How and why do we teach with data visualizations – and how and why do we teach students to graphically represent data? On March 6, 2018, four faculty gathered at the McGraw Center to address these questions.
Miguel Centeno, Musgrave Professor of Sociology and Professor of Sociology and International Affairs, argued that the visualization of data can help students understand complex and adaptive processes – like globalization and its histories – succinctly; as he demonstrated, the graphical representation of global air traffic invites students to think about the North/South divide, global networks of trade, disparities in global wealth, and the centrality of the United States.
Similarly, Jeffrey Himpele, Lecturer in Anthropology and Director of the Ethnographic Data Visualization Lab, asserted that data visualization allows us to make complexity intelligible; visually representing large amounts of tabular data allows meaningful patterns to emerge. It also invites students to ask new questions: graphing the age at which girls in Philadelphia reach puberty over a span of decades, for instance, sparks questions about what isn’t visible in such a visualization — or even available in data itself.
Deepening the panel’s theme, Elizabeth Roberto, Lecturer in Sociology, argued that there is a place for data visualization throughout the research process; visualization allows us to more deeply explore as well as to represent our data. She teaches her students to build visualizations iteratively, identifying a purpose, selecting a form – Roberto emphasized that any one graphic is only one way of representing data – taking into account their audience, and adhering to the principle of simplicity.
Professor of Geosciences Frederik Simons highlighted the potential of data visualization to clarify and refine our thinking. As he demonstrated, we may “talk to ourselves” and teach our students through simple visualizations; even a quick sketch or simple drawing may allow us and our students to generate new insights and sharper solutions.