Public Humanistic Inquiry Labs - Center for the Arts and Humanities

Public Humanistic Inquiry Labs


What is a Public Humanistic Inquiry Lab (PHIL)?

It begins with a committed research team of humanistic scholars working on projects related to questions of crucial civic importance. Members of a PHIL work across disciplines to interrogate traditional narratives, forge unexpected connections, and imagine new forms of outward-facing humanistic inquiry.

A PHIL is an incubator of collaborative research located intentionally at the intersections between disciplines first within the humanities; then between the humanities, social sciences and the natural sciences; and finally, between the academy and our community partners.

A PHIL embraces multiple methodologies (qualitative/quantitative, historical/present-focused, theoretical/empirical) and diverse forms of evidence to probe contested concepts where focused and joint research can generate new knowledge.

A PHIL serves the public good by working with new partners, both in the community and at other academic institutions, to address the biggest challenges facing our community and the world today.

What does a Public Humanistic Inquiry Lab do?

Once funded, a PHIL has a life-span of three years, with only one PHIL operating at a time, and new PHILs organized every three years. Although the PHIL will be based at Colby, it may benefit from public partnerships with other local, regional, national, and perhaps even international institutions. The success of a PHIL will be measured by its tangible outcomes: e.g. public dissemination of research, new forms of civic engagement, and/or pedagogical innovation.

The leader(s) of a PHIL will oversee the membership, organization, activities, and processes of the collaborative lab. Some elements of the work will be undertaken only by the core research team, but other activities should include public-facing components. Examples of possible activities during the three-year period are listed below.


  • Sharing readings of existing scholarship, texts or other primary source materials
  • Discussing previous research of individual group members
  • Peer-reviewing project members’ works in progress
  • Setting up a shared archive of relevant materials
  • Supporting travel to conferences relevant to the topic
  • Funding research trips to archives, museums, or other sites
  • Forming a faculty (or student-faculty) reading group
  • Participating in workshops or summer institutes
  • Establishing meaningful connections and/or collaborations with groups working at other institutions on similar topics
  • Publishing research in appropriate print or digital venues
  • Creating digital or social-media platforms
  • Organizing public lectures at Colby by group members or guests invited by the group
  • Hosting public forums, symposia, or summer institutes to facilitate collaboration with artists, community leaders, and scholars
  • Making public presentations to non-academic audiences, especially regionally in New England
  • Organizing or sponsoring performances, exhibitions, or other innovative projects to engage new audiences
  • Proposing and carrying out a Humanities Theme during one academic year (encouraged)
  • Creating a multidisciplinary cluster of courses related to the project focus
  • Collaborating with student groups, research assistants, or presidential scholars to widen the scope of engagement with the topic at Colby
  • Applying for additional outside funding to expand the reach of the group (encouraged)

Forming a PHIL

First, a faculty committee — consisting of the division chair, the director of the Center for the Arts and Humanities, a representative of the Provost’s office, and two faculty members of the Humanities Division [for the initial launch the two were appointed by the Provost, but in future they will be elected] — will identify a broad topic area for multi-disciplinary investigation, and issue a call for Leadership Proposals.

For the launch of this program in 2021, the McFadden Fund committee has selected a broad theme: Medical Humanities. In future iterations, the committee will solicit ideas from Humanities division faculty.

Individuals or pairs of Colby faculty who are already engaged in humanities-oriented research within that broad topic area will submit 2-page statements of interest to lead the PHIL. Leadership of a PHIL will entail intellectual, administrative, and organizational tasks akin to chairing a large department or program, and will be compensated accordingly (see details below). For two-person teams, the work can be split equally (as co-PIs) or unequally (PI plus associate PI). Faculty who are or may be on sabbatical leave during the period of the PHIL are welcome to apply if they plan to remain active in the PHIL during its existence; the level of their commitment to the PHIL during the leave should be specified in the Leadership Proposal.

All application materials and questions should be directed to the Center Program Coordinator Megan Fossa at [email protected] 

Leadership Proposal (due by March 1)

The Leadership Proposal should:

  1. Describe a focus within the broad topic area (1 page).
  2. Identify the PI and, if there are two leaders, the associate or co-PI, and describe their qualifications to lead in this particular area. Any potential sabbatical, family, or other leaves during the three-year term should also be indicated.
  3. List potential Colby faculty members who might work within the PHIL at some point during the three years, with a one-sentence description of their work (N.B. participants may include some non-humanists).
  4. Suggest activities to be undertaken by the PHIL over the course of the project.
  5. Propose or suggest potential partners outside of Colby (academic or nonacademic).
  6. Cite anticipated public outcomes.
  7. Specify resources that may be needed.
  8. Submit short-form CV of PI(s,) highlighting relevant work.
  9. Include a letter of support from the department chair, confirming knowledge that course reductions may be necessary and explaining the department’s contingency plan to mount its curriculum.

The McFadden Fund committee will convene to select the leader(s), who will then be responsible for designing a more Comprehensive Plan for the PHIL over the next three months. The committee will provide the leader(s) with a timetable and list of resources for preparing this document, and members of the committee will meet regularly with the leader(s) to assist in fleshing out the details of the project. The PHIL leader(s) will have access to logistical and budgetary support from the Center for the Arts and Humanities, both during this planning process and throughout the duration of the project.

The McFadden Fund committee will convene to select the leader(s), who will then be responsible for designing a more Comprehensive Plan for the PHIL over the next three months. The committee will provide the leader(s) with a timetable and list of resources for preparing this document, and members of the committee will meet regularly with the leader(s) to assist in fleshing out the details of the project. The PHIL leader(s) will have access to logistical and budgetary support from the Center for the Arts and Humanities, both during this planning process and throughout the duration of the project.

Comprehensive Plan (due by May 31)

The Comprehensive Plan should:

  1. Describe PHIL research area in greater detail
  2. Include a shortened “elevator pitch” description of the project
  3. Elaborate on leadership roles and responsibilities
  4. Provide an initial 3-year schedule of stipends and/or course releases for the leaders, with description of effect on curriculum and plan for remediation.
  5. Include a roster of confirmed participants, with their areas of expertise including specific research interest in this lab and potential contributions
  6. Suggest a provisional schedule of activities for year one (with years two & three should also be sketched out)
  7. List outside or affiliated partners (if any in year one)
  8. Detail a budget for the first year of the PHIL

Logistics and Reporting

The PHIL will have a physical home, with an office and co-working space; its administrative home will be the Center for the Arts and Humanities. Center staff will provide support for the PHIL leader(s), including logistical, organizational, and accounting processes (fund dispersal, budget planning, contracts, reimbursements, etc.)

The PHIL leaders will submit two reports per year:

Brief Interim Report (Due by January 15)

  1. List of activities of the PHIL from July to December.
  2. Statement whether the PHIL will continue in the following year (it is possible that a PHIL will come to a natural end before the anticipated 3-year course)
Annual Report and Plan (Due by June 15)
  1. Description of activities of the PHIL over the course of the past year.
  2. List of any relevant publications, exhibitions, performances, courses, workshops, public interviews, etc. by PHIL participants during the past year.
  3. Plan for the upcoming year, including activities and any notable events.
  4. Roster of continuing participants, and any who have or will join.
  5. Information about collaborations with or outreach to community partners and other non-Colby individuals or entities
  6. Budget and budget narrative for the upcoming year
  7. Application for roll-over of any unspent funds, if appropriate
  8. Description of anticipated curricular enrichment during the next year, if any
  9. Plans to involve student researchers, clubs, or cohorts, if any

Funding PHIL Activities & Compensation for the Leader(s)

The primary funding for the PHIL will come from the Margaret T. McFadden Fund for Humanistic Inquiry, with the intention of supporting and facilitating ongoing and emerging faculty research, in contrast to grants which aim to incentivize pedagogical work.

The maximum annual budget for the PHIL will be $30,000, which can be used for PHIL activities, including but not restricted to: travel for PHIL members to archives, conferences, partner institutions; research materials for use by the team; honoraria for visiting speakers; expenses related to public programming; hosting symposia or conferences; catering for PHIL meetings, etc. The Provost’s office can advise the leader(s) on appropriate uses, should the need arise. Please note that Colby faculty already receive compensation for research activities, so PHIL funds should not be used for stipends for team members. 

In the three-year course of PHIL, a maximum of two course releases (not to be taken simultaneously) are available for the leader(s). If there are two co-leaders, each is entitled to a one-course reduction during the years of a PHIL. Years in which the leader(s) does not receive a course release, a stipend of $5,000 will be paid to the leader (deducted from the annual $30K PHIL budget). In the annual June report, the leader(s) can request to roll over unspent funds for a specific purpose in a subsequent year. Leaders and participants are encouraged to seek additional funding, internally or externally, for larger, more expensive activities and events.


Schedule for 2021

December 18: Call for Leadership Proposals

March 1: Deadline for Leadership Proposals

By March 15: Committee selects PHIL Leader(s)

March 15- May 31: PHIL leader(s) work with the committee to iron out the details

May 31: Deadline for Comprehensive Plan

June 5: Committee approval of Comprehensive Plan


Margaret T. McFadden Fund for Humanistic Inquiry Committee

Margaret McFadden, Provost and Dean of Faculty

Kerill O’Neill, Julian D. Taylor Professor of Classics and Director of the Center for the Arts and Humanities

Ankeney Weitz, Ellerton M. and Edith K. Jette Professor of East Asian Studies and Humanities Division Chair

Natasha Zelensky, Associate Professor of Music

Gianluca Rizzo, Paul D. and Marilyn Paganucci Associate Professor of Italian

Humanities Division Funding

Further support for faculty research can be found through the Humanities Division in the form of an annual book fund and research grants. These funds are distributed yearly, with deadlines for the book fund early in the fall and for research grants, early in the spring semester.