Why HUMlab? — A talk with Zephyr Frank and Fred Turner

Stanford professors Zephyr Frank and Fred Turner are both part of the Media Places research programme, and have visited HUMlab on several occasions. What are the challenges of working with international research projects? And how did the Umeå/Stanford collaboration start?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAZephyr Frank (ZF) (Top image)
is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis, CESTA, Stanford University.

Fred Turner (FT) (Bottom image)
is Associate Professor of Communication and Director of Stanford’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, Stanford University.

How did the Umeå-Stanford collaboration start?
Stanford Human Resources 2014FT: I had known Patrik Svensson for a few years through Matt Ratto, a former post doc at Umeå University. In 2008, Patrik approached me because he wanted one of my PhD students to apply for a post doc at Umeå University as well. The person he had in mind was Erica Robles-Anderson, the first PhD student I supervised, and I was of course very keen for her to succeed in her future career. I was very sceptical at first – should I really send Erica to a Swedish university in the far north? So I spent an afternoon with Patrik and quizzed him: how will this work? What is HUMlab? And the answers he gave were wonderful! So Erica Robles-Anderson went to Umeå for a year and came back so much smarter than when she left, and she got one of the very best jobs in our field, as a professor at NYU (New York University). After that, I wanted to work more with Patrik in particular and more with Umeå University generally.

ZF: So there was this pre-existing relationship, which I think was part of what inspired Patrik to then propose this Media Places initiative. My team, the Spatial History Project, came in at a time when Patrik was putting together the proposal for the research programme together with other people at Stanford. As we talked about how we could collaborate, we focused on two dimensions. One was direct support for research: Fred’s research, my research, and research done by post docs and graduate students. Second (and equally important), was collaborative work. This work could be both in terms of events where you have formal gatherings, share research and build networks of scholarship, and also actual collaborative work where scholars from Stanford and scholars from HUMlab would work together on projects. So that was the vision, and that is how it all came together. After that followed a process of matchmaking to find the right partners, and soon the Literary Lab at Stanford wanted to join the project. A cool thing about that is that bringing my Spatial History project and the Literary Lab together was one of the main reasons why the CESTA lab was created in the first place. The Wallenberg initiative brought us formally together!

How can one succeed with international research collaborations?
FT: The key thing to successful collaborations is people and relationships and time. A lot of folks want to collaborate with Stanford University in all kinds of different ways and we say no almost every time. The collaboration with HUMlab has been almost uniquely successful. I think that is very much due to Patrik’s persistent creative efforts to engage us, not only engage us in terms of resources, but also engage us in terms of ideas.

ZF: Absolutely. Another thing that distinguishes this project in a particularly fruitful way is that it is research-driven but still open-ended. I mean, obviously everyone is working hard and is concerned with delivering, but instead of saying “to get funding you need to do this exact thing”, this collaboration is more like “we are interested in each other’s research so let’s get together!” There is a kind of openness to the collaboration, which to me makes me feel like it is much more sustainable. As I sit here today, I have every expectation of this collaboration continuing as long as I am involved with CESTA.

FT: I think another thing that Zephyr pointed to is that unlike other universities that have come to us and basically said, “please bring Stanford to us!”, Umeå University came to us and said, “we have something really interesting going on, want to talk?”, and we said, “yes, absolutely!”. I think we both found that what is going on at Umeå University is interesting in its own right and very engaging for us, and that has been really important to our collaboration.

ZF: Another thing I would say is crucial to our collaboration is HUMlab and the space itself. In HUMlab, Umeå University has built something that is actually different from anything that we are familiar with. At least, that is certainly the case for me, I don’t know about you, Fred? There are several of us at Stanford who have been in HUMlab multiple times. We have experienced what it’s like in HUMlab and how people work there – that has been really influential and helpful! When our own lab in the Wallenberg Hall at Stanford was remodelled, it was built from ideas largely stemming from Umeå and HUMlab.

FT: Yes, there is a lot of mutual learning going on. We’re learning a lot from hanging out in HUMlab!

What are the biggest challenges in international collaborations?
FT: Distance is of course a big challenge. Another challenge is the different appointment systems at the different universities; as I am coming to understand Swedish academia, it is much more project-driven than the US system. In Sweden, you get funding for a particular project and you work within that project. The American context is much more structure and person-driven – we have graduate students, assistant professors, full professors and so on. Within those slots you are who you are and you are able to work within multiple projects. You are not funded by the project itself but by the position. That means that there are different modes of working and different expectations regarding deliverables in Sweden and the US.

ZF: I think that is a great point, I would second that. Figuring out the structure of the Swedish academic system is a challenge. But I still think it has been quite easy, because everyone at HUMlab has been really nice.

FT: Nice goes a long way!

ZF: I have felt comfortable talking with people in Umeå, even though I don’t fully understand their structural positions. I hope that it has been the same going in this direction!

FT: One challenge for us at Stanford is that a lot of people contact us because they want our name on their letterhead. That happens a lot – the people want the legitimacy of Stanford, but they don’t actually want to work with the people who work here. Patrik did not do that. He showed up, figured out who is who and was genuinely interested in working with us.

What have been the greatest benefits for Stanford from the collaboration with HUMlab?
FT: Personally, my research has taken a really strong turn towards thinking about space and media, in part because of this project. I have just finished a book that is partly funded by Media Places and the Wallenberg Foundation called The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties. The book is all about media’s integration into space, and that is a set of questions that I learned to ask by engaging with HUMlab, via Erica Robles-Anderson, via Patrik Svensson and by going to the lab itself. There is no greater kind of impact you can have than getting so far inside my head that you shape the books I write! The other thing that has been really nice is just seeing how work gets done in HUMlab and the diversity of intellectual questions that are asked there. Then I have gone back to my own world and asked, “OK, how can I encourage a wider range of questions here? How can we keep that tone of intellectual rigour and interpersonal niceness?” – which is a HUMlab thing and which I want here too.

ZF: From my perspective the greatest benefits have most clearly concerned people. We have been able to support four post docs, each of whom has brought incredible energy, talent and skill to our team. Bringing the resources to allow us to have these talented people as part of our community has been the most important thing. Second, personally I have been able to begin to collaborate with Thomas Nygren from HUMlab; he has really inspired me to think about pedagogics and how children learn about history. And last, the experience of going to Umeå: seeing the space and seeing how people work there has been really inspirational.

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