Digital Storytelling: Student Visualizations and Re-visualizations

I’m teaching a graduate-level class in Digital Storytelling at Brown this spring. You can view our course site here. Last week served as an introduction to three key terms and concepts that we’ll be working with all semester: data, networks, and visualizations.

Last summer I had the pleasure of attending HILT (for the second time!), where I completed a course on Database Design for Visualization and Analysis taught by Nicole Coleman. Nicole began the course with a great exercise that doubled as both an icebreaker and an introduction to some of the major ideas we’d be working with all week. Instead of throwing us headfirst into spreadsheets and digital tools, she split the class up into smaller groups and asked us to tell a story about our group in a hand-drawn visualization. This assignment inevitably involves the gathering of data and the questioning of what that data tells us, as well as what it might be used to tell others. It then quickly leads into a discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of visualizations, especially when you’re wrestling with a desire to retain more complex and varied dimensions of networks and relationships.

Our groups focused on commonalities as well as deviations. For example, I recall that one group was interested in mapping educational backgrounds geographically, in part because there were questions about whether digital scholarship was perhaps too localized and dominated by particular schools, programs, and regions of the world, and the group wanted to make visible the routes people took as students and emerging professionals.  Some of these conversations could be difficult: they mapped “in crowds” and highlighted outliers and outsiders, they revealed certain investments in particular degrees, colleges, and career paths. They were also incomplete at times: a route might have ended or taken a turn in one direction due to personal reasons or professional obligations beyond a degree, for instance.

In any case, the exercise stuck with me, so I modified it slightly and brought it into our Digital Storytelling course. You’ll see what our class came up with below. A quick word before we dive in: I’m intentionally leaving the names of students out of this discussion, in part because it was course work in progress created without awareness of its potential digital afterlife, and in part because the students working on the visualizations varied thanks to the way Brown students “shop” for courses early in the semester (I have thoughts about “shopping,” but that’s another story). Future reflections on course work will explicitly credit particular students (and may, at times, be collaboratively written by them).

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