Edward Tufte’s One-Day Course: A Brief Review from a Law Librarian

Last week, on January 27th, I attended Edward Tufte’s Presenting Data and Information: A One-Day Course, in Austin, Texas. The workshop had long been on my radar after recommendations from a few other law librarian colleagues. The workshop website usually updates with new course locations and dates every few months, so when I saw an upcoming option within driving distance, I jumped at the opportunity.

In short, the workshop has a strong focus on upping your data visualization game. You can read more about the workshop here. As the manager of our law school’s digital repository, I have laid eyes on all kinds of scholarship: student work, faculty work, and work from as early 1930. I also get updates from our faculty about their recent achievements (everything from interviews to invited projects, community work, and more). Over the years, I have noticed a shift in legal scholarship: it’s becoming more interdisciplinary and therefore has included more scientific or statistical data. I have also noticed an increase in faculty requests for statisticians or data support from main campus and an increased desire for data visualizations that are more upscale than a Microsoft Word smart chart. Thus, I opted to spend an afternoon with Edward Tufte (and about 300 other attendees).

I admit, the course and the material was [a lot] over my head. As an attendee, I received a copy of each of his four books that are chock-full of examples and graphical imagery. Tufte’s actual presentation also detailed one beautiful example after another. But it took me a minute to really wrap my head around many of the examples and to understand the story each image intended to tell. And that was exactly the point (or one of them). With that, below are a few of my main takeaways from the course:

  1. Data and respective visualizations do not need to be dumbed down. A reader’s inability to process data is not a product of too much data, it’s a product of poor design. In short, good design can allow one visual to convey 3+ data points. While this type of visual may take slightly longer to digest, the reader walks away with a deeper understanding from just one visualization. Consider the typical report you might read that has perhaps three different charts or graphs, showing for example, crime rates by age, sex, and education, respectively. The reader must then digest three different visuals and draw inferences on their own of how the data points relate. A well-designed visual will chart each data point in a singular product. For example, the map below conveys type of rail, airport proximity, transit system size, and more, while also providing comparative analysis between cities’ systems on an invisible map, all in a single visual.

Screen Shot 2020-02-04 at 12.25.04 PM.png

North American subways
Bill Rankin, 2005, 2006

  1. With smarter presentations, meetings are more effective and shorter. To me, this is pretty self-explanatory. With more efficient presentations, meetings may have fewer foundational questions and/or more sophisticated questions; you can say more in less time; and there is a greater likelihood of attendees committing the takeaways to memory (it’s easier to remember one presentation slide versus two slides, or more). I know I am going to work on saying more with less!
  2. Finally, start each meeting with a study hall. This tip is less about data visualization and more about presentation strategy. Tufte explained that he begins every meeting with a narrative which he did, in fact, put into practice in the workshop. In short, a physical, print takeaway – a memo, article, or other narrative – ensures increased comprehension by attendees and allows the presentation or discussion to begin more effectively. Tufte suggests 4-5 minutes per page as a basis for determining the study hall duration. And let’s be honest, students often push assigned reading for a legal research course to the bottom of the priority list. Recognizing this, I started class last week with a study hall. I assigned a three-page guide to the Texas legislative process and then we discussed the reading (more like a Q&A). After questions, we easily segued into tips for researching legislative history. I actually quite liked this experiment and will try implementing this into my classroom more often. If you give it a try, I recommend being clear with students the time that is being provided so that they actually take the time to read instead of skim. I noticed that each of my students did seem to honor the suggested 5 minutes per page.

Overall, I really enjoyed Edward Tufte’s course. It will be a long while before I create any data masterpieces, but I am looking forward to getting creative in this area. Have any law librarians out there attended this course? What did you think? I’m also curious if any other law librarians might also be expanding their skillset in this area – let me know!

This entry was posted in Conference, Continuing Education, Empirical legal research, Information Literacy, Inspiration and Design Ideas, Teaching (general) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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