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  • Humanities 11a Frameworks: The Art of Looking
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Robin Kelsey and Jennifer L. Roberts

M(W)F noon-1pm
Sackler Lecture Hall and other locations TBD

When taken for a letter grade, this course meets the General Education requirement for Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding.

The Art of Looking is one of three new Humanities Frameworks courses designed to provide innovative introductions to works and ways of thinking of fundamental importance to the humanities today. The Art of Looking aims to give students a solid grounding in the techniques of humanistic research and analysis, as well as an understanding of how humanistic thinking can transform civic participation, social experience, and everyday life. It will foster skills in analytic thinking, verbal and visual communication, and creative problem solving that will prepare students to be more effective students, citizens, and professionals across a broad spectrum of fields. 

The Art of Looking: Technologies of Visual Experience

We are immersed today in a world of superabundant visual information, and we are avid users of visual technologies such as smartphones and digital cameras. Given the casual fluency of our visual lives, few of us recognize how (and how thoroughly) our habits, experiences, and ways of thinking have been conditioned by visual interfaces that have long and complex world histories. To get at these histories, and what they tell us about our habits of looking, about how we might look differently, and about how our looking frames our understanding of the world, this course is organized around a series of visual technologies, broadly conceived. In each weekly unit of the course, students will engage in an intensive, multifaceted study of a single visual technology (cinema, television, the graph, etc.). 

Our use of the term "visual technology" extends beyond its typical wires-and-switches connotation to embrace any innovation that has extended, structured, or transformed visual perception and communication. Thus the technologies we will examine in the course include not only "machines" like television, but also formats like oil painting, processes like bronze casting, systems like color matching, and materials like mahogany. Each technology addresses multiple themes and problems in the humanities. The study of the world map, with which we will begin, touches on geometry, geopolitics, and the histories of printing, navigation, and religion. Porcelain (yes, also a "technology") engages aesthetics, gender, foodways, labor history, chemistry, espionage, and global exchange and translation. 

We will learn how technologies such as these have made looking a means of acquiring or distributing knowledge, of fashioning a personal or collective identity, of exercising or resisting power, or of experiencing aesthetic pleasure. We are as interested in the losses that each technology entails as we are in the gains. And we are interested in how certain technologies have served to define our most basic expectations about visual experience. When we go to museums, we expect to see paintings on the wall. But why paintings? Where did the easel painting come from? What visual problems or needs did it address? To what desires or habits did it give rise? These are the kinds of questions that interest us.

General Principles of the Course
A Pre-disciplinary approach 

We do not assume any previous experience in the study or practice of the visual arts, nor do we assume that students taking the class will go on to pursue concentrations or careers in these areas. This course will wrestle with fundamental problems and histories of visual thinking that transcend any particular discipline or department and span the humanities and the sciences. Students taking the class will be prepared to think more nimbly and incisively not only in the history and practice of art, design, and architecture, but also in fields such as history, anthropology, literature, philosophy, biology, economics, the history of science, and many other disciplines in which visual thinking plays a vital role. 

Mastery and Masterpieces

Much of this course will be devoted to the kind of dense, complex, challenging, and transformative visual artifacts that are often denominated as "masterpieces." We will make extensive use of Harvard's extraordinary object collections, from paintings and bronzes in the Art Museum to early cinematic wonders in the Harvard Film Archive. We will approach these objects as primary sources of research and understanding, and through observation-driven inquiry we will foster visual, material, and spatial analytic skills and practices of critical visual attention.

But we will also aim to understand the mastery behind these masterpieces: how they were produced and what kind of conditions made them possible. We will explore the tools and techniques as well as the objects of visual life, treating the richest ideas and innovations in the history of visual experience as "great works" in themselves.

Visual Agency

A basic presupposition of the course, embedded in the very notion of a visual artifact or apparatus as a "technology," is that the visual arts and visual culture play an active and constitutive, rather than passive and illustrational, role in society. Paintings, graphs, and movies make history, they do not merely picture it or decorate it. A major goal of this course is to teach students how to recognize and articulate the cultural and political agency of the visual realm.

Visuality as Materiality 

We will emphasize throughout that visual experience is inseparable from spatial and material experience. Despite the apparent immateriality of images and illusions, all visual forms depend upon particular material structures and conditions. We will also explore the interface between visible and invisible phenomena, inviting the students to contemplate the ways in which translating non-visual information into visual form has particular effects on its efficacy and intelligibility.

Course Structure: Lecture, Looking, Lab

The course has an unusual structure. Each week after shopping period, we will approach a particular technology through a series of three fifty-minute sessions: 

The Monday session will consist of a lecture in Sackler Lecture Hall that will address the history of the technology in question, bringing key issues into focus through attention to particular case studies.

In the midweek session, to be scheduled by each student individually using the sectioning tool at the beginning of the term, students will break into smaller sections with a TF to deepen their understanding of the technology through discussion and looking exercises with objects in Harvard's collections. In the presence of these objects, the students will test both their understanding of the arguments presented in the lectures and readings and the robustness of those arguments themselves.

In the Friday session, students will meet in larger, multi-section groups to engage in a hands-on activity designed to further refine their comprehension of the technology in question and its historical and contemporary implications. Professors Kelsey and Roberts will circulate through the class at this time. Friday labs will often be devoted to developing and discussing ideas for the weekly assignments.

The weekly sequence of lecture, looking, and lab (or the "3L" structure) aims to develop engaged learning and embodied knowledge.

An example might clarify the logic of this structure. During the week devoted to the technology of the graph, the Monday session will feature a lecture on the emergence of graphs as a means of representing, refining, and interpreting data in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The lecture will suggest the ways in which graph had roots not only in science, but also in the practice of freehand drawing and in notions of aesthetic judgment. At the midweek session, students in small groups will examine noteworthy historical examples of graphic display, such as Sir John Herschel's elliptical orbits of double stars or John Snow's map of cholera incidence in a London neighborhood, with an eye toward deepening their understanding of how the technology of the graph has been shaped by, and has in turn shaped, assumptions about natural order, causation, and empirical inference. At the Friday session, students will again meet in small groups, but this time to try their hand at graphically representing a data set and comparing their strategies of visualization with those of their peers.

Assignments and grading

30% active participation in looking and lab sessions 
40% weekly assignments 
30% final project

There will be no exams in this course. That said, students will nevertheless be assessed on their comprehensive understanding of all of the course materials including lectures and readings. Successful performance in discussions and labs, (30% of the grade) weekly assignments (40%) , and the final project (30%) will all depend upon attention to and comprehension of lectures and readings.


As noted above, attendance (and close attention) at lectures is essential for success in the class. As a mnemonic aid for students as they review lectures and integrate lecture material into their assignments, the powerpoint presentation from each lecture, with captions, will be posted afterward on the course website.


All required readings are assembled in the Hum11a coursepack, available online from University Readers. Students may purchase the reader in paper or digital formats, or both. Copies of the coursepack are also on reserve in Lamont and the Fine Arts Library. 

You are not expected to have studied each week's readings prior to the lectures, but you must be prepared to discuss them in advance of looking sessions and labs. Instructors will provide weekly guidelines for the readings, helping students focus on key themes and problems. 

Weekly Assignments

Students will submit work on a weekly basis throughout the semester. The assignments will be challenging but (we hope) enjoyable. They will not take the form of standard papers or reviews, but will instead require creative thinking about a given problem or task. On one week students will be asked to design and make a thaumatrope (a spinning contraption that was a precursor to the cinema), on another they will write a story from the perspective of a piece of furniture; on another they will be asked to design a photographic filter for a smartphone that will make photos look like daguerreotypes.  

Final Project

In addition to these weekly assignments, each student will be responsible for a web-based final project related to a visual technology of his or her choice (the possibilities are endless). The goal of the final project is to teach students how to formulate questions and conduct research in the humanities; therefore, the project should be understood as an opening into the major themes and questions surrounding the technology rather than a final statement about its history or significance. Over the course of the term, several of the lab sessions will be devoted to helping students prepare their final projects. The projects will have an afterlife on the course web site, which will become a dynamic repository of approaches to the history of technologies related to looking. In the final project, the partial and inevitably arbitrary series of technologies covered by the official course syllabus will give way to lines of inquiry in many new directions. Students thus will be participating not only in a momentary intellectual community constituted during the semester but also in an ongoing venture to enhance our understanding of looking as a culturally and historically informed activity.



Requests for extensions must be submitted in writing to your TF, who will then forward them to Professor Roberts and Professor Kelsey. Extensions will generally be granted only in the case of illness or emergency. Note that extensions will NOT be granted for time management difficulties (i.e., you cannot get an extension simply because you have two other papers due on the same day). We are serious about this regulation and consider time management to be an integral part of your performance in this course.

Late assignments:

will be automatically deducted a half-grade per day (weekends do count).


Smart phones must be extinguished and stowed during lectures, and students are expected to use laptops for notetaking only. Laptop screens should be fully occupied by the word processing window, with the wireless function turned off and no other windows or applications open. TFs will be sitting and circulating throughout the lecture hall during each lecture. If they observe students consulting extracurricular applications, laptop privileges will be revoked for the entire class and notetaking will happen by hand from then on.

No laptops may be used during Looking sessions. The policy for labs is identical to the policy for lectures above.

College policies regarding academic dishonesty will be strictly enforced.

Collaboration Policy

Discussion and the exchange of ideas are essential to academic work in the humanities. For assignments in this course, you will be frequently consulting with your peers and instructors during looking and lab sessions. However, you should ensure that the written work you submit for evaluation is the result of your own writing and that it reflects your own approach to the topic. You must also adhere to standard citation practices in the humanities and properly cite any books, articles, websites, lectures, etc. that have helped you with your work. If you received any help with your writing (feedback on drafts, etc), you must also acknowledge this assistance.


Any student needing academic adjustments or accommodations is requested to present their letter from the Accessible Education Office (AEO) and speak with Professor Roberts by the end of the second week of the fall term. Failure to do so may result in the inability to respond in a timely manner. All discussions will remain confidential, although the AEO may be consulted to discuss appropriate implementation.

Course Schedule


After the introductory lecture, we will immediately think BIG and consider the visual technology of the world map. The projection of a three-dimensional sphere onto a two dimensional graphic surface poses geometric problems, the solution of which entails issues of selective distortion, navigational reliability, and geopolitical power. Through a consideration of historical examples, we will understand how different maps were devised to respond to different needs, conditions, and purposes.

Sept. 4 (W) Introductory Lecture
Sept. 6 (F)  Lecture: the World Map


The Lens and the Eye

A preliminary consideration of the basic apparatus of looking, with special attention given to the changing historical understanding of how vision works, and of how its quirks and limitations might be accommodated or overcome through the use of technology. Because it comes before sectioning, this week will provide two lectures, one featuring the lens, and the other the eye.

Sept. 9 (M)   Lecture: the Lens
Sept. 11 (W) Lecture: the Eye
Sept. 13 (F)  Students schedule one-on-one meetings with TFs


The Daguerreotype

Our first week with the "3L" structure will consider the Daguerreotype, the first photographic process unveiled to the public, which made its debut in 1839. During the week, we will trace the Daguerreotype's strange historical course from instant sensation to technological dead end, and recently to artistic revival. Our "looking" session will be devoted to a display of Daguerreotypes from the collections of the Harvard Art Museum.

Sept. 16 (M)  Lecture
Midweek Session:  Looking: Daguerreotypes in the Harvard Art Museum
Sept. 20 (F)   Lab: plan a Daguerreotype filter for a smartphone


Color Matching

If you design the prototype for a lime green couch in Brooklyn, how would you communicate the precise color you want to your manufacturer in Shenzhen? Color matching, which demands an objective basis for calibrating subjective experience, is an old and knotty problem that has led to the development of complex technologies. During this week we will examine these technologies, paying special attention to the ways in which they use spatial and geometric systems to establish robust and communicable relationships – a kind of cartography – among colors.

Sept. 23 (M) Lecture
Midweek session: Looking: Pantone
Sept. 27 (F)  Lab: Color communication exercise (color speed-dating) 


The Graph 

This week will concern the graphic display of quantitative information. We will consider the ways in which graphs have served as matrices for inquiry, generating as well as communicating knowledge. Special attention will be given to historical entwinement of graphs and the art of freehand drawing, as well as to the emergence of standards for graphic intelligence.

Sept. 30 (M) Lecture
Midweek session: Looking: graphs and visual communication (regular section rooms)
Oct. 4 (F) Lab: translating data into graphic formats



Mahogany is a visual technology? Yes! The intricately carved and reflective surfaces of mahogany furniture played crucial roles in eighteenth and nineteenth-century visual culture, especially in England and the United States. During this week, our sessions will focus on how the visual experiences of mahogany were embedded in a complex array of material and social relations, from the woody properties of certain tropical trees to the vile intricacies of the slave trade.

Oct. 7 (M) Lecture
Midweek session: FIELD TRIP: Mahogany furniture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boson
Oct. 11 (F) Lab: mahogany "it-narratives"


Wood Engraving

Technical advances in wood engraving in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries made it relatively easy to print pictures alongside text, a development that had great implications for the use of illustrations in books and periodicals. Special attention will be paid to the work of the foremost innovator of the time, Thomas Bewick, whose brilliant romantic vignette featuring an engraved thumbprint is shown in a detail above.

Midweek session: Looking: Houghton Library, wood engravings and blocks
Oct. 18 (F) Lecture: wood engraving


Oil on Canvas

The oil painting on stretched canvas is the most exalted medium in the Western tradition, but people rarely think about it as a technology. For this week, we will "look under the hood" of the easel painting to consider its material origins in the canvas sails of Venetian boats, its early embrace as a relatively cheap substitute for more expensive technologies, such as the tapestry, and its usefulness as a means of making works of art portable and easily exchanged in new commercial markets.

Oct. 21 (M) Lecture
Midweek session: Looking: paintings at the Harvard Art Museum
Oct. 25 (F) Lab: Final Project Introduction (Sackler auditorium)


Bronze Casting

Bronze casting is an ancient technology practiced in multiple continents and for a wide array of purposes. This week we will focus particularly on bronze casting in the Italian renaissance and how we might understand the material translations of casting, the relationships of model and mold to final object, and the historical slipping of bronze, as if molten, back and forth from the making of bells, to the making of cannons, to the making of sculptures. These discussions will offer a special opportunity to consider the relationship of the visual to the auditory.

Oct. 28 (M) Lecture
Midweek session: Looking: Bronze figures at the Harvard Art Museums
Nov. 1 (F) Lab: TBD


Movies have become such an unremarkable staple of visual culture and the entertainment industry that it is easy to forget their strange origins, which wove together scientific interest in recording moving bodies, the popularity of lantern slide educational programs, and the entertaining spectacles of theatrical magic. Thanks to the extraordinary collection of the Harvard Film Archive, this week we will be able to view exemplary works from early cinema and discuss afresh the historical meanings of this visual technology.

Nov. 4 (M) Lecture
Midweek Session: LAB: design a thaumatrope
Nov. 8 (F) Looking: cinema screening at the Harvard Film Archive




Porcelain may seem dainty and benign, but few visual technologies have given rise to so much international competition, secrecy, and espionage. The emergence of the technical knowledge in making porcelain occurred on the cusp between alchemy and modern science, and porcelain was treated as much as a natural wonder as a technological achievement. In the sixteenth century, porcelain from China flooded European markets, and eventually led to frantic efforts to replicate the mysterious process by which clay could be transmuted into a substance of such elegant refinement. During this week, we will consider the curious global history of porcelain and the historical meanings of its rare visual qualities.

Nov. 11 (M) Lecture
Midweek session: Looking: Ming and Meissen porcelain at the Harvard Art Museums
Nov. 15 (F) Lab: FIELD TRIP to the Harvard Ceramic Studio - kiln tour


The Reliquary

With the reliquary, our inquiry into the art of looking takes a religious turn. The housing of relics has historically entailed complex issues of visibility and invisibility, parts and wholes, objects and rituals, resemblance and agency. 

Nov. 18 (M) Lecture
Midweek session: Looking: TBD 
Nov. 22 (F) Lab: TBD




On the Monday before Thanksgiving, what could be better than discussing the most domestically entrenched and voraciously consumed visual technology of the twentieth century?

Nov. 25 (M) Lecture


Plate Glass 


In this final and truncated week of the term, we will explore the historical meanings of plate glass, a technology that played a key role in the modernization of urban spaces. Our discussions will bring our thinking about looking to the scale of architecture and urbanism, enabling us to focus on such issues as reflectivity and transparency, the interpenetration of exterior and interior, and the commercial street economy of display.

Dec. 2 (M) Lecture
Midweek session: Looking: TBD

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