Generating Interdisciplinary Dialogue: A Book Discussion to Consider the Place of Data Visualization in the Classroom

July 29, 2020

Shannon Sheridan
University of Wyoming

Rick Fisher
University of Wyoming

Introduction

The University of Wyoming is an R2 land-grant institution with the distinction of being the only four-year university in the state of Wyoming. UW’s recently created positions for a Data Management Librarian in 2019 and a Director of Communication across the Curriculum (CxC) in 2018 reflect an awareness of the value of digital and visual communication of complex knowledge. Despite recognizing the need to support data visualization in both classroom and scholarly settings, however, our institution currently does not have a strong, central site for this kind of support.

In early spring 2020, the CxC Director approached the Data Management Librarian with a book discussion idea, motivated in part by his effort to challenge and extend faculty’s views about what counts as academic and disciplinary “communication,” a concept that is often quite narrowly defined in classroom settings. The Data Management Librarian, excited by the opportunity to learn more about how data visualization was perceived and used by instructors, joined as a co-facilitator.

Key Components

Alberto Cairo’s The Truthful Art was recommended by a faculty member from the English Department with expertise in technical communication and information design. We believed this book’s structure would provide an interesting discussion, as it focuses on conceptual understanding rather than only on technical aspects of data visualization. Additionally, we hoped the textbook nature of this book might encourage participants to assign parts of it in their own classes. Perhaps most importantly, we believed the book raised important theoretical questions that would provoke good discussion about the role of data visualization: What is “truth”? What is “data”? Where does data visualization fit within traditional academic and disciplinary structures?

To advertise the book group, the co-facilitators sent out a short application through a faculty and staff email list. Because the Director of Communication across the Curriculum was able to work through IT to get an extensive list of relevant staff and faculty employee emails, we chose that approach over other marketing approaches, especially given a relatively short time frame for seeking applicants. In addition to short demographic questions, the application asked potential participants three questions: their knowledge of data visualization in an academic context, their current application of data visualization in the classroom, and their goals for participating in the discussion group.

Twenty-seven people applied for the program, and we had pre-determined to limit the group to no more than eight participants. In reviewing applications, we focused on course instructors from a wide variety of disciplines, and we also sought a mix of skill levels: some had never created visualizations, while others were much more familiar with their creation and use. Since our focus was not directly on creating data visualization but rather on using data visualization as a component of teaching, learning, and communicating in classroom settings, we believed this diverse mix of participants would create fruitful dialogue.

Cairo’s book has three main sections, so we initially planned three weekly ninety-minute face-to-face lunchtime meetings. When our university closed the campus in late March due to COVID-19, we confirmed with our participants that they were still interested in meeting via Zoom. In advance of each meeting, participants read a section of the book as well as a short set of discussion questions to focus their reading. Because the book’s final section was the longest and the most diverse in content, participants chose chapters of this section that were most interesting or relevant to their classroom goals.

Points of Discussion: Connecting Data Visualization with Classroom Discussion

This section recaps some of the topics from our sessions, in an effort to illustrate how other data management librarians might engage faculty in conversations bridging data visualization, disciplinary teaching, and the faculty members’ own scholarly efforts. A full discussion guide (as well as the text for our call for applicants) is available at https://osf.io/2tg9d/.

During the first session, the group members introduced themselves, discussed the opening chapters of the book, and shared their impressions of the author’s perspective and credibility. Cairo is a journalist by trade, and we were curious how those of different disciplines in our group would react to his approach to data visualization. Discussion also turned to participants’ existing knowledge of “rules” of graphics creation (e.g., “A table should always be able to stand on its own) and how a rule-based mentality can fall short, especially in educational settings. As an example, one participant critiqued the famous “hockey stick graph” (included in the book as a positive example) for not fully explaining the shaded margin of error, while others challenged her assumptions. Finally, the group discussed how “truthful” visualizations may need to vary for different audiences and purposes.

Session II focused less on direct practical applications of teaching with data visualization and more on scientific literacy and notions of truth versus trust. This discussion encouraged participants to think more deeply about critical thinking skills that are inevitably intertwined with the use of data visualizations. The group generally agreed that various literacies are inter-related (Cairo offers “numericity,” “graphicity,” visual literacy, and data literacy, and participants suggested others as well). Another point of discussion was the role scientific literacy plays in teaching and learning data visualization. We also spent a portion of this session tackling the complexities of representing qualitative data. Faculty seemed particularly interested in thinking about how to dig deeper with students into both qualitative and quantitative data.

During Session III, the format changed slightly. Instead of having each participant read the entire section, each selected one chapter that interested them (perhaps as a new topic outside their discipline or something that they thought might be useful for a class). During the discussion, each participant gave a summary of the chapter for the group, prompting questions and comments from others. To finish out the session, the group as a whole discussed how they would use the principles in the book to influence their instruction. Participants were optimistic about incorporating data visualization in their instruction, such as a Gender Studies faculty member looking to use more data visualizations to prompt discussion in her class.

Impressions and Takeaways

At the conclusion of our third session, we sent out a feedback form for participants. We were interested in hearing how both the content and the structure of the discussion was received. Six of the eight participants responded with mostly positive comments; some offered constructive critique of the format (especially about creating small breakout groups within Zoom). Many encouraging responses explained how participants would use the book and the discussion to influence future class components. Additionally, several participants also expressed interest in the creation of a data visualization community of practice on campus.

Having co-facilitators was very helpful for this program, especially after the transition to online. It allowed one person to keep discussion flowing and on-track, while the other could take notes and provide technical support as needed. While we would have preferred to have the discussion in person, we were pleased that it seemed to work well online (especially since their feedback will help us reconsider our use of smaller breakouts).

On our campus, this group is one of the first steps towards creating a more visible community of visual practitioners who are working directly with students. It provides ideas and support for visual literacy in the classroom. For those looking to host a similar group at their own institution, such a discussion group can easily be related to strategic plans, departmental goals, and/or disciplinary standards. For example, the Data Management Librarian was pleased at finding a method of applying the ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education framework. As noted in the standards, “Scholarly work with images requires research, interpretation, analysis, and evaluation skills specific to visual materials. These abilities cannot be taken for granted and need to be taught, supported, and integrated into the curriculum.” The discussion group encouraged instructors to think more about data visualization as a viable component of their coursework. While incorporating data visualization in a course can support nearly all the standards of the ACRL competency, the specific standard supported depends on the learning objective an instructor uses. For example, a student interpreting a graphic will support Standard III, while a student creating one supports Standard VI.

This discussion group was an excellent step in bringing data visualization to the attention of instructors at the University of Wyoming. It can easily be replicated at other institutions and can function as both a way to discuss key data visualization topics and connect a wide variety of stakeholders.

Others should feel free to re-use any or all parts of the program and supporting materials. If you do so, we would love to hear about it! Please email Shannon Sheridan at ssherid3[at]uwyo[dot]edu.

References

Cairo, Alberto. The Truthful Art: Data, Charts, and Maps for Communication. New Riders, 2016.

“ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education”, American Library Association, October 27, 2011. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/visualliteracy (Accessed May 29, 2020)