Humanities Labs - Center for the Arts and Humanities

Humanities Labs

Break the mold

These innovative courses promote experiential learning by incorporating observation, hands-on experimentation, and skill-building perspectives more commonly associated with the natural sciences. Courses across the humanistic disciplines can turn the Colby Museum of Art, Special Collections in Miller Library, or off-campus locations across Maine into laboratories. Humanities labs add new dimensions to the intrinsic value in studying the humanities.

Explore the 2021 Humanities Labs


A Pastoral Cookbook: Classic Recipes and New Cooking Techniques

Fall 2021 Humanities Theme/Lab Course
Four-Credit hours. Cannamela.

Explores the idea of the pastoral as a “comfort food recipe” rooted in the classical tradition, whose simple ingredients have inspired sophisticated “cooking techniques” and contemporary reinventions. Students will creatively engage with the pastoral as a material and imaginative site. Throughout the course, they will visit small local farms and co-author a pastoral cookbook in which recipes and stories from the farms are connected with literary and visual texts explored in the course.


Fall Theater Production: Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde

Fall 2021 Humanities Theme/Lab Course
Four-credit hours. Brown.

In this course, we will research and stage a production of Moisés Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. Written in 1997, this play explores Oscar Wilde’s three trials regarding his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas and other men. Kaufman created the play from extensive research that drew directly from trial transcripts, archival newspaper accounts, and books by and about Wilde. In staging this play, we will interrogate how histories of surveillance and persecution live on in contemporary legal formations and relate to struggles for LGBTQ+ rights to this day.


Freedom and Captivity: Documentary Storytelling

Fall 2021 Humanities Theme/Lab Course
Four-credit hours. Besteman.

This ‘inside out’ humanities lab course is open to Colby students and women incarcerated at the Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center. The students will collaborate on a set of documentary projects that explore the themes of ‘freedom’ and ‘captivity’ in relation to place and place-making, inside and outside of a carceral environment. The class will participate in the Monday evening Freedom and Captivity webinar series, from which we will pull questions to explore through collaborative documentary projects developed in the second class meeting each week. Students will engage in critical self-reflection of their own experience with these themes and connect them to roles and systems in which they participate. The final project will include a culminating, collective portfolio of creative work developed over the course of the semester.


Philosophical Encounters: Philosophies of Freedom and Captivity

Fall 2021 Theme Course
Four-credit hours. Moland.

Philosophers since Socrates have grappled with what it means to be free and what implications our definition of freedom has for understanding justice. Contemporary philosophers use these definitions to articulate ethical questions concerning the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States. We will explore both historical philosophies of freedom and philosophical writing about incarceration today, including the death penalty, juvenile detention, and solitary confinement. We will also learn about the lived experience of incarcerated people in Maine. Includes “philosophical encounters” with scholars and activists.



Slavery and Freedom in American Art

Fall 2021 Humanities Theme/Lab Course
Four-credit hours. Sheehan.

This humanities lab engages with the work of historical and contemporary visual artists who have pictured the enslavement and/or freedom of people of African descent in the Atlantic world. Students consider images that Americans used as arguments for or against chattel slavery; representations of Black freedom and citizenship; and African American artists’ efforts to reimagine the violence of slavery, make visible its modern afterlife, and celebrate Black resistance and agency. Students will work collaboratively with one another and experts in the field to reinterpret artworks at the Colby Museum through writing and oral presentations.


Vienna 1900: Works from a Major Private Collection

Fall 2021 Humanities Labs
Four-credit hours. Plesch.

In-depth exploration of a world-class private collection of Vienna Secession art (1898–1905), a pivotal moment in European avant-garde art. Studying and researching artworks, their individual creators (artists, architects, designers), and the historical and cultural context of Belle-Époque Vienna. Access to the collection’s archives along with interviews with curators and collectors will also address collecting in the early 21st century and crucial issues connected with provenance research and restitution of Nazi-looted art.


Humanities Labs in action

American Studies 221: Mapping Waterville

Through geographical and architectural fieldwork, students construct an online archive of Waterville’s built environment using architectural sketches, photographs, interviews, and archival research. They analyze and interpret the town’s material and spatial character, track and explain changes across time, and publish their interpretations online using innovative digital mapping technologies. Learn more here:

Art 293A: Asian Museum Workshop: Chinese Artists in Maine

A hands-on, collaborative workshop in which students become curators and create a museum exhibition at Common Street Arts, in downtown Waterville. Students learn through studio visits, artist interviews, readings, presentations, and writing assignments. They jointly select the artwork, produce a press release, write labels and a catalogue, and then install the exhibition before hosting a grand opening. To view the exhibit website they created, visit

English 413J: Shakespeare Texts and Contexts: Renaissance London and 19th Century America

Students read Shakespeare plays together, learn about their Renaissance contexts, and explore how and why Shakespeare informs American history and identity in pervasive ways. Working with materials in Colby’s Special Collections as well as primary-source databases and secondary reading, students install and introduce to the public their own library exhibition, “Shakespeare in 19th-century America.”

History 241: The History of Colby College

Through hands-on experience with archival and primary source materials in Special Collections, students gain confidence as scholars and participate in writing the College’s history. Supported by professional archivists and the course instructor, students develop independent research projects on Colby’s rich past, exploring everything from why Colby’s mascot is the “Mule” to early-nineteenth-century students’ commitment to antislavery.


Italian 397: Italian Food in Practice: A Hands-On Cultural History

Students trace the historical evolution of Italian food culture since classical times, and examine the extraordinary significance of food for Italian national identity through various historical, cross-cultural, and theoretical perspectives, drawing from history, anthropology, sociology, art, and literature. During the weekly lab they prepare classic Italian recipes. Perfetto!

Music 222: Maine’s Musical Soundscapes: Ethnography of Maine

After studying ethnographic field methods and basic filmmaking, students take field trips to document and record the musical cultures of Maine’s ethnic and racial communities, including Penobscot, Lebanese, Somali, Russian, and French-Canadian (the group under study rotates on a yearly basis). Students present their final research project in the form of a documentary film.

"We had so much room to explore things in this class than we would have had in a normal class. We were able to engage with the creative process and just jump in without knowing what we were doing or where we were going. Also, it being a 'lab' made it an invaluable experience because we were able to move away from the traditional academic setting. This class and its labs are just proof that there is more than one way to learn, and that more than just a 'traditional classroom setup' can qualify as an academic setting in which learning takes place."