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Challenge Labs – a new way of doing research and teaching

  • 11 April 2023
  • By Philippa Page and Jennifer Richards
  • This guest blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Philippa Page and Jennifer Richards of Newcastle University’s Humanities Research Institute. 
  • HEPI’s recent paper on the state of the humanities in the UK today can be read here. King’s College London is hosting an event to discuss the issues in the report on the evening of Wednesday, 26 April 2023 – for details on how to reserve a free place, see here.

Permeability is the buzzword of Paul Nurse’s recent Independent Review of the UK’s Research, Development and Innovation Organisational Landscape, which describes the cultural change needed to tackle today’s most challenging problems. Professor Nurse tells us universities need more permeable ‘spaces’ to allow people, skills, and ideas to flow across the siloed structures of ‘disciplines’, ‘departments’, ‘schools’, and ‘faculties’, as well as between universities and industry. Two additional words, ‘collaboration’ and ‘inclusion’, make clear that Nurse is envisaging deep culture change.

But how do we make this happen in local as well as more structural ways?

The Humanities Research Institute at Newcastle University is testing one solution by tackling another silo: the compartmentalisation of research and teaching. Of course, research and teaching already inform each other. We routinely describe our teaching as ‘research-led’ and train our students to become independent researchers. Such teaching is inevitably discipline-specific since this is the beginning of academic training. The question is: what happens next? How does one move from disciplinary training to interdisciplinary collaborations? And since, if we are honest, we are all learning how to do this, how does one foster a culture whereby researchers – students and lecturers – work together to tackle global challenges?

Our answer has been to revise an existing Challenge Labs offer to students and academic staff. Before the pandemic, Challenge Labs were student-led summer research projects overseen by a member of academic staff. As with so much else mid-2020, this model had to be abandoned. In its place a new way of working emerged. Awarded a small amount of funding to collect information about the depth of digital knowledge in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science, the Director of the Institute, Professor Jennifer Richards, turned to recent graduates for help, making use of the University’s internship scheme. The students who signed up – from Classics, Architecture, and Computing Science – were up for the challenge of co-designing the project. What happened in August 2020 – a conversation in which the Director learned from seeing the students work together – became a trust-based model for a new Challenge Labs scheme to address Sustainable Development Goals. 

The first new Challenge Lab brought together a group of international undergraduate and postgraduate students around the pressing issue of intergenerational justice. Most often associated with climate change and the Just Transition, intergenerational justice addresses the moral relationship between generations, and our duty of care to future generations, and to the equitable distribution of natural resources. 

This Challenge Lab, and the ones that have followed, were the idea of Dr Philippa Page, now Co-Director of the Institute, Professor Bernhard Malkmus, convenor of the Anthropocene Research Group and the Institute’s Decisive Decade research theme, and Chris O’Keeffe, the Institute’s Officer. Their student co-researchers represented varying disciplinary expertise, from Zoology and Environmental Sciences to Law, International Relations, and Business. On this occasion, Professor Stephen Gardiner (Professor of Philosophy and Ben Rabinowitz Endowed Professor of the Human Dimensions of the Environment at the University of Washington) agreed to participate in the experiment. Gardiner is used to visiting higher education institutions as a keynote speaker. In the case of our Challenge Lab, however, this established academic format, along with the hierarchies it implied, seemed less suitable for the topic in question: how to achieve equity across generations to avoid colonising the future. Our student researchers conceived the event as a multidirectional encounter. Professor Gardiner, a committed advocate for intergenerational justice in the face of the climate emergency, was held to account by the voices of the future leading the event. He was not allowed by these young researchers to present a paper from the comfort of his own knowledge-base and preparation, a challenge he gladly accepted. He was put on the spot and asked to respond to a series of probing provocations developed by the group through their own multidisciplinary conversations that had begun over the summer as they collectively engaged with Gardiner’s work and considered what it meant for them personally and academically. What they learned, and the thinking their teamwork enabled is recorded in their blog entries on the Institute’s website.

We now have Challenge Labs that are:

  1. creating an audio installation based on analysis of a survey of reading habits during the pandemic;
  2. supporting the creation of an archive documenting the history of local Jewish communities hosted at Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums; and
  3. exploring potential uses of the Chinese Independent Film Archive

We’ve also just begun another new Challenge Lab that revisits the ‘Carbon’ chapter of Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (1975) through the lens of the contemporary climate emergency. Twelve staff and student co-researchers from a range of disciplines will conceptualise and co-author a contemporary iteration of the chapter through a collaborative process offered by the Japanese renga tradition.

Our goals have been refined through practice, and with our student co-researchers.

  • Our first aim is to encourage multidisciplinary, collaborative and inclusive research spaces that bring people together from any discipline around a shared challenge. The only pre-requisite is that participants are interested in the topic.
  • Secondly, we seek to demonstrate what an engaged humanities approach can contribute to the understanding of issues, such as the climate emergency and the Just Transition, often perceived to be the domain of other fields.
  • Thirdly, we aim to forge better and more nourishing connections between education and research, so often perceived as the academy’s ‘metabolic rift’, to shape future research agendas with those who will be leading them.

As discussions shift towards open science, we propose that the Challenge Labs initiative – and others like it – offer an expanded definition of research that has to the potential not just to democratise it, but to create truly permeable spaces of humility and play.

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