The Tactical Humanities Lab (THL) at Rensselaer is our effort to epistemically and institutionally produce DH and DH labs as within the boundaries of STS. The word “tactical” has for us a double meaning. First, it is a recognition of the deployment of the term already in DH, used somewhat flippantly as a way to “get things done” (Kirschenbaum 2012) in the contemporary university. While we certainly do not support the managerialization of higher education, we believe that “tactical” in this sense can be more than just a way of “accepting [our] parasitic relationship to the host” of academic administration (Raley 2014). Tactical-as-instrumental can also a way of making humanities and social science research knowable to administrative systems, funding systems, and broader cultural narratives of academic research. In this way, “tactical” DH operates as a intra-institutional translational platform (Malazita, 2018a), in similar ways that translational medicine practices have been constructed as ways of empathetically bridging biomedical research and diagnostic practices with patients and the public (Wang 2012).
Second, we use “tactical” in de Certeau’s form, as the practice of small-scale, everyday resistances to larger systems of power (de Certeau 1980). Part of this commitment is disciplinary; STS scholars tend to construct the field as strongly oriented with social justice and normative approaches to scientific, technological, and knowledge practices. Another part is our location in an engineering-centered institute, where laboratory practices and technoscientific innovation are the major knowable genres for framing social and political change.
The THL takes a bottom-up approach to DH laboratory practices. Rather than having one or two longer-term projects administered through the lab director, graduate and undergraduate students propose semester-long projects to the lab, and are free to work individually or in groups. Though several projects continue for multiple semesters, every semester-length segment is structured via a particular development and dissemination plan. The lab assumes no prior expertise in technical work or critical inquiry; students and faculty share readings, run discussions and workshops, and skillshare throughout the semester. The topics of these workshops and reading groups vary depending on the projects pursued in a given semester. The lab has no formal funding model or physical space–students and student projects are funded through a combination of scrapped-together internal and external sources, including bits and pieces of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Rensselaer-based internal “accelerator” funds, faculty startup funds, Independent Study credits, and preexisting institutional research infrastructures available for supporting undergraduates. Our physical lab presence manifests through distributed temporary spaces, generally either in a conference room outside of Malazita’s office, or throughout various electronics, fabrication, and computer labs on a campus designed for STEM students.
The above probably sounds familiar to many DH laboratory practitioners–especially the contingent funding, space shifting, and sweat equity involved in holding a physically situated research practice together. Building momentum towards continuous operation is also complicated by the term-to-term, student-driven nature of the lab’s research foci. The structure of the lab leads to the production of a wide variety of epistemic subjects and objects. The students and faculty represent multiple disciplines, including STS, Arts, Computer Science, Computer Engineering, Sustainability Studies, and Game Design. The project topics range across critical technical education, data visualization, reverse-engineering and hacking hardware, web-based media production, game production, bioart, installation design, and furniture design. While the array of projects and disciplines can sometimes lead to a feeling of disjointedness at the beginning of the semester, all projects are united by two lab “requirements:” the projects must be oriented toward a social or political goal, and the research teams should be interested in making their object “knowable” by DH and STS audiences.
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