Keywords for Humanities Labs

Edited by Corina Stan and Charlotte Sussman


Gennifer Weisenfeld, former Dean of Humanities

From 2017-2019, five Duke faculty members convened the Representing Migration Humanities Lab embedded in the English department (hereafter RMHL). The dean’s office initially seed funded the lab as a pilot project for a grant application to the Mellon Foundation called Humanities Unbounded (HU), which was successfully awarded in 2018. In its second year, the lab was funded by the HU grant from Mellon. Humanities Unbounded was designed to nurture collaborative and inventive expressions of the humanities at Duke by embedding humanities labs into the university’s core curriculum while creating more integration both on campus (between undergraduates, graduates, and faculty) and off (with neighboring and distant HBCUs and liberal arts colleges). These labs were envisioned as places where undergraduates would be exposed to collaborative, interdisciplinary pedagogy, graduate students would be professionalized in new ways, and faculty research and teaching would be re-energized through new connections and synergies. In the case of the RMHL, the Mellon funding enabled faculty to think creatively as a team about linking their course offerings and developing collaborative research themes and streams for project-based learning with vertically integrated teams of students. The grant enabled the RMHL team to support graduate assistants, lab fellows (graduate and undergraduate), invite speakers, provide reading materials, and—not inconsequentially—provide food for meetings. As current Dean of the Humanities and co-PI on the HU grant, following the extraordinary journey that these faculty and students have traveled together, and the trust and time that they committed to this hopeful vision of a new model for thinking about the humanities, is nothing short of inspirational. We believe that it is important to share this experiment with colleagues who are similarly interested in re-thinking their current practices in the humanities, successes, challenges, and everything in between. Change is never easy, but my colleagues have proven that the process itself is a worthwhile endeavor. I commend—and am deeply moved by—their dedication.


Corina Stan

A shared interest in migration generated and sustained the RMHL from its beginning as a working group run by Charlotte Sussman, a scholar of 18th- century literature, and Tsitsi Jaji, specializing in African and African- American literatures, on The Long Histories and Emerging Presents of Migration. In the group’s incarnation as the Representing Migration Humanities Lab, these two English faculty members were joined by three others in the department: Dominika Baran, a sociolinguist, Jarvis McInnis, a scholar of African American literature, and myself, Corina Stan, working in twentieth- and twenty-first-century comparative literature and philosophy.

Our graduate assistants broadened the range of our conversation topics with their dissertation work on stories of home and home-ownership in African- American literature (Karen Little) and representations of the Middle Passage in African-American and Caribbean literature (Sasha Panaram). Aside from different fields, the conveners and assistants brought different approaches to the Lab: historical (Sussman was completing a book on representations of mobility in the Atlantic world in the 18th century), creative (Jaji is also a poet), linguistic (Baran authored a book on language in immigrant America), archival (McInnis is at work on a monograph on the afterlives of the plantation), comparative (I write about “the end of Western culture” and the European refugee crisis), digital (Little) and performance (Panaram).

An interdisciplinary topic of contemporary relevance, migration has been for us a phenomenon to trace back to seventeenth-century vagrancy and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, through the current crises over refugees in Europe and the United States, and forward into the future of population displacement caused by environmental change. Unsettling borders between countries, languages, and cultures, migration invites consideration of linguistic and political representation, economic and social inequality, geographies of vulnerability, temporalities of crisis, and ethics in a global world. Its representation tests boundaries among genres and artistic mediums, as well as the grammars linking the one and the many—not only the dynamic between the statistics of mass migration and the individual story that might compel identification, but also the perceived tension between solitary work and scholarly conversation, and between traditional teaching and collaborative pedagogical practices. We were intentional about “vertical integration,” but in practice the Migration Lab has been a lively horizontal network of learning, listening, and testing of ideas: undergraduate students shared stories of volunteering in refugee camps; graduate students read archival documents and workshopped syllabi; books were read and discussed, talks were delivered, street signs and flows of people were digitally mapped; moments of sobering insight into the precariousness of refuge alternated with epiphanies sparked by conversations with various guests.


Charlotte Sussman

Despite the obvious privilege and bounty of the financial support we received, we were, and to some degree remain, skeptical of the laboratory model for the humanities. Some of us felt that giving too much importance to such a model undermines the value of the individual, indeed solitary, research that we treasure in our intellectual lives. Others felt that the historical entanglement of laboratory work with colonialist, racist, or sexist knowledge production (from the Tuskegee Airmen to Henrietta Lacks to Yellow Fever vaccines) would haunt our endeavors, especially in an area as fraught as migration. Nevertheless, we found the experience enriching, invigorating, and productive. The lab transformed our relationships to our scholarship, our pedagogy, and our community.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that a lab devoted to migration might come to serve as an entre-pot for groups working on that issue from multiple perspectives. And so it transpired. During the lab’s work, we benefitted from collaborations with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Franklin Humanities Institute, and many other departments at Duke. Even more, however, the work of the lab was fostered by the long conversations we had amongst ourselves about its structure, purpose, and goals. Although perhaps wearying at the time, the hours devoted to infrastructural organization were not only integral to the collective, non-hierarchal mode of governance we aimed to follow, but also enabled the intellectual commons and productive exchange of ideas we achieved at our best.

We offer the following keywords both as a record of our experience, and as a guide that might help others embarking on similar ventures:

Archive, Field Work, Pedagogy, Presence, Reading Community, Responsiveness, Review, Serendipity, Vertical Integration, Visitors, Waste / Alternative Outcomes.

ARCHIVE and/as Pedagogy

Jarvis McInnis

The goal of the stream “Black Mobilities & the Archive” was to explore movement and migration in the African Diaspora through primary source documents and artifacts housed in the Rubenstein Library. In fall 2017, students primarily worked with the Blunt Family papers, an archive comprised of correspondence, photographs, and holiday cards between family members in transit during the Great Migration. This was a useful tool for introducing students to archival research, because the collection is relatively small and manageable, and therefore did not overwhelm them by its size. We focused on logistical matters, such as how to register and request materials from an archival collection, as well as methodological concerns, such as the myriad of possible ways to search for and interpret primary source documents. Most importantly, students learned that even as they bring their own research questions to an archive, they must remain flexible and willing to reframe their questions based on what they find (or fail to find).

These archival skillsets and methodologies were invaluable when, in spring 2018, we transitioned to examining the newly acquired Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) papers, a much more voluminous collection. As the largest mass movement of black people in the twentieth century that spanned at least four continents, the Garvey Movement provides innumerable opportunities to interrogate black movement and migration on a global scale. That spring, some students worked as my research assistants—collating, transcribing, and translating documents for my forthcoming book—while others pursued their own creative projects, which culminated in a community poetry workshop and a website that used Garveyite poetry to explore themes such as gender, migration, diaspora, and the “ethics of witness.” This work would not have been possible without the support of the University’s archivists.

Our primary objective for the year was designing a collaborative undergraduate syllabus on Marcus Garvey and the UNIA. Students visited the archives on their own, and we discussed their findings in our bi-weekly meetings. Shared readings on the theory and practice of archival research and teaching led to exciting conversations about the role of the archivist, the finding aid as a distinct genre, and the limits and possibilities of the archive as a site of power and knowledge production (many archives are highly curated and housed at elite and/or colonial institutions, such as Duke). We also enjoyed fruitful discussions about archival pedagogy and syllabus design, including course objectives and assignments. As literary scholars, we were especially interested in ways to pair archival documents from the Garvey papers with literary representations of Marcus Garvey/Garveyism. Ideally, our collective work will become the basis for an Archives Alive! course on the Garvey Movement. This collective work was made possible by the structure of the lab, which in turn shaped the resulting pedagogical outcomes, both among ourselves, and for future teaching.


Dominika Baran

As a linguist, I developed a stream on linguistic landscapes that involved students in both local field work and digital project design. Linguistic landscapes is a framework for thinking about how language is made visible in our surroundings by focusing on multilingual signs in urban spaces. The spaces through which we move every day – streets, buildings, shopping centers, parking lots, cafés, and restaurants – are marked with various signboards, notices, posters, and ads. In the context of representing migration, we can document and map these signs, this visible language, to construct a sort of linguistic geography, a sense of what language is used where, by whom, in what context, and with what audience in mind. Leading this stream was an important source of intellectual growth, since I had not worked in the field of linguistic landscapes before. Linguistic landscapes provide a way of looking at public text that indirectly indexes migrant communities as they come into, move through, settle in, or depart from an area. Unlike a memoir or novel, public signage does not take migration as its topic, but by considering the language used, the content and purpose of the sign, its physical context, we can build a picture of an area and, ultimately, of a community.

In the first year, using the Omeka mapping platform with the help of university staff in Digital Humanities, my undergraduate students and I began to take photographs of multilingual signs in the area and upload them onto a map, describing their purpose and any interesting features. This provided a valuable opportunity to connect Duke students to Durham and surrounding areas; hopefully, it will also inspire them to look beyond Durham to their own home communities and to other places they visit, and see them through the lens of the language landscape. The key product of the Linguistic Landscapes lab stream and the upcoming Bass Connections sub- theme (see final section) will be the linguistic map of the Triangle, a publicly available resource that can be explored, drawn upon, and used as data by researchers in various fields across the humanities and social sciences. Also, in the planning stages is a co-authored conference presentation or poster that will bring an analysis of the linguistic landscapes of the Triangle to a wider academic audience. This will be an opportunity, emerging out of the lab, for students at various levels of their academic career to enter conversation with more experienced scholars.


Sasha Panaram

One great gift of the Lab was the pedagogical training it afforded graduate students who aspire to become professors or work in higher education and affiliated fields in other capacities. Over the course of my participation in this lab, I attended digital pedagogy workshops and participated in building the collaborative undergraduate syllabus based on the Marcus Garvey papers described by Dr. Jarvis McInnis above. To meet various disciplinary interests and get better acquainted with one another, we were divided into two smaller groups: one on “The Great Migration” and another on “Intellectual Genealogies.” In these small groups we created different units for an undergraduate literature course based on Marcus Garvey.

As part of the “Intellectual Genealogies” sub-group, I helped develop units on literary Garveyism, women and Garveyism, and the afterlives of Garveyism. One particular class session I designed was intended to teach students about sonic representations of black male political leadership and Marcus Garvey. A sonic recording of “Look Up, You Mighty Race” from the Garvey collection inspired me to create a session that attended more explicitly to the rhetorical strategies he deployed to gain attraction and favor. I envision a class session where students would read excerpts from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which features a Garvey-like character in the form of Ras-the-Destroyer and then listen to the audio recording of Garvey to better hear how Ras’s oratory skills closely align with that of Garvey. In preparation for this class session, students will also read selections from Erica Edward’s Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership. Whereas discussions concerning sound and Invisible Man generally focus on the role of jazz, reading the novel alongside the Garvey audio recording will enable new engagements with sonic representations of black political leadership. Thus the collaborative work of the lab has directly influenced my own pedagogical practice.


Charlotte Sussman and Karen Little

Perhaps it was a fitting irony that a lab about migration would be peripatetic. For a variety of reasons, the Representing Migration lab never had a permanent space. Nevertheless, holding space together in temporary locations generated some of our most powerful and engaging moments as a lab. We’re thinking here of the two mid-year events the lab held, the first a works-in-progress showcase, the second a migration “teach-in.” Although we originally conceived them as public-facing events, in the end they were more intimate affairs. Despite their relatively small size, however, both were remarkably diverse in content and participation, bringing together faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates to present research, digital innovations, and pedagogical interventions. Both events also included creative work: a poetry reading at the first, and a collaborative zine workshop in the second. Our interest in creative responses to migration also inspired a community poetry workshop, “Writing Home,” organized by lab fellow, Nicole Higgins, inspired by June Jordan’s Poetry for the People project. The event began with a group discussion of poems about home and migration and ended with at least ten people writing poetry that drew on the conversations we’d had and the poems we’d analyzed together, including the poet laureate of Carrboro, a visiting poet, undergrads, professors, a few recent graduates from Duke living in the area, and a few poets from the broader community. We were present for each other, a community of trust as well as shared interests, since it takes trust to share unfinished, personal, or newly generated work. The open structure of the lab allowed us to create such spaces, in which the small relatively scale was conducive to moving experiences.


Corina Stan

What I love about a reading group is the experience of layered presence that only thickens over time. You arrive in the room designated for these meetings – the last stop between the day’s teaching and the children’s bedtime ritual at home - sit down thankful for a plate of food, greet the person who happens to be sitting next to you that day. You nod at others as they arrive, visually sampling moods distilled in facial expressions or hasty gestures. Perhaps you scan your reading notes or reread an underlined passage from the book about to be discussed, or, in a more distracted state of mind, recall ideas from previous conversations, which still hang invisibly in the room. This is a space in which a shared repertoire of textual references, themes and questions has crystallized, where you have admired the elegance of a colleague’s ideas, tried to approximate the meanings of another’s headshaking, or developed a fascination with the deep quality of someone’s listening. As I unwind the reel of our meetings, the group morphs (as it should), those of us who are there most often benefiting from the insights and expertise of occasional participants who share their enthusiasm for a specific book.

Hospitable to anyone with an interest in “refugee narratives”, the group is an open community that has involved other scholars on campus, local artists, and invited guests. Over the course of a year, we have discussed Exit West with Mohsin Hamid, The Return with Hisham Matar, and The Hungry Tide with Amitav Ghosh; Ryan Ku, postdoctoral fellow in the department, guided a conversation on Viet Thanh-Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, and filmmaker Grace Beeler, who documents the stories of local refugees, joined our discussion of Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends. On my mental shelf, these highly acclaimed books sit right next to the collaborative project Shatila Stories, which we paired with Ari Folman’s film Waltz with Bashir and an article on over-research in the Shatila refugee camp. In a sense, all these discussions prepared us for the conversation with David Herd, co-editor, with Anna Pincus, of Refugee Tales. Modeled on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the project involves a walk along the English Eastern coast with regular stops where stories about refugees who have been in indefinite detention are shared. The idea of a pilgrimage, an improvised community in movement held together not by commonalities, but by a commitment to exchanging experiences, resonates, I realized then, with our own practice as a humanities lab. As with the pilgrimage, there is no master narrative; rather, a kaleidoscopic assemblage of keywords filtered through individual subjectivities.


Karen Little

I use this word both to capture how the lab has unfolded in response to the interests of the English department’s members and to gesture towards the recursive nature of the lab’s work as research projects unfold in surprising directions and then return us to our initial plans with fresh insight. As one example of this responsiveness, I share the trajectory of the Black Mobilities and the Archive research stream led by Dr. McInnis, which studied the Robert A. Hill Collection, an archive of papers related to his career-long study of Marcus Garvey. Because of the delay in the availability of the Marcus Garvey archive, Duke archivist John Gartrell pointed us to the Blunt Family Papers, with which to practice the skills and methods we would need to study the massive Hill archive. These limiting circumstances led a few of us to a genuine curiosity about this other archive, so we developed a project based on what we could extrapolate from the personal letters stored in it, namely the dates, addresses, and names recorded on the family’s correspondence. In consultation with Brian Norberg at Trinity Technical Services, we decided against producing a basic website with images of letters superimposed on a map as we had planned. Instead, we learned to use Palladio software developed at Stanford to map communication networks visualizing how the Blunt family communicated and moved over time. The project was experimental (another major theme of our lab experience) in part because we came in with a loose agenda and had the resources (consultants, software, other archives, everyone’s energy) to adapt and respond to the project in different stages of development.

The lab also enabled me to pursue my emerging interest in mapping and spatial analysis. I organized a series of digital humanities roundtables and presentations for fall 2018 where scholars shared the ways in which they conducted humanities research with digital tools and brought that methodology to bear in their pedagogy via scaled down research assignments. As we finally began to generate the syllabus that Dr. McInnis had initially planned to develop out of the Hill archive, I contributed a map- based assignment wherein students would use Google’s My Maps in the classroom in real time to reconstruct Marcus Garvey’s contemporary New York based on a list that Robert Hill had among his papers of key public locations and key UNIA members’ homes. What has been so refreshing for me about all of this is the opportunity the lab has given me to allow my interests to broaden organically and then to explore them by creating programming that nurtures my curiosity about spatial analysis methods and pedagogy.


Corina Stan

Review: 1. A state of mind while consciously shaking off the habits of seeing and thinking formed over the course of years spent on a project, now completed, while developing a new practice of reading broadly, looking and listening avidly, seeking conversations, sieving through world events, sources, ideas that will crystallize into the next book. 2. An ethics of deferral inspired by Nietzsche’s views on education as part of a “noble culture”: learning to see—habituating the eye to patience, not reacting at once to stimuli, gaining control of all the inhibiting, excluding instincts, postponing judgment (“What the Germans Lack”). 3. Critical evaluation (as in book review), general survey of a field (literature review) and the preparatory exercises of intellectual rigor, empathy and civility displayed by the best samples of the genre. Note: A lab is a place where these three senses of the word can become entangled.

One of the unexpected features of the Lab was its magnetism: people felt drawn to it because it was an institutional platform that enabled conversations. This is how we met J., a freshman who had volunteered in refugee camps in Italy and Greece; he and M., a former volunteer in camps in Lebanon, along with another student became my interlocutors over the course of one semester, in weekly discussions of political plays, memoirs and novels of their own choosing that they took turns reviewing. These were not easy texts or topics—Samar Yazbek’s journalistic memoir The Crossing: Three Journeys to the Shattered Heart of Syria, Robin Soans’ verbatim theater play Talking to Terrorists, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, J. T. Rogers’ Oslo were some of our readings—but the small format of the “tutorial” afforded a more spacious setting to broach such sobering topics as the nexus between migration and terrorism; dictatorship, war and journalism; the ethics of engaging with terrorists; the pernicious effects of internalized racial prejudice and the challenges of conflicting loyalties; the role and limits of diplomacy in decades-long conflicts. They required a pedagogy of caution, of “learning to see” in Nietzsche’s sense. Writing responsible, imaginative, and compelling reviews meant cultivating close reading skills, a curious mindset (especially when it came to familiarization with historical facts), and relentless rigor in conveying the complexity of the texts.

The “Migration in Review” stream also brought together graduate students who shared an interest in how the European “refugee crisis” was represented in the media, memoirs, films, novels, and other artifacts. We started with a workshop on book reviews in which we discussed their uses (for authors, publishing houses, reviewers, the community of scholars and readers) and teased out some guidelines from a variety of samples. I ended up conversing—for a whole semester—with three graduate students who had research projects on migration to Europe: a cultural anthropologist writing about athletes from Ethiopia, and two young scholars from Romance Studies focusing on immigration to Spain, and to Italy and France, respectively. In bi-monthly meetings, the students took turns selecting a relatively recent academic book they wanted to engage with, assigned a manageable excerpt for reading by all of us, and workshopped the draft of their reviews, now published on the Lab’s website. The visit of French philosopher Guillaume le Blanc was a great opportunity to discuss the making of La Fin de l’hospitalité, recently co-authored with Fabienne Brugère. Overall, the stream was an opportunity to acquire a broad view of the issues in the study of migration, but also to slow down, to read “deeply, ...with mental doors ajar” (“Daybreak”), in no haste of making arguments.


Charlotte Sussman

Penicillin was discovered when Fleming investigated the strange mold that had grown in his lab over vacation; the microwave oven was invented after Percy Spencer noticed a melted chocolate bar in his pocket. The analogy between the scientific lab and the humanities lab isn’t perfect, but in our experience, accident and serendipity play a role in both. In each case, scholars and resources are mustered and directed towards specific goals. While those goals are often accomplished, bringing new groups of people together in the energized space of the lab can also yield unexpected results.

For example, my initial stream in the lab was called “Memorializing Migration.” I was interested in the difficulty of creating lasting memorials to something that was by definition transient, and in practice often either secretive or deliberately forgotten. My initial, pedagogically conventional, plan was to read together about monuments and memory practices. Instead, two collaborative projects emerged that were both more experimental and more concrete.

In the first semester of the lab, I taught a graduate seminar on “Eighteenth- Century Oceans,” and assigned my students collaborative projects. One student, Grant Glass, spearheaded the creation of a database of memorials to migration across the Eastern seaboard. Grant had experience in digital humanities, and in his hands, I saw my traditional approach transformed into the surprisingly delicate and rigorous work of parsing the type, origin, and history of existing memorials.

This shift in outcomes brought other serendipitous alignments. The visibility of the migration memorial database led to a connection with a group at Duke’s Marine Lab in Beaufort, NC, who were putting together a proposal for a seabed memorial to the Middle Passage. Participation in this project may be the most interdisciplinary endeavor of my scholarly career, involving as it does historians, scientists, a lawyer specializing in ocean memorials, and a literary scholar. It is also the one most in debt to chance: without the lab, and the space for collaborative work it provided, I would never have been involved in Grant’s database, or found my path crossing that of scientists studying the ocean floor. Serendipity thus expanded my own intellectual purview, and also fostered new and lasting forms of scholarship.


Karen Little

Collaboration within the lab streams, both formal and informal, has been especially enriching. The Blunt Family Papers project described under keyword “Responsiveness” involved expertise from an archivist, a digital humanities expert, a professor, an undergraduate, and a graduate student (myself). In addition to being intellectually stimulating, this arrangement strengthened relationships among participants. I have continued to be involved in the undergraduate student’s academic development, including recently reviewing her proposal for her senior thesis project, which builds on her experience in the archives. Her lab experience shows in a nuanced understanding of how to use Duke’s archive of sermons delivered by black women at Duke and what it means that this is a very limited archive. I was able to draw on my knowledge of archival work from the lab to suggest ways that she could use other university archives or draw on what Duke does have to perform the analysis she hopes to do. This student’s experience working as a valued colleague with more experienced academics, seeing the nuts and bolts of how we craft research agendas and follow through on them gives her a leg up to becoming a talented scholar. Her energy and research support, in turn, have impacted us. While we have had only a few undergraduates involved with the lab and a project for the future should be figuring out better ways to recruit them, the relationships that emerge from having them involved are well worth the effort.


Sasha Panaram

As part of the Lab, in Spring 2019 I organized and moderated a panel called “Caribbean Undercurrents: Sonic, Visual, and Haptic Engagements with the Sea,” which brought to campus three faculty members – Petal Samuel, Kaneesha Parsard, and Tao Leigh Goffe. Part of the motivation for assembling such a panel directly corresponded to my own research interests in representations of the Middle Passage and other crossings enacted by African-descended people in fiction and artwork by black women. I also knew that my Lab-affiliated course “Treasure(d) Maps: Writing the American South” would cover topics such as black geographies that come into view while crossing, black womanhood, and histories of the transatlantic slave trade and as such, I wanted to introduce my students to scholars whose work implicitly and explicitly addressed the aquatic.

Since most, if not all, RMHL events are open to the public we were able to have a rich discussion with an audience composed of undergraduate students from Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, graduate students from the English, History, and Romance Studies departments, faculty represented from Duke and North Carolina Central University, and members from Duke University Press. After the event, my students commented on how the “Caribbean Undercurrents” panel enabled them to briefly inhabit a space where they learned what graduate-level research looked like and sounded like through thoughtful intellectual exchange. In this way, the Lab has not only provided instructive pedagogical moments for graduate students, but also for undergraduates interested in pursuing graduate studies in the humanities.

In my capacity as research assistant and co-host for Professor Mark Anthony Neal’s webcast, Left of Black, I arranged for our guests to be interviewed about their scholarship and mentorship practices. Earlier in the fall, Professor McInnis had organized and moderated a panel on “New Directions in Black Transnational & Diaspora Studies” that featured Professors Yomaira Figueroa, Nijah Cunningham, and Randi Gill-Sadler, whom I also helped organize and interview. These interviews in conjunction with the panel not only gave our guests the opportunity to share their work with a larger audience, but it also provided me with a chance to directly engage people whose research has been fundamental to my own research and writing.


Charlotte Sussman

Labs involve a lot of waste: mostly of time, sometimes of money, sometimes of other resources. This was hard for us to adjust to. In a profession that rewards outcomes rather than hours, we had all been trained to conserve our energies: not to ponder projects that might not reach fruition; not to expend effort on events that might be poorly attended; and certainly not to invest time in research that will not be publishable. From this perspective, our work in the lab resulted in a number of failures—films series that no one came to, classes canceled for lack of enrollment, undergraduates who severed their connection to the lab “mid-stream.” These experiences frustrated us, seeming to represent time that could have been devoted to our individual research or outcomes that “counted” more. But to reap the benefits of the lab we found we needed to come to terms with this waste. We needed to make our peace with the fact that some events would barely make a public ripple, not every fellow or participant or student would engage equally (or at all), and that some efforts would reach fruition long after we expected them to.

Once we’d shifted our way of thinking in this regard, however, we were able to appreciate the alternative outcomes of the lab. More than that, we came to find this way of working liberating. The lab generated projects beyond the conventional litany of “article, conference paper, book,” including collaborative syllabi, community engagement, and public facing websites. Even though the lab’s tenure in the Humanities Unbounded grant has ended, work on Linguistic Landscapes and “Remembering the Middle Passage” is still unfolding in a related collaborative framework at Duke: Bass Connections. The Migrancy Reading Group, returned to its original home in the English department, continues to offer an interdisciplinary community in which to reflect upon representations of human mobility. Less visibly, ideas seeded in the lab are taking root and flourishing in each of our scholarly and pedagogical practices. This intellectual growth was made possible, we think, because of the way the Representing Migration Humanities Lab allowed us the space to sit with different experiences of migration without the need for outcomes. Perhaps most importantly, it gave us new energy and perspective, allowing us to think critically about the limited number of outcomes deemed valuable in the humanities, work with colleagues and students in a collaborative, consensus-oriented structure.

Representing Migration Humanities Lab website


The authors wish to thank the numerous collaborators of the Lab, including original convener Tsitsi Jaji, librarian Arianne-Hartsell Gundy, Brian Norberg (Trinity Technical Services), post-doctoral fellow Ryan Ku, graduate students Sonia Nayak, Grant Glass, Nicole Higgins, and Catherine Lee. For their support we also thank English department Chairs Sarah Beckwith and Rob Mitchell, and the other PIs of Humanities Unbounded, Ranjana Khanna and Ed Balleisen. We are also grateful to Dr. Eliana J. Schonberg (Thompson Writing Program) for her help editing this article.


Dominika Baran is a sociocultural linguist and an Associate Professor in the English Department at Duke. Her recent book, Language in Immigrant America (Cambridge, 2017), is an interdisciplinary examination of language as a site for the contestation of the meanings of “immigrant” and “American” identities. Her current project focuses on narratives of migration and belonging among former fellow refugees, and on narratives and discourse on social media. She is also leading the Linguistic Landscapes of the Triangle project, part of the Representing Migration through Digital Humanities Bass Connections Project at Duke.

Karen Little is a PhD candidate in English at Duke University where she is enrolled in the African and African American Studies certificate program. Her dissertation examines representations of Black American property ownership in twentieth century U.S. literature. She has a BA in English (2007), an MA in Secondary Education (2009), and an MA in English (2014) from the University of Kentucky.

Jarvis C. McInnis is the Cordelia and William Laverack Family Assistant Professor of English at Duke University. He is currently completing his first book manuscript, “Afterlives of the Plantation: Aesthetics, Labor, and Diaspora in the Global Black South,” which aims to reorient the geographic contours of black transnationalism and diaspora by interrogatingthe hemispheric linkages between southern African American and Caribbean artists and intellectuals in the early twentieth century. His work appears or is forthcoming in journals and venues such as Callaloo, MELUS, Mississippi Quarterly, Public Books, The Global South, American Literature, and American Literary History.

Sasha Panaram is Assistant Professor at Fordham University. She obtained her Ph.D. in English at Duke University, along with certificates in African & African American Studies, Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, and College Teaching. Her research focuses on twentieth – and twenty-first century African American and Caribbean literature and culture. Her work has been published in The Black Scholar.

Corina Stan is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature. She is the author of The Art of Distances. Ethical Thinking in Twentieth- Century Literature (Northwestern, 2018), a book on forms of community and the quest for an ideal interpersonal distance in European literature and philosophy of the past century. Her work has also appeared in Comparative Literature Studies, MLN, English Studies, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Philosophy and Literature, Arcadia, Critical Inquiry, and others.

Charlotte Sussman is Professor of English. She is the author of Consuming Anxieties: Consumer Protest, Gender, and British Slavery, 1713-1833 (Stanford, 2000), Eighteenth-Century British Literature, 1660-1789 (Polity Press, 2011), and Peopling the World: Representing Human Mobility from Milton to Malthus (Penn Press, 2020), as well as articles in PMLA, Cultural Critique, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Representations, among other journals.