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Nieman’s 80th Anniversary Reunion Weekend

Transcript: Jennifer Roberts

Mary Schmich:  A few days ago, I was doing a little research on Jennifer Roberts. I ran across a lecture that she gave several years ago on the power of patience. In it, she talks about the need for teachers to create ways for students to slow down and to look, really look so that they can see and think more clearly.

One way she did this was to assign students to go to the Museum of Fine Arts and spend three hours, three hours, looking at a 1765 painting called “Boy with a Squirrel.” That’s right. One painting, three hours, patiently watching the canvas reveal itself, detail by detail, in the way only time allows.

While reading this piece, I felt so inspired. Yes, yes, yes. This was a vital idea for journalists. The truth reveals itself only when you look hard and only when you take time. Be patient and the truth will emerge. I resolved to do this more, be patient, look harder, take time.

The real world is a test of this resolve. A few minutes after I read this lecture by Jennifer Roberts, I opened my company email. I read a message that said our corporate name had just been changed from Tronc back to the old Tribune Publishing. This was a very happy day.

Then I read down in the email. I found this sentence. It said, “Thanks for all you do to help us create meaningful journalism. Deliver it more quickly and more frequently and…” More quickly and more frequently? I knew I was not in Nieman land anymore.

One of the best things about being in Nieman land, about being back in Nieman land, is being exposed to these big ideas, and thinking about how they can apply to our work. We get to think about things like the power of patience, how it applies to what we do. Today, we get to think about another of Robert’s big ideas, about the connection of our hands to our minds.

Here’s Jennifer Roberts. She’s a Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities at Harvard. She teaches in the Department of History of Art and Architecture. Today, she’s going to do what in journalism we call a hot take.

Jennifer Roberts:  Thank you so much, Mary, for that lovely introduction. I have to admit, I don’t exactly know what a hot take is.

So, I’m not sure I’ll be able to deliver it properly. I’m so honored to be here, so thrilled to here speaking to you as journalists. I just want to say that I am in awe of your work every day. I feel like I’d rather be back there listening to you. In fact, I think there should be a reverse Nieman fellowship where faculty members like me can be embedded for a year over at the Nieman foundation. If we could arrange that, I would like to be the first recipient.

You’re looking here at the edge of a 60‑inch rotary saw blade at the Copeland Mill in Marshfield, Massachusetts. Perhaps, this is not what you would expect to see from an art historian whose job it is to spin fancy theories about fine art objects at Harvard.

There is an apparent mismatch between the machine shop and the university, the sawmill and the art museum. That apparent mismatch is the problem that I want to talk to you about this morning.

For the past few years, I’ve been working with a group of colleagues to launch what we call the Minding Making Project, where a small team of art historians who have become frustrated by the fact that we are expected to take finished objects and add ideas to them after the fact. This is what art historians are supposed to do.

Instead, we want to study objects before they are finished. As for ideas, we are interested in finding the ideas inside the very processes that bring the objects into being.

Ultimately, we want to find a way to show that, say, this saw blade here is a repository and a generator of knowledge, knowledge that’s just as rich as the books on history and philosophy that are our usual sources in the library and that the person who operates this saw blade works in a field of ideas and intelligence that deserves to be fully reflected in that history and in that library.

Our title, Minding Making, is a polemic. That’s because in equating these two terms, minding and making, we are bumping up against one of the oldest and most powerful binaries in Western culture. It’s hierarchical binary with minding privileged over making. It emerges from centuries of privileging the head over the hand in Western culture.

The basic diagram has a great many variations. Mind over matter, head over hand, theory over practice, reasoning over execution, higher education over vocational education, think tanks over workshops, board rooms over factory floors, etc.

Two things to note about my little binary diagrams here. First, the red line represents a barrier. It’s very difficult for people to speak over this line and for knowledge to pass over this line. Second, the paired terms are arranged in a vertical hierarchy. I would even go so far to say that this is a gravitational hierarchy. One term is higher, one term is lower. One term is heavy, one term is light. Everything that goes along with that gravitational concept.

This is all governed by what historian of technology, Davis Beard, calls semantic ascent, which refers to the belief that developed with Plato and on through Hegel, etc. that the escape from matter into words and numbers is a movement of elevation or somehow, transcendence.

It also has implications for our historical models. Civilizations themselves are said to progress as they move from the manipulation of matter up to the manipulation of symbols. Insidiously, this model implies that all of the intelligence in a culture evaporates up into the top of the system, leaving inert matter and mute makers at the bottom.

This is why it is hard sometimes to recognize intelligence in the realm of making, whether manual or otherwise. Why it’s hard to describe it, why it’s hard to integrate it, why it’s hard to even imagine that one would look for it there.

This ancient bias has immense power over our understanding of the world. If I offer you a series of paired professional terms, you would have little trouble plotting them on the diagram. Electrician and English professor, quilter and astronomer, truck driver and financial analyst. You could decide where you would put journalist.

One seems brainier, one seems earthier. One is higher, one is lower. This bias pervades our language. It lies behind what I’d like to call our merely‑isms, the notion that something is merely material or merely technical. It covers the entire idea of a liberal arts curriculum. This is why Harvard offers degrees in philosophy but not in plumbing.

Its structures are class system, where once income and social status is inversely proportional to one’s proximity to raw matter. It drives and reinforces hierarchies around gender and race. Ask yourself, where does the traditional women’s work sit on this diagram? On what side of the line do immigrants tend to get jobs?

What the Minding Making project is essentially trying to do in its own small way is to break this. We’re trying to take away the line between minding and making. We want to take the gravity out of the system, putting minding and making into a lateral relationship where it becomes possible to see that there is minding in making and there is making in minding as well.

We want to make it seem natural to put a sawmill operator and a neurobiologist on equal footing to show that both professions involve intellection and craft and that each can learn from the other.

How to do this? How do you get knowledge and value to flow freely between forms of activity that have been set into conflict by these traditional habits of thought? How does one bring radically different kinds of makers? How does one bring makers and thinkers together without triggering the prejudices that populate these diagrams?

This is a task that’s, of course, far too monumental for any single project. We can chip away at it. What we’ve done in this project is to try to reorganize the very typology of making, the very way we divide up making activities and name them in order to bring out common forms of intelligence that populate different kinds of making.

We’ve come up with a new basic unit of assembly, as it were. That is the maneuver. By maneuvers, what we mean are essential operation, such as reversal or turning or casting or cutting the simplest forms of the manipulation of materials.

One advantage to thinking in terms of maneuvers is that there are kind of primordial grammar of making that is shared all the way across multiple different kinds of practices. You would have something like cutting in the fine arts, the decorative arts, the industrial arts, the sciences and engineering. This is something that can be shared by all of these practices.

Moreover, these maneuvers, these terms of maneuvers, also link the artisanal and the symbolic spheres. They tend to have significant conceptual and metaphorical resonance, linking verbal and visual operation. Think about the fundamental physical basis of so many of our metaphors and idioms and turns of phrase. Something like the phrase cut to the chase is actually borrowed from film editing in the way film is cut into pieces.

We’ve held a series of experimental workshops with the project to see what might happen if we divide making up in this new way and follow a single maneuver through multiple different kinds of practices.

In the summer of 2015, we studied turning by working with the following tools ‑‑ lathes, early cinematic devices, potter’s wheels and turntables. In no book about making would you ever see these four kinds of tools together. This is completely absurd from the perspective of the way different kinds of professions are divided up.

In 2017, we brought in even more diverse range of makers and practices together for a workshop on cutting. I just want to run through a few of the people that we brought together.

Bill Schindler, a specialist in Stone Age technology who demonstrated flint knapping techniques. Lindsay Lodi, a filmmaker and Harvard graduate student who showed us a simple 16‑millimeter film editor.

Just to continue with cinema for a minute, the entire history of narrative cinema, the kinds of stories that can tell and the ways that can play with time, all of this is based on the literal practice of cutting apart pieces of film at just the right place.

We talked to Chris Walker, who is head cutter at the storied Savenor’s Market, which I’m sure many of you have visited. He demonstrated butchering techniques for us.

Jeff Lichtman, the head of a neurobiology lab at Harvard. Here is our neurobiologist. His team is building a mind‑bogglingly detailed three‑dimensional map of brain tissue by cutting specimens of mouse brain into 15‑nanometer slices and then scanning and re‑stacking them as a three‑dimensional model. Just to give you a sense of how small 50 nanometers is, a human hair is 100,000 nanometers thick.

Penley Knipe, a conservator at the Harvard Art Museums, who is an expert in the history of silhouette cutting. Last but not least, for today, Dean Copeland, the owner of the saw blade with which I began my presentation. He has been working for over 30 years, turning lumbar into logs. I’m sorry, logs into lumbar. That would be quite a feat.

None of these people had ever met each other. In fact, under the normal course of events, there would be no reason for them ever to meet each other. There is no filmmakers and flint knappers’ convention. There is no annual meeting of the butchers and neurobiologists society.

We were astonished by the commonalities that emerged between their work. Most importantly, how seeing and exploring these commonalities made their work visible as intelligence and, moreover, as intelligence that could be work and brought into the general understanding of these practices.

Just a few examples very quickly of what kind of intelligence one might be able to talk about in all of these fields of cutting.

First, perception. In every case, the skilled cutter used the tool as a perceptual device. The tool was a way of understanding the material, its structure, its weaknesses, its texture.

Many of our cutters described having something like X‑ray vision or that the act of cutting gave them that kind of vision and ability to see inside the block of opaque material that they approached in the way that the film editor sees the story by cutting the film or the neurobiologist sees the structure of brain by cutting the specimen.

Second was decisiveness. Each of our makers had honed a remarkable sensitivity to risks, which is perhaps not surprising when you’re working with a 60‑inch blade. Cutting tends to have terrible and dangerous finality about it. To make a cut is always an exercise in accountability.

One definition of cutting that we often heard from our makers was that with every cut, they were making two different things. Not just one. They were making an inside and an outside, an object and an off‑cut, a positive and a negative shape. They all had a remarkable ability to see both sides of the cut, both sides of a situation. A useful form of knowledge, indeed. This was double articulation, the third thing that we saw.

Just in conclusion, as I said, this project is ongoing. We have a lot more work to do on cutting, including further diversifying the group of activities that we’ll bring together. We’re also planning another workshop next summer on layering. We’re looking for journalists as partners and advisors and possibly also research subjects.

Think about what maneuver best describes your work. Drop us a note at Thank you.