: 1) Ask/Find a Question- here is where a person would find an excerpt of literary critique they want to explore. 2.) Do background research- this floor/section will be divided by time period, where the person will follow the path of their chosen critique. 3.) Construct a Hypothesis/Question- here a person will decide how they want to test the criticism ex: short story, chapter, poem etc. 4.) Experiment- here a person will be aided in actually starting to write. Different “how to write techniques” will be the focus of this section/floor. 5.) Analyze data/Draw Conclusion- this could be the collaboration floor, where all the walls are white boards with markers, and people are encouraged to talk to each other with the aid of people who work there. You work out your story, poem etc. 6.) Report results/reflection- Write/print/email your final 1st draft copy, so you can walk away from this with something physical.

I guess the issue here is that by applying the scientific method to a subject like English, which is often cast aside as purely speculative/conversational, people may realize that the scientific method is a way of life, not just for the physical sciences. I want this to blur the line, to show the overlap, and to highlight the process from thought to creation.

I think starting with a layout like this; perhaps in a spiral structure like the Guggenheim would best represent the upward progressions of construction, but highlight the never-ending “circulatory” process of creation, and the “curves” of genre and subject, as opposed to stark separations.

Wil Franklin's picture

Labs as spaces to try out and practice method.

Calling attention to the method that English practitioners use can only be helpful and ultimately clarifying. You have made two important clarifying points for me.

First, if I interpret you correctly, then a lab is a space where one can learn method through trying out the method.  In some sense that is "hands-on", but some methods are "brains-on" and thus you have articulated a more generalized form of "lab" and more useful. And pedagogically speaking, it is indeed what separates a “lab” space from other more theoretical learning spaces.

Second, I think you have successfully blurred the line between scientific method and English method. Your six steps (floors) are nearly identical to the loopy inquiry I suggest is the most accurate depiction of how science is practiced. I have always hoped students would come to appreciate the beautiful shades of gray between science and humanities and now I can point them to your exhibit for a concrete example of the similarities. Thank you and I hope you can virtually or physically bring your vision to reality.

Wil Franklin's picture

Loopy Inquiry: Science and Humanities.

Let me introduce myself, briefly. My name is Wil Franklin and a faculty member in the Bryn Mawr Biology department.

When Anne shared the link of your conversation regarding an "English Lab", it intersected in many interesting ways with several narratives Anne and I have been working on together.

First, let me share my enthusiasm for the idea of an "English Lab" or in general a "humanities lab". What exactly is the difference between science and humanities anyway? To be honest, I know each when I see them, but I cannot give a single or even concise set of traits that can be used to separate the two "disciplines". In the end, they are both human forms of inquiry looking into the universe and what it means to be human and the relationship of each to the other and to the idea of the self.

Therefore, when one uses the word "lab" there is a lot to unpack/deconstruct. For example, what is the difference between a lab, an experiment, research and the scientific method. All are different. Some refer to process; others are tools. Some are hypothesis/story driven, others are purely observational. But, there is a loop between observation and story/interpretation and there are loops between the individual and self, individual and environment(physical) and between individual and other individuals. At each step there is the loop of observation and story-telling.

Finally, a lab in a classroom is only very, very remotely related to actual hypothesis driven science. I believe this conversation is an extremely useful way to explore the goals, process and products of "Humanities" and "Science".  In the end, the difficulty in defining an English lab stems from the ambiguity of the term lab and the difficulty in distinguishing humanities from science.

Is an English lab the same thing as a science lab?  Perhaps science lectures are the odd ball? Perhaps science labs are the same thing as most English courses?

If you are interested in exploring the idea of "loopy science versus linear science" please visit and play with the hyper link.

kobieta's picture

Circular IKEA

I was thinking very hard about the structure of this lab that you proposed and I feel that maybe a science lab should be a building, many,  many, many stories high for it is an ongoing process, but not an English or just a humanities lab in general. That's not to say that finding answers in the humanities isn't an ongoing process; it very much is. However, I personally find it less linear than say, the scientific method. I feel that the scientific method is more linear, except with the ability to back-track and change directions, but always moving only in one direction. When I think of the ways that humanitarians think and question things, I just imagine the IKEA show room I mentioned in class, but perhaps a circular one, rather than a rectangular one. It's like a maze where different routes can lead to the same answers but circular because there is always no definite "answer" because I feel that in the humanities, as long as you can back up something, it can be an answer. It is very unlike science where an answer needs to have more than just empirical evidence, results need to be reproduced again and again.

In this circular maze,  maybe participants can be dropped off in a random point, and have them decide whether they want to start with a theory then test it out or perform tests and form a theory, or even somewhere in between. I mean, I can just imagine a whole bunch of people scrambling about doing what they think works best, which I believe is the point of humanities anyway. I think there is no set procedure or protocol about how theories are tested, contrary to the scientific method, and the building should mirror the discipline. Also, should participants go through it alone or collaboratively? This goes back to your idea that the lab itself tests the theory of collaborative writing!

kobieta's picture


I just finished swimming and while I was doing so, I was thinking about this post. I think I change my mind. The reason that science and the scientifc method are more linear ways of questioning and testing than a humanities approach is because scientists think that they have come to a conclusion, until more questions/problems arise. In the humanities, however, I think that there is a universal understanding that no one will ever know the real answer to any of the questions they ask, therefore they just apply more techniques, ask more questions, without ever settling.

froggies315's picture

My thoughts:1. you’re idea is

My thoughts:

1. you’re idea is awesome
2. idealism=the best form of realism
3. what are the first steps? more imagining?

Also, your response made me realize that I didn’t really know what literary theory is, so I spent some time on Wikipedia.  Here are some stolen definitions that I like:

Literary theory = the way we study and interpret stories; seeks to answer: What is literature?; a few genres of literary theory: biographical criticism, New Criticism, formalism, Russian formalism, and structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, feminism and French feminism, post-colonialism, new historicism, deconstruction, reader-response criticism, and psychoanalytic criticism.  

I don’t know what 95% of those words mean, but if I generalize them, then it seems like literary theory is simply the stuff that makes stories important.

In the past, literary theory has made some stories more important than others.  From my very limited experience, it seems like this is an eternal condition of literary theory.  Also, it seems like genre and literary theory are linked--maybe literary theory leads to the emergence of a new genre?

The ultimate literary theory would make it so that everyone’s individual story is equally important and at the same time exists inside of everyone else’s story.  From your short description of an English lab, it sounds sort of like this is what you want to do too (did I read correctly?)!      

The English lab accomplishes two things:
1. Telling you’re story and having people affirm it
2. Understanding how your story fits into the fabric of all the other stories of the world

Personally, this is exciting because if this is the point of an English lab, then our class is an English lab, and my experience in the humanities and this class specifically (especially!) has been successful.      

There is one big problem with all of this, which is that it sort of seems like making this ultimate literary theory and the English lab to go along with it means deconstructing other literary theories and the concept of genre.  Which is...impossible.  We’ve said in class that a human condition is to classify/genrefy.  I believe that this is true, but I also hate it when something tells me that what I want is impossible.  When this happens and I care enough I work really hard to prove that something wrong (I’ve had limited success).  I think that I could get excited to work toward this goal, but I also know that there are only six more weeks until summer, and that after summer I just have one more semester of college, and that in the springtime there’s lots of sunshine...

leamirella's picture


This makes me really excited dglasser! Why? Because I'm remembering what Jen Rajchel said when she came into class early on. (Actually, I can't remember whether this discussion happened in class or outside...) She mentioned that writing her thesis had a sort of "lab component" to it too. What you've so beautifully described seems a little like what Jen did, but in a slightly different way. Some of her research came from special collections and in her lab, she sifted through the information to find what she needed -- quite like what you've described.

So maybe an English lab would take place in special collections where you could find lots of material to read around and take in as you please? But not even just special collection but also, a large collection of books and literature? (Like a library!) On that note: what defines a "lab"? Couldn't you just argue that sitting in a library reading a bunch of books could be a form of "lab"?

dglasser's picture

Challenge Accepted

Challenge accepted froggie315! But I ask that if after reading this post you, or anyone else who gets inspired/intrigued, work with me and others to take the steps in making English Labs a reality. I see so much potential for this idea, not just potential for showing the practicality of the study of English, by potential for a marketable construction that could really have an impact.

Ok, so here is the base idea of what’s been floating through my head for the past week. Obviously it is not completely thought out, and I’m not entirely sure what “it” is, and how these labs would actually work. Nevertheless imagine this…

An interactive literary exhibit that allows people of all ages to enter, learn, have fun, and walk away with a unique short story that they have written in collaboration with others and based on literary theorists’ work. Here’s the picture in my head: a five floor building, each floor connected to the next in a different way i.e. the first by stairs, the next by an escalator, the third by a spiral staircase etc. Each floor has a different theme/component of a story. For example, the first floor is covered, walls, ceilings, floor, in wallpaper that has excerpts from all sorts of literary theorist from Derrida to Dr. Seuss. Each expert on the wallpaper is numbered. A person who enters reads all around, and chooses the passages they find interesting, and writes down the number somehow. That passage is the base of your English Lab, and the theory you will test/explore as you continue through.

The next floor provides you with three different pathways, and somehow aids you in creating a beginning to your story. The next floor- the middle; the next floor-the end. When you reach the top floor, you compile the pieces you created/collected and use a computer to format it the way you want. Then you can print, email, or download an ebook that you created.

The entire lab itself tests and proves the power of collaborative writing, and uses theory as a “hard” base in which to develop your own story that you can then share, pass-on, use however you like. In a way you are “testing” literary theories as models to construct a story. For example, if on the first floor, you chose an expert from Barthes, “Death of the Author” perhaps your resulting story would have dozens of narrators, or was truly a compilation of other authors. You are therefore testing the definition of authorship by creating a story or work that surrounds the concept. This results in a “hard” result, your story, and promotes thought and thinking in new ways.

Obviously the details are not there, and I’m not even sure if this is possible (I should ask someone who studies architecture). But imagine interactive literary labs all over the country, where children could have fun creating stories/picture books, but adults can test literary theories to write, create, collaborate. I feel there’s something there. It would be an experience, in the same way, when you enter Madame Tussauds you enter an experience.

What do you think? Am I too unclear? Too idealistic?

froggies315's picture

inspire me!

I’m so glad you posted this because the ideas you present are helpful for me as I reflect on my experience in the humanities.  I feel pretty lost in this class, and I think that this confusion is a function of the humanities as a whole (as opposed to just this class).  Admittedly, I’m working with a supremely small sample size...

Last night, I talked with a humanities major (classics).  After I said that I was frustrated with this class for making me think about things but not providing a path to understanding, I asked her why she liked the humanities.  She said that, for her, the humanities lead to a deeper understanding of the world by virtue of the fact that they have forced her to question herself and history and what this means for the future.  It’s interesting to me that the thing that I find most oppressive about the humanities is what she finds the most liberating.  For her, the questions are the understanding; for me, the questions with no answers (or endless answers) are incredibly damning.  In the end, as much as I will it not to be true, I know that the really hard questions the humanities ask don’t have neat, concise answers--that’s sort of the point.   

I find the questions about racism and equality and history and people that the humanities ask really compelling.  The problem is that I really, really, really don’t like the conversations I’ve had about these questions in school.  I don’t feel like I’ve learned anything productive from them.  I’ve found these conversations frustrating enough to avoid them in academic settings for many reasons, here are a few:

1. Sometimes, I lie. This does not feel good.
2. Usually, I feel like other people are lying. This does not feel good.
3. On the rare occasions when it actually feels like everyone is being honest, I leave the conversation more confused, or more scared, or with more unanswerable questions.  This does not feel good.
4. Sometimes, it feels like professors are perversely happy that their students can’t come up with answers--like the conversation was just some stupid game that they won.  This does not feel good.

So what does/can an English lab look like?  What is the point of asking questions that have infinite answers?

Labs are great because they let you see how theories function off of the textbook page.  I imagine that an English lab would be a conversation.  In class, you would read stories and learn about the theories that link different types of stories to one another.  In lab, you would have a conversation about what the theories mean for the world.  Also, if I were designing this lab, I’d want there to be some sort of action component--like go use this theory to make something happen.  I like stories and I guess theories are OK, but I’ve never had a conversation about humanities questions that has led me to feel like I can do something about all of the crap we’re asking questions about.  In my experience, I’ve only felt like I can make things better when I’m not questioning myself...when I just trust that my motives are good, that I am good, and that every single other person in the world is good.      

But, I know that sometimes, because of my complicated history and the complicated history of the world, my motives aren’t good, I am not good, and other people aren’t good.  This is why the humanities asks its questions (they’re really important questions!).  So, in conclusion, the questions are important, and they probably don’t have answers that we can all agree on, and a lab might help solve this problem, but I’m super skeptical. make me less skeptical!