Imagining the American Studies Collaboratory

The American Studies Collaboratory — Col(LAB) for short — is a pop up, experimental research platform, designed to foster new kinds of intellectual engagements. Here critical thinking and collaboration converge to nurture new connections and discoveries at the edges of our research expertise.

The Col(LAB) gathers faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students, as well as artists, community organizers, scientists, and media makers, for a series of theme-focused, self-reflective collaborations that partner thinkers and practitioners. The Col(LAB) seeks to bring curiosity, play, and invention back to our collective intellectual pursuits.

We proceed from the premise that speculation drives critical thinking and that intellectual life thrives across — rather than within — boundaries, and seek to expand modes of institutionalized learning:

  • by what we would like to know or do not know rather than what we already know;
  • by creating a horizontal and networked learning experience that can push against the limits of the given;
  • by seeding cross disciplinary conversations that transform the assumptions of established methods;
  • by having the agenda set by participants in real-time collaborations that are attentive to the possibilities of recalibration.

The American Studies Col(LAB) aims to be an opening on the Princeton campus where theory and practice help us attend to the messy entanglements of our social world and our individual lives. We will make room for the unexpected and for the gifts of “productive unmooring” so vital to innovative thinking.

The Col(LAB) also aims to be an opening in the sense of public facing: both in terms of engaging practitioners from outside of the University and in terms of incorporating fieldwork.

Each collaborative “module” will be devoted to a theme or issue pressing or prescient in U.S. life and cultures. We live on the edges of so many crises: financial and infrastructural collapse, environmental calamity, racial violence, socioeconomic inequality, protracted warfare, prodigious data and surveillance.

Specialized knowledge and singular frameworks prove insufficient to address such challenges. Instead, we look to cultivate human sciences and expressive arts that pay attention to what happens in the interstitial spaces between the categorical and the enclosed. To quote João Biehl, “We need a conscientious empiricism wedded to a radical analytical openness to complexity and wonder. For critical analysis, writing, and social engagement, the rewards of staying with formations that exceed us and exploring the incomplete are far from trifling.”

Each Col(LAB) module will present a set of common key terms, but will also ask its participants to share in the craft, labor, and pleasure of formulating generative questions and together devising ways to approach those questions.

Col(LAB) participants come together to be open, to unravel received formulations, and to mutually construct more complex ideas. The Col(LAB) emphasizes projects that aim to develop innovative and unexpected research questions, and to put unusual paradigms and interdisciplinary methodologies into practice.

Col(LAB)orators will discover or make new archives, will share rather than present work, will seek to access and link divergent fields of knowledge.

Effron Center for the Study of America will solicit proposals on an ongoing basis for either short term, serial, or long-term modules that are related to teaching or research goals. Priority will be given to proposals that are interdisciplinary in conception and spirit, highlight collaboration across fields, and emphasize innovations in research and pedagogical methods. Proposed themes should touch on topics that are Americanist or global Americanist.


We see particular institutional benefits to the Col(LAB) project:

  • First, we hope that the Col(LAB) will be a place within which faculty members can workshop ideas for new projects, thus supporting faculty success at all levels from assistant to full;
  • Second, we hope to encourage outward-facing research projects by involving both practitioners and researchers within and from beyond the Princeton community;
  • Third, we seek to enrich the humanities by encouraging experimental research practices borrowed from the sciences, practices that are collaborative and interdisciplinary but that also model an openness to failure.

    (Please stay tuned for further instruction for the application process, or contact the Effron Center for the Study of America directly at 609-258-6770)

The work of the Col(LAB) will be structured to support researchers in honing their projects. It will allow them to prioritize and sort through more and less useful elements of their developing project while also considering the practical implications of their work.

At the same time, we see the benefits flowing in the opposite direction: we seek to expose social scientists and scientists to the value of humanistic inquiry, to the rich hermeneutic practices and epistemological queries that lead to more complex scientific inquiry.

Thus in addition to enhancing individuals’ research, these engagements aim to encourage ideas for continued partnerships, either in teaching or in research. Emerging from these engagements could be art and science projects, edited volumes, activist agendas, team-teaching, and other forms of sustained collaborations. Col(LAB) partnerships also have the potential to enhance the University new calendar by offering a nurturing ground for developing J-Term mini courses.

We seek to bring together members of the Princeton community — from professor to practitioner to student — in a horizontal process of shared inquiry that returns researchers to the spirit of open inquiry, the very spirit that drew them to become scholars. In turn, students will be exposed to the work of practiced researchers and will engage in the process of shaping future inquiry.