Yale’s Cultural Studies Laboratory


Last month at the annual conference of the French Association of American Studies I met people from the Yale’s Cultural Studies Laboratory. Its official title is the Working Group on Globalization and Culture. It is run by Michael Denning. The lab is modeled after the now defunct Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, where Denning did a master’s degree. As a collaboration between senior faculty and graduate students, its pedagogy and research methodology are quite different from what I have encountered at Harvard or elsewhere in my education. During one of the conference sessions and in casual conversations participants were eager to share what they were doing and how they were doing it. Here is my reconstruction of the how.

The lab has about nine graduate student members and one consistent faculty member, Denning, though other faculty participate from year-to-year. The lab is by application only and its members meet together once a week, sometimes in small groups and sometimes as a whole, throughout the academic year. It is multi-disciplinary and the members I met included doctoral candidates in American Studies, literature, political philosophy, and history. In the past there have been law students as well.

At the beginning of the academic year the lab collectively selects a common research question. This process takes about six weeks and anyone can suggest a topic. Apparently, Denning stays out of the selection of the topic unless the graduate students can’t reach agreement.

Once the topic is selected lab members create a reading list which they then move through in their small groups. Around the same time they also select an empirical case study that relates to the group’s overall research question. This provides the group with opportunties to try out different theoretical discourses on varying empirical case studies in pursuit of answers to a common research question.

Denning then leverages a speaking engagement he gets to conference into an opportunity for the group to collectively present their work. At the French Association of American Studies the group offered it research findings in two panels of five students each. The presentations were tailored to build off each other, moving from the more abstract to the more concrete. Denning presented at one of them as a member of the group and then contributed to the conversation that followed the presentation. The panels were moderated by a graduate student member of the group.

As both a pedagogy and a methodology this lab approach rubs against the individualization of expertise that is rampant in the humanities. It challenges the idea individual should be responsible for a multi-disciplinarily approach. Instead, each member brings their own disciplinary perspective and shares it with the group. It also fosters a sense of collegiality and collaboration that it is rare in the academy. Overall, it is a way of generating knowledge that I wish was shared more widely. I think it could be deployed, in a modified form, in a community setting or amongst clergy as well. 

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