Forest for the Trees / Story for the Statistics

I’ve mentioned it before: I love data. The way each datum interlocks with the next to build a meaningful whole, the way broad swathes of time are calcified in revelatory statistics, the way evocative questions and theories and ideas wrap around a backbone of data– all of it thrills the researcher in me.

As such, I’ve spent a lot of time with the course catalogs, looking at changes in courses, admission requirements, faculty. Time spent digging deep into the data, filling spreadsheets with numbers and names and nested if-then statements. I’ve found it soothing to input row after row of college life condensed into little factoids.

Data is wonderful, but it’s also skeletal. And while dealing with it is soothing, I realize now I need to find the sort of research that is frustrating too.

No matter how much you dress up data with fanciful theories, it's still not fleshed out by context.
No matter how much you dress up data with fanciful theories, it’s still not fleshed out by context.

It’s only where there’s friction that falsehood is burned away. When studying a world two centuries away, any easy analysis is wont to impose modern interpretations instead of intuiting the logic of a bygone culture.

To offer an example– it is easy to see that across forty years, the proportion of classes that are classics drops from 0.6 to 0.5 to 0.3 to 0.06 through the class years. That right there is a barebones fact.

But the meat of the story isn’t hidden in the numbers– it’s found in a student publication and the program of a mock funeral service, which detail the satirical dirge the upperclassmen recited as they brought out all their classics books to be burnt. With a bar chart one might wonder what the students thought of their changing academic fare; with broader archive-combing research one can provide the start of an answer.

The start of an answer, because one could also comb through more student publications for opinion pieces, through student diaries for candid reflections, through lecture notes for the level of detail students paid attention to.

This week we thought a lot about how we want our final project to feel. We’re still debating at the drawing board, but one harmony we’ve thought worth having is that balance between between skeletal data and more fleshed-out context. Charts and figures are fine, but they offer a black-and-white line drawing that student quotes and historical anecdotes color in.

Numerical data is not a dead end, but it’s not the be-all and end-all either. As I go forward fascinated by learning at early Amherst, I want to answer my questions by pairing statistics with snapshots of student life. I’ve spent a lot of time with my nose to the grindstone, crunching numbers and cooking them into graphs, and it’s about time I look up and see the rest of the archives still waiting for me.

2 thoughts on “Forest for the Trees / Story for the Statistics”

  1. It’s true–no matter how much data we gather and show, it still won’t be wholly useful to us if we don’t understand the context behind what we’re looking at. Like we mentioned at the Gephi workshop, we can have a million nodes and edges, but what good are they if we can’t look at them with their labels and with an understanding of where they came from? I’m eager for the four of us to put our brains together and flesh out our data!

  2. Seeing data as bare bones is something that hadn’t occurred to me but that resonates deeply. Fleshing out raw data can be challenging given the extent of material available for us to dig through. While the breadth of the archival collections can be inhibiting, it forces us to conduct pointed research in the limited time we have left so we can appropriately flesh out our data sets. I look forward to our collective lesson in DH anatomy.

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