XXIII.4 July - August 2016
Page: 76
Digital Citation

On the design of the humanities

Bonnie Mak, Julia Pollack

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The work of the humanities can be difficult to discern. To the uninitiated, its product may seem like a featureless and opaque wall of text. But understanding the humanities means recognizing that words are its chief tools, activities, and output. Whereas bench scientists might conduct experiments in a laboratory, engineers might test structures or systems on computers, and interaction designers might study the behavior of users and write up the results, humanists perform their practice with words from beginning to end. Humanistic scholars ask questions like their counterparts in other disciplines, but they do not seek to answer them in the everyday sense. Instead, someone might raise a question to ask other questions, to frame various ways in which the question might be investigated by others in the future, or to demonstrate that we really should be asking a different question. Similarly, problems are not identified to be solved, but rather to help organize and clarify the investigation of a particular constellation of details, relationships, and historical conditions [1]. Influenced by a principle of inspiration rather than reproducibility or repeatability, scholars in the humanities deploy strategies such as metaphor, analogy, contradiction, silence, and seduction to provoke their audiences. The success of these tactics is consequently difficult to gauge with the metrics of productivity that have been developed for the scientific disciplines. Indeed, how might metaphor be measured? Who benefits from conversation, and where is its deliverable? What is the timeline for inspiration or transformation? The stakes here are great: If humanistic research cannot be registered as eventful by the prevailing infrastructures of assessment, it runs the risk of being marginalized or even erased as inconsequential [2].

back to top  Insights


In order to recover the "uneventful" activities of the humanities, we constructed a large wooden cabinet that was exhibited at a local art gallery to an audience of academics, professionals, and community members [3]. Measuring 8 feet wide and 6 feet tall, the cabinet helped visualize and explain the intersecting modalities of research, scholarship, and argument. We devised physical analogies for the non-palpable activities of the humanities that include reading, reflection, examination, interpretation, and critical analysis. Now embodied with material form, the scholarly practices of the humanities could be picked up, held, and scrutinized by our audiences. The creative arts thus offered an unusual and arresting language that permitted us to stage and share how the humanistic argument is itself design.

back to top  Inspiration

We configured our piece of furniture to recall the tradition of the cabinet of curiosity, a space in which collectors of the 16th and 17th centuries experimented with ways of ordering and understanding the world. Such cabinets organized objects that included botanical and mineral samples, animal specimens, as well as books, paintings, and religious relics. Travelers returning from the New World offered tales of other peoples, strange fauna, and wondrous flora that had to be reconciled with traditional knowledge and accommodated in emerging schemes of classification. As collectors rearranged both old and new objects in the cabinet, they changed the relationships of the items and suggested multiple ways of perceiving them [4]. For instance, putting the preserved hand of a "mermaid" next to the hand of an Egyptian mummy might prompt a particular way of thinking; meanwhile, dividing the two objects into the categories of non-human and human, or fictive and real, could inspire other approaches to the natural world. Because the rules of distinct systems of understanding had not yet been formalized, collectors moved fluidly across the arts, humanities, and sciences as they refined their knowledge practices. We selected the cabinet as the most appropriate vehicle for our argument because its material form serves as an obvious reminder of the debt owed to ways of producing and transmitting knowledge before their fracture into today's disciplines. By drawing upon the trope of the cabinet of curiosity, we located our project within the long tradition of knowledge-making from which all scholarship in the 21st century derives its practices, contours, and infrastructures.

back to top  Search, Selection, and Analysis

Scholars in the humanities choose items of interest and inspiration from the various resources that may be found in libraries, archives, museums, and archaeological or architectural sites, among others. These items are then brought together for further examination. We embodied this process in the cabinet with a collection of "specimens" of humanistic resources. Parts of books, images, and disparate quotations were presented for scrutiny in specimen jars and culture tubes. Such laboratory glassware is conventionally employed in the sciences for the handling and close inspection of particular chemicals or organisms. The use of specimen containers in our cabinet harnessed the cultural associations of laboratory equipment and thereby bestowed a kind of scientific import upon the spectacle. In this way, we made foreign bodies of the practices of search, discovery, and selection. Moreover, by demonstrating how laboratory glassware could be shared across disciplinary fields, we argued that scholars in both the sciences and the humanities similarly construct, identify, and emphasize select materials for investigation.

As we wrested materials from their "natural habitat" for isolation in our cabinet, we showed that the constitution of evidence is part of an interpretive process. That is, the scholar herself determines what may be considered a resource, and which parts of which resources might be significant and how. This process is unique to each scholar: One scholar might cite a particular study, quote a colleague, and offer an excerpt from an archival document or image in service of her argument. She will furthermore explain how her contribution might build upon or differ from other perspectives. Meanwhile, another scholar may prefer to highlight different parts of the same study, document, or image. Thus, the source material can inspire multiple interpretations that complement each other in various ways and stimulate yet more questions and explorations.


The practice of examination involves mental gymnastics, in which ideas are deconstructed, recontextualized, and even sometimes later discarded. In order to materialize this process, we invited onlookers to pick up the specimen jars, study their contents, examine them from different angles and in different lights, and rearrange them to see if new patterns might emerge. Just as early modern collectors might do in their cabinets of curiosity, the audiences of our 21st-century cabinet physically performed the acts of investigation, consideration, and analysis that undergird knowledge production. They were able to touch, smell, and interact with the materials as if they were conducting research themselves; in this way, the cabinet allowed the audience to grapple physically with scholarly practice.


back to top  Building a Framework for the Research

As the humanistic scholar scrutinizes her materials, she begins to conceive a custom-made framework that marshals the evidence in a particular way. The discovery of previously overlooked sources, for instance, might necessitate a significant revision of the organizing device. This craft is performed through writing and rewriting. That is, it is in the practice of writing that pieces of the study are put together in a specific relationship, scrutinized, and then taken apart again for rearrangement elsewhere. A cogent argument may finally emerge only after an extended process of writing, reflection, and revision. Our project helped to materialize this process, for making the cabinet involved engineering, rejiggering, and finishing.

Whereas the sciences, social sciences, and much of HCI distinguish methods from data, and scholarly contributions from their communication, humanistic arguments operate according to a different tradition of scholarship in which expression and substance are enmeshed. To embody this symbiotic relationship of form and content, the shelves of our cabinet were purpose-built and arranged in response to the specimens selected for display. We designed the cabinet with its contents in mind; the dimensions of the cabinet are therefore defined in part by what it holds. If we had chosen different specimens, perhaps of other shapes and sizes, we would have designed the cabinet with a correspondingly different arrangement of containers and shelves. Likewise, a humanistic argument develops from, around, and in relation to its sources. The contents of the cabinet furthermore could not be readily divorced from their framework. If something were to have been extracted from the cabinet—for instance, an excerpt of a quotation that had been placed in a culture tube—it would have had very little, if any, meaning. Similarly, scholarship in the humanities is rarely modular. By physically constructing and demonstrating the relationship of component parts to each other and to the whole, our practice of joinery illumines the craft of scholarship.

back to top  The Look of Scholarship

Unlike the work of interaction design that might produce an interface or a system, the work of the humanities is embodied with words. The written text performs the scholarship before the eyes of the reader. Quality is transmitted in and with words, and is consequently most appreciable in the reading of the prose. For instance, innovation can manifest itself in the precision of a metaphor, in the fine crafting of reasoning, in the novelty of a juxtaposition. Certain passages might have been constructed to be particularly difficult in order to moderate the tempo of reading, a kind of verbal rallentando that directs the reader to slow down, pause, take a moment to reflect, and perhaps reread a sentence or two because they elucidate an especially important or complicated relationship. Other passages might strike a more sprightly tone to hurry the reader to the next point. The purposeful choice and arrangement of words—their design—is formulated to stimulate and inspire.

Such a designerly approach to words was the key method for producing and transmitting all types of knowledge for two millennia. Indeed, this distinguished mode of communication has its roots in antiquity. However, richly woven prose styles began to fall out of favor in the 16th century because of various social pressures that included educational reforms, the rise of radical Protestantism, and the emergence of a new theory of state that turned to economic activity to underwrite political power. By suggesting that verbal modes of expression unduly privileged ornamentation, the debates of the early modern period succeeded in forcing a conceptual division between form and content. This division was then exploited by theorists who developed a competing system of communication that relied on a simpler prose style and numerical representation, which could furthermore be readily controlled and assessed. Although numbers were initially perceived as mere speculation with little claim to substance or the accurate representation of the real, they began to gain traction as part of this alternative system of knowledge and earned the status of fact by the middle of the 18th century [5]. Scholars in the sciences and economics eventually adopted numerical representation as the authoritative mode of expression. Meanwhile, those in the humanities continued to refine ways to visualize and transmit ideas with words. For them, the communication of complex ideas was conducted not through the simplification offered by numerical precision, but instead through the clarification offered by verbal precision. Designed prose thus became the specialized register of the humanities, deployed to elucidate, provoke, argue, and transform.

back to top  Conspiring to Inspire

Our cabinet constitutes an argument about the performance of the humanities that might have otherwise remained opaque had we produced it in a guise of words. Namely, the use of design disrupted any easy interpretation of the project. Because wood does not have an established tradition in scholarly communication, there are no assumptions about how it transmits meaning. For example, it is not associated with numerical specificity or verbal innovation; it is not a language that has been adopted as the hallmark of any single field of academic study. Wood therefore provided us with a fresh medium that could bridge the stylistic gap that separates the disciplines. By eschewing both number and word, we developed a way to highlight that humanistic inquiry itself is a form of design, and to compare it with different systems that equally produce, visualize, and transmit knowledge.

Like all scholarship in the humanities, our endeavor is not intended to be repeated or reproduced to generate the same effect. Instead, our project might stimulate analogous experiments in the computational sciences that explore the limits of their respective rhetorical styles. Such initiatives could, for example, examine the messy and obscured relationship of numerical precision with the real, or cultivate a lyrical form for combinatory logic.

We share our project to inspire further examinations of the history that underpins different systems of knowledge and its practices, to help others contend with the designerly aspects of all scholarship, and to transform the ways in which the humanities are understood and appreciated.

back to top  References

1. Pound, S and Liu, A. The Amoderns: Reengaging the humanities—A feature interview with Alan Liu. aModern 2 (2013);

2. Biddick, K.A. Doing dead time for the sovereign: Archive, abandonment, performance. Rethinking History 13, 2 (2009). More generally, see Doane, M.A. The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive. Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002.

3. Mak, B. and Pollack, J. The performance and practice of research in A Cabinet of Curiosity: The Library's Dead Time. Art Documentation 32, 2 (2013), 202–221.

4. Findlen, P. Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, 1994.

5. Poovey, M. A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society. Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998.

back to top  Authors

Bonnie Mak is an associate professor at the University of Illinois, jointly appointed in the iSchool and the Program in Medieval Studies. Her book on the page as interface, How the Page Matters, was published in 2011. She is senior fellow of the Center for Humanities and Information at the Pennsylvania State University for 2015/16.

Julia Pollack is an independent artist in New York. She has a master's degree in library and information science from the University of Illinois. She is completing an advanced degree in digital humanities at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and works as a reference librarian at CUNY-Bronx Community College.

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