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
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)
is Associate Professor of Communication and Director of Stanford's
Program in Science, Technology, and Society, Stanford
How did the Umeå-Stanford collaboration
FT: 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
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
How can one succeed with international research
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
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
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
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.