Saturday, July 31, 2004

Academic Rock Stars

Having recently finished his Visual Explanations and The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, I was thrilled to have the opportunity on Thursday to attend Edward Tufte's one-day course: Presenting Data and Information.

For those of you unfamiliar with Tufte, you owe it to yourselves to explore one (or more) of his texts. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information has been a definitive text since, well, I was in kindergarten. His self-published volumes are works of art in their own right, packed densely with rich examples of how evidence can be made perfectly self-evident (or mangled beyond hope of salvage) through design choices. Personally charismatic, his courses draw hundreds of enthusiastic attendees. If the field of analytical design could be said to have a rock star, Tufte is that figure.

With a mild embarrassment, I joked to colleagues that I was going to "bask in the warm glow of a guru." In truth, I was really enthusiastic. I'm not a data jock, but my job has a lot to do with publishing on-line information and presenting data and information to faculty, administrators, and I.T. colleagues. I admire Tufte's ideas, and probably have sounded a little gushy to those who've heard me talking about his most recent works. Hence, my embarrassment. In the world of high-powered academia, you're violating a cultural norm if you sound too impressed with anybody. You're supposed to be able to muster a clever-yet-mild criticism of nearly anybody's work.

Tufte is quite decent to spend all of his break times and periods before and after the class to answer individual questions from lines of attendees in what he cutely calls his "office hours." In truth, it's a line for book signing; while we're there, I think everybody feels the need to ask or say something smart. I know I did. When I arrived at the front of the line, I asked something like this: "Your work is so focused on the visual presentation of information. What accommodations do you think are reasonable to make for people with visual impairments?" I wasn't really driving at his take on the Americans with Disabilities Act or Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (although I got one). I just wanted to know what practices he thought were reasonable.

The professor spoke disparagingly of standards-making processes that result from legal mandates. I can relate to this. Standards-making in the computing and engineering fields are essential, even if the number of things that must be regulated is staggering. Unfortunately, standards bodies and their processes are prone to every bureaucratic and commercial mangling you can think of. Relatively speaking, it's a strange duck who actually gets enthusiastic about participating in an ISO or IEEE standards body.

Tufte is an aesthete of the highest order, and that's what appeals to most of us about him. He encourages his audiences to defend our data from those who would misprint or mishandle it--including ourselves. So it's not surprising that he dislikes anybody telling him to compromise his professional standards to meet a "lowest common denominator." Still I was somewhat taken aback to hear how far he carried his philosophy. "I can understand that people want ramps to go in and out of buildings, but on the other hand, those ramps have f***'ed up a lot of great architecture."

"Surely," I asked, "there's some price in aesthetics that we have to be willing to pay to make sure that we don't exclude a significant part of our population from participating in society." Corona in hand, he looked away with a mild look of dismay at having to tolerate such heresy. He then politely directed me to Jakob Nielsen's usability site. Fair enough.

I wasn't offended by the exchange. It was a little surprising at first, but when I thought about it a minute after walking away, I realized that a world-class visual designer really doesn't want to be concerned with anything other than world-class visual design. My question was probably directed to the wrong person. When it comes to design, I'm aware that I'm more of a pragmatist than an aesthete. (That's probably a false dichotomy, but play along with the point for now.) It's not any (academic) rock star's job to live up to any of my expectations other than the one that I should hear a good show, which is precisely what I got.

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Friday, July 30, 2004

So, What DO you do?

"What do you do?"
"I work in computing at Swarthmore College."
"Oh, you teach?"
"So, what do you do?"


I'm sure everybody has a mundane question that pops up in conversation more often than they'd like to answer it. For some, it might be "How are you?" (If you're depressed, going through a breakup, just lost your job, have been diagnosed with a serious illness.) For others, it might have to do with some aspect of their appearance. "What does that tattoo mean?"

For the contemporary "knowledge worker" with a somewhat unusual field, "what I do" can be an exhausting question to answer. People can relate to some kinds of information technology jobs from their own contexts. If I worked at a help desk or did computer training, for instance, I wouldn't be so hard to figure out.

The accurate answer is the one I've stopped giving. At least, I've stopped giving it to anybody who doesn't work in higher education:

"I head the team of people who assist faculty (and librarians and students) with their curricular and research computing problems."
[Puzzled look.]
"We run the servers that students use to pick up their online readings and assignments from their professors; we help people learn how to use statistical software, multimedia, databases, and the web for their research; we help faculty start up new computing projects; and we run a bunch of computing classrooms and labs."
"Well, okay then...." they respond, as if to follow with, "I'm going to stand over there now."

The funniest reaction I've ever gotten to my description was from one of my father's cousins, an intermittent farmer. After hearing my spiel, he translated to his wife "He's the kind of guy that could write a program that would calculate how much silage you need to hold the corn for your livestock." I didn't want to embarrass him by pointing out that you didn't need to write a program to solve a problem that required, at worst, a calculator. I instead said, "Well, I'm not really a programmer, but I could probably work up something in a spreadsheet to help you figure that out easily."

Let's be clear about this, I have a great job. Whereas many I.T. jobs push people into defined specialties, tending to an entire college curriculum gives you lots of avenues of exploration. One morning, I'm forced to brush up on digital video to assist an anthropologist. Two hours later, I'm meeting with a visual resources librarian to solve the challenges of databasing thousands of art images for teaching. After lunch, I could be talking with a colleague about problems with the equation editor in our course management system. That conversation might end with an update on how updates of the UNIX systems are going in an Engineering lab.

Unfortunately, the Coolness Quotient of my job is not easily discerned in small talk. Sometimes, I feel a little sheepish about my limitations to explain what I do. I'm convinced that a lot of people have walked away from me thinking, "That's a job?"

I've got a new response now.

"So what do you do?"
"Email and meetings."
[Flash a disarming smirk.]

It usually gets a chuckle in response. The scary part is, it's not that much of a reductionism.

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