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The Haiti Lab: An atypical lab aims to understand the country

For the heads of a laboratory, Laurent Dubois and Deborah Jenson have an unusual set of credentials. Yes, you can call them “doctor,” but look closely: those PhD’s are in history and French. They spend far more time combing Caribbean archives than mixing chemicals and they know more about Haitian Creole than the periodic table.

But if Jenson and Dubois aren’t your average lab directors, that’s because theirs isn’t your average lab. When the two professors open the doors to their Haiti Lab in Smith Warehouse this Fall, there won’t be a white coat or test tube in sight.

Instead, they’ll be rolling out the University’s first ever “humanities laboratory.” It’s a term with the puzzling ring of an oxymoron, but as English professor Ian Baucom, director of the Franklin Humanities Institute, describes it, the concept is simple. You take the idea of a scientific lab—a hub for teaching and research, a collaborative space for study, an intensive and singularly focused community of scholars—and apply that to a topic in the humanities.

“With a lab we can address questions that are beyond any one scholar’s area of expertise,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to create an intensive, ongoing dialogue on a [humanities] subject.”

So where does Haiti play into all this? While a small Caribbean island nation may initially seem like a strange subject with which to kick-start the humanities lab program, the ties between the Gothic Wonderland and Haiti run deep. Duke is one of only a handful of American universities to offer a language program in Haitian Creole, and the University counts among its faculty experts in Haitian history, language, literature and dance. Renowned public health expert Paul Farmer, Trinity ’82, whose pioneering work on medical services for the poor began in Haiti, sits on the University’s Board of Trustees, and this Spring in London, Julia Gaffield, a graduate student in history at Duke, discovered the only known original copy of the Haitian Declaration of Independence.

The true catalyst for the lab, however, was the catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12. With the country splayed across international news headlines, its pain and poverty on display for the entire world, Duke’s scholars of Haiti searched for a way to marshal the groundswell of concern for the country rising across campus, while also stemming media-fueled perceptions of Haiti as destitute and unfixable.

Jenson, a professor of romance studies who was then Duke’s only professor of Creole language—the mother tongue of most Haitians—scrambled to launch a new language class to give students and community members with an interest in the Haitian recovery the linguistic and cultural background necessary to make them effective ambassadors. Meanwhile, Dubois and Gaffield were also planning a conference focused on preserving Haitian archival materials and teams of Duke students and medical personnel were preparing for aid trips to the country.

“We started to have a very organic surfacing of Haitian ties and interest from the community,” Jenson says.

With the ball already rolling, the question for Jenson and Dubois, a professor of French and history who has worked extensively in the French Caribbean, was how to keep it going.

Enter Baucom and the Franklin Humanities Institute. The institute, he says, was looking to push cross-disciplinary collaboration in the humanities in an innovative way—and to motivate scholars to work more closely with students on their research.

The solution, it seemed, was to create a long-term space for research, channeling money, resources and brilliant minds into a single pressing subject for maximum results. Thus the idea of the humanities lab was born, and the FHI made plans to launch three over a three-year period. When Dubois proposed the idea of making Haiti the first subject, it seemed like a natural fit.

“We hope it will create really a think-tank-like atmosphere for those of us working on Haiti,” says Christina Mobley, a doctoral student of Dubois’ who works on 19th century Haiti. “This has the chance to really make a large community around Haiti scholarship at Duke.”

Ideally, the lab’s creators say, that community will include students and scholars of a wide variety of disciplines, from history to public health to law, all of them bringing their individual expertise to some of Haiti’s most pressing earthquake needs, all the while promoting a broader understanding of the country.

“The real hope is that we can show you can bring together in-depth humanities and cultural knowledge with projects that can have an immediate impact,” Dubois says.

The disaster, he says, highlighted the need to preserve and promote Haitian history, both within the country, where educational tools are a pressing need, and to a world that often sees Haiti—which holds the distinction of existing as a result of the modern world’s only successful slave rebellion—as corrupt and backward. A central tool in this battle to remember will be the digitization and free Internet distribution of Haitian archival documents, many of which were buried beneath crumbled concrete Jan. 12.

The lab also hopes to be heavily involved with linguistic work, translating pressing recovery documents into Creole and publishing Creole literature in English, making it—and by proxy Haitian culture—accessible to a wider audience. To that end, the University has hired a second Creole language instructor, linguist Jacques Pierre, who will begin to teach and work with the lab in the fall.

“Many people from Duke will go to Haiti for aid work [over the next few years], and we want them to be able to communicate in culture and language with the country,” he says.

As for other projects, Dubois and Jenson say they will depend largely on the students and faculty who join the lab in the coming years. They intend to hire student interns and researchers, develop new Haiti-related classes and encourage students to pursue multidisciplinary honors theses through the lab.

In this way, Baucom says, the directors of the lab hope to make Haiti more than just a flash in the pan for Duke philanthropy and research.

“The Haiti lab is a fabulous way for us to think about how to be scholars, students and citizens of the world all at once, both to contribute to historical understanding of this place and also to think about what we all can contribute to it in the future.”

Students interested in working with the Haiti Lab should contact Ian Baucom at ibaucom@duke.edu.

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