The Caroline Werner Gannett Project 2007-08
The Caroline Werner Gannett Project (2006—present)
Who We Are

Often we are asked “What is the Gannett Project?”

Photo credit Mike Saffran

Caroline Werner Gannett—our namesake

Rochester-born social and civic leader, Caroline Werner Gannett (1894-1979) served on many boards and within organizations, including the War Council of New York during WW II (working in centers caring for children of war plant employees), and the Lights-on-for-the-Blind Drive of the Rochester Eye Bank. After her husband, Frank E. Gannett, purchased the ROCHESTER TIMES-UNION, she served as board member of the Gannett Company, as well as Vice-President and Director of the Gannett Foundation. A lifelong political activist, she was appointed to the New York Board of Regents and served from 1947-63.

The Caroline Werner Gannett Project, 2006

Often we are asked “What is the Gannett Project?” In March 2006, Dr. Mary Lynn Broe was appointed Caroline Werner Gannett Professor of Humanities at RIT and given the Institute-level charge of “exploring the intersections of the humanities with the social sciences, sciences and technology to determine how they might relate more closely to each other in the future.” She was asked to do this so that RIT might gain a deeper understanding of the contexts in which humanities, scientific and technological change takes place. Another goal was to promote better understanding of the increasingly interdisciplinary character of knowledge, and the creative modes of cooperation possible among traditional disciplines in the new millennium.

Previously, Broe had held the Louise Rosenfield Noun endowed chair at Grinnell College (1986-2001), developing the interdisciplinary Noun Program, and introducing gender and women’s studies to the Midwestern liberal arts college.

To begin such conversations both within RIT and nationally, Mary Lynn Broe initiated The Caroline Werner Gannett Project. From across the Institute and the wider community, she assembled an Advisory Board of lively colleagues and professionals. The Working Group met biweekly all year, collaborating to identify and invite to campus highly visible speakers, and to shape related courses, workshops, colloquia and other events.

Brief History
Our First Year, 2006-07

In 2006-07, the Gannett Project hosted a high-profile lecture series entitled “Consilience: The Cognitive Revolution”—how ideas from evolution, artificial intelligence and neuroscience are changing our conception of what it means to be human. More specifically, starting in the 1960’s, a growing number of cross-disciplinary thinkers explored a bold new paradigm which located the social sciences and psychology within the larger network of scientific knowledge. This alternative framework drew heavily on evolutionary thinking. The lectures in the first Gannett series ranged widely, including topics as diverse as family dynamics, the psychological differences between the sexes, the origins of the aesthetic sense, and the adaptive functions of jealousy and depression. (See In the words of first-year Gannett Board member and COS Astrophysicist, David Merritt, “As Dobzhansky once said, ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.’ And that applies equally to the human mind. The advances that have been made in evolutionary psychology are nothing short of revolutionary.”.

Beginning with Dr. Eugenie Scott, a longtime activist in the creationism/evolution controversy, through capstone speaker, Dr. Daniel Dennett, each of the seven speakers was known for his or her research on the cusp of several different disciplines. Their talks suggested exciting new modes of cooperation among the sciences, technologies and the humanities, engendering a broader understanding about the role of evolution in unifying the branches of knowledge.

In this first year, The Caroline Werner Gannett Project also sponsored several new courses (see including “Truth & Consequences: Studies in Disciplinary Evidence,” a look at how fifteen faculty and area professionals from various disciplines identify, gather, preserve and pass on “evidence.” In another innovative co-directed course, ”Cognitive Science: Interdisciplinary Negotiations,” students lunched with and interviewed the various speakers in the year-long Gannett series. They conducted discussions with and videotaped the Gannett speakers’ various responses to the presence of Darwinian science in our everyday lives.

Our Second Year, 2007-08

After a successful first year, reflected in growing attendance at the talks and in a new “buzz” about our prominent speakers, Professor Broe and the Advisory Board continued their work of imagining new horizons for The Gannett Project. Again, we taped most of our speakers, posting their captioned talks on the Gannett website. Thanks to Gannett negotiations, WXXI’s Bob Smith {“1370 Connection”) has interviewed our speakers for two years, linking their lively and informative exchanges to our website.

A larger Advisory Board was tailored into a small Working Group with a second tier of “Consultants,” including area professionals, RIT faculty and deans, students and alums. Eight members of the small group met biweekly to select the topic and speakers—Visionaries in Motion—“21st Century thinkers and scholars in the arts, sciences and technology who ask the unasked questions.” The Working Group modeled a very synergistic collective process in planning the second year. Drawn from the community and from different disciplines throughout the Institute, the Working Group began over a year in advance to identify, research, and discuss each speaker, looking for individuals and groups who would challenge us in areas of particular interest to RIT. When asked, “How do you choose speakers?” we respond that the process is a long and thorough one. It involves much back-and-forth discussion among ourselves and directly with the speaker under consideration. We seldom go through agencies. We look for artists, scholars and thinkers who defy disciplinary boundaries, blend theories, court wildness and produce path-breaking original work.

The year began with PEN-award winning author, theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Janna Levin, who talked on “Minds, Machines and the Cosmos: Is the Universe Infinite?”. She spoke to a general audience, plus chaired a seminar for a small high-profile group of astrophysicists. The second year also included MacArthur award winning artistic director and choreographer, Elizabeth Streb, whose SLAM dancers (Streb Lab for Action Mechanics) blend mathematical principles, physics, aesthetics and kinesics in their stunning performances.

Our related activities have grown to include a faculty and staff colloquium on the career of race and rights professor Patricia J. Williams (Rohr Law Professor at Columbia University and author of The Nation’s “Diary of a Mad Law Professor”) New media critic Ze Frank offered a seminar on the “Nature of Audience on the Digital Terrain.” Our final speaker (May 5, 2008), novelist, playwright and syndicated cartoonist, Lynda Barry, offered a dynamic 3-hour workshop in conjunction with her talk, “Writing the Unthinkable,” drawn from her newly released book, What It Is.

2008-09, and Looking Toward the Future

In brief, our public presence for bringing world-class creative speakers is growing. With each new speaker, we have developed a significant following on the RIT campus and in the Rochester community. We were able to build on such momentum for the 2008-09 series, “Visionaries in Motion II: the Human Imprint.” Over this past year, Gannett speakers really did “stretch the fragile human membrane across disciplinary borders, court wildness, reframe problems and take risks to change worlds.” The year opened with legendary futurist, inventor and artificial intelligence expert, Ray Kurzweil who drew a crowd of over 1400 in Gordon Field House for his talk, “The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.” President Destler introduced the 2008-09 Gannett Project and Mr. Kurzweil. RIT and U of R faculty participated in a “Kurzweilfest” Colloquium two days before his arrival.

Throughout this past year, new workshops, gallery talks, films and other events complemented each of our speakers. New this past year was an innovative 3-quarter course (“Visionaries in Motion II”)where students from various disciplines met, lunched with and were videotaped interviewing our guests. The course extended over all three quarters.

Africadian poet George Elliott Clarke teamed up with NYC jazz pianist, D.D. Jackson, for a dual session on “BeBopera” that included musical presentations from jazz chamber operas by the RIT singers. Environmental activist, Bill McKibben, whose Deep Economy was chosen as the freshman summer reading, spoke in November on “Uniting Global and Local” and held a special Q&A session for the RIT freshmen. Canadian photographer of landscapes transformed by industry, Edward Burtynsky, offered a powerful presentation on “The Landscape of Oil” early in 2009. Burtynsky’s talk was complemented by an exhibition and gallery talk by RIT/MFA student Chris Toalson.

At the beginning of spring quarter, Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair spoke on “The Modern Maker Guide to Pocket Creation” from their years as founder/editors of bOINGbOING, Make and Craft magazines. Their hands-on workshop enticed many RIT students and faculty to collaborate in building imaginative projects from The Makers’ Shed.

Illustrator, designer and author Maira Kalman offered a lively session on “Just Looking” followed by an exhibition of her selected gouaches at The Memorial Art Gallery.

Dr. Leroy Hood, molecular biotechnologist and founder of the Institute for Systems Biology, held the audience spellbound with his presentation on “Systems Biology and Systems Medicine” in April. Then in May, Matthew Coolidge, Program Director for The Center for Land Use Interpretation, explored how his CLUI group brings a multidisciplinary understanding to how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized and perceived.

2009-10 promises to be another vibrant year of “Visionaries in Motion III,” opening with the producer and co-founder of Louverture Films, Joslyn Barnes, discussing “Imagination and the Cinema of Resistance” and international graphic designer and artist, Stefan Sagmeister, talking about “Design and Happiness.” From Bali, he has issued a design challenge this fall for all RIT students!

All previous years’ events—talks, interviews and other activities—are available on this site under Past Years.

As always, Gannett events are free and open to the public.
Visionaries in Motion