Data doesn’t speak for itself

This semester I am taking a Digital Humanities course designed and taught by Dr. Jeri Wieringa. Part of this class includes writing blog posts about various topics discussed in class. I have already crafted a few posts (one on accessibility in DH and another assessing and critiquing a DH project) and there will be several more to follow.

Last class, we read and discussed Hadley Wickham‘s “Tidy Data” as a way to re-evaluate the options for organizing and presenting data. For homework, we were tasked with tidying a table from the PEW Research Center on the frequency of prayer. Below is the original table:

A table designed and presented by The PEW Research Center that demonstrates an ‘untidy’ organization of data.

According to Wickham’s argument, a table should be made of columns and rows. The columns should consist of a single variable while the rows should be filled with a single observation of what is described. The rest of the table is filled with values that represent the recorded data. Based on Hadley Wickham’s criteria, this Pew research presentation is a bit untidy. What is being described is the percentage of various religious traditions that pray. The frequency of prayer is divided into categories (‘At least daily’, ‘weekly’, ‘monthly’, ‘seldom/never’ ‘don’t know’). These categories represent various observations and as such, should exist in rows, not columns. The column headers should represent the variables being measured.

Below is my attempt at tidying the Pew table. The ‘Frequency of Prayer’ categories have been copied into repeating rows, organized according to religious tradition. The percentages of individuals who report their frequency of prayer are measured to the right of each religious tradition. I expanded on the Pew data to help organize my thoughts. I converted the percentages to decimals and then multiplied them with the Sample Size of each religion to find the fraction of individuals who identified with a particular category within the total sample size for that particular group.

In tidying this data, I may have made it more complex for viewers. Wickham’s tidying functions best for computational statistics; it’s not so easy on the eyes for non-computers.

Resorting the data in this way led me to several conclusions; First, the tidy table is a lot. Wickham’s recommendations seem to work best for computational statistics, not so much the human mind. I found myself creating another table just to sort out the basics of the information. But this table, just like any method of presenting data, was also flawed, though still useful for my needs. The horizontal layout satisfied me, likely because English readers move their eyes from left to right when deciphering texts. While I cannot explain the technicalities of it, it turns out that vertical, repetitive data works better for computer brains (as I learned in class last week).

The second conclusion I drew from tidying the PEW graph was that data is not self-evident. As a Master’s student in Religious Studies, I know that nothing explains itself just by existing, but this exercise really solidified that concept. If you look at the tidy graph, you can see that I calculated the number of individuals for each frequency in each different religious group, rounded them to whole numbers, and then added those together.

I realized in this process that I had to choose which numbers to round up and which to round down. At first, I made an active effort to match the rounded sample total to the original sample total given in the PEW data, but I noticed that matching the two totals with or without rounding was difficult. I also realized that in my choice to round one number up but not the others I was actively changing the data. People obviously don’t exist in half or quarters, but the way the PEW data adds up makes it appear that way. My decision to add an extra ‘person’ to the “at least daily” category of Buddist’s could sway the conclusions of the data.

I ended up rounding every number up or down based on the traditional method of 0.5 and higher gets rounded up, 0.49 and under is rounded down. The results, naturally, did not add up but they made me feel a smidge more honest.

In the end, data is never about data. It can be clean and tidy or messy and untidy but that all depends on who is calling the shots. Wickham made his decision based on computational statistics, I made my organizational decisions to clarify the thoughts in my head. Neither is right or wrong, but more or less useful for the each of us in that particular moment. The question to ask, as always, is what is accomplished in presenting data in one way rather than another?

Assessing Accessibility in the Digital Humanities

It is easy to forget the things we take for granted. That’s sort of why we take them for granted in the first place. When tasks don’t require much planning or strain, our brains don’t seem to work as hard, and so those little things slip through the cracks as our synapses prune and make more room for other ‘more relevant’ information. But what seems to be easiest to forget is that we still get a say in what counts as relevant. Ask any tutor the best way to study material and they’ll tell you to involve multiple senses, to try different techniques; basically to make your brain do new kinds of work. Reading the textbook isn’t enough. You have to quiz yourself, make flashcards, study while you exercise, pace yourself . . . there is a lot of thought that goes into making those tidbits of information memorable, of making them more relevant.

Original caption: “Disabled veteran, ca. 1943” from the US National Archives

One area where this effort to make overlooked information relevant is accessibility. Too frequently we design buildings, create technological devices, or program software, to enhance the quality of life for able-bodied individuals. There is such focus on traditional, idealized progress that other individuals get left behind. In the clamber to make life easy, we sometimes make tasks more difficult for those with cognitive, motor, visual, or auditory disabilities.

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Grad Student Interns with Alabama Heritage Magazine

As part of the MA in Religion in Culture at UA, students attend a monthly colloquium designed to introduce them to community members seeking graduates with strong critical thinking skills. During these meetings, the Department of Religious Studies brings in individuals from within and outside of the University to share their experiences in the job market. Their presentations often focus on the ways that the tools each MA student is cultivating in their humanities courses can be useful outside of traditional academia.

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Honors Day 2019 in Photos

Last Friday, the Department of Religious Studies hosted its annual Honor’s Day reception on the second-floor balcony of Manly Hall. Friends and family traveled in from around the state (and nation) to celebrate award recipients. The agreeable weather, tasty food, and great company made for an ideal day to celebrate the hard work of faculty and students over the last year.

Earlier in the week office workers and groundskeepers broke out the zip-ties to hang every Silverstein banner (between 2002 and 2019). Many of the guests who were majors in the Department before graduating could find their own names listed on the railings. Current MA student, Sierra Lawson, and REL Senior, Ellie Cochran stand behind one of these banners to chat as they grab lunch catered by the Cypress Inn.

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On Ancient Greek Ethnic Identity

As part of UA’s Alabama/Greece Initiative, Prof. Ioannis Xydopoulos visited the Department of Religious Studies just before Spring Break, hosted by REL’s Prof. Vaia Touna. After meeting with students, exploring Tuscaloosa, and guest teaching in one of Prof. Touna’s classes, our visitor from Aristotle University (AUTh) in Thessaloniki, presented his research on issues of ancient Greek identity.

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The Ins and Outs of Archival Research

Prof. Nathan Loewen received funding from the University of Alabama, a while back, to conduct archival research on the Derrida Papers in Irvine, California. So REL MA student, Morgan Frick, posed a few questions about what all that archival work entails.

Morgan: What was the project and how did you hope to improve your research with this archival work?

Nathan: In 2016-17, I was really fortunate to be funded by the Research Grants Committee at UA. My position at REL had just begun in 2015, and I was really looking forward to completing work on my research monograph. I can definitely say that my previous project, Beyond the Problem of Evil (Lexington, 2018), came together much more quickly due to this support. I used the funding to visit the Derrida (Jacques) Papers in the Special Collections and Archives at the University of California in Irvine twice: once in the summer of 2016 and again in fall 2017. Continue reading “The Ins and Outs of Archival Research”

Symposium Recap

Last week, the Department of Religious Studies hosted its annual Undergraduate Research Symposium at Gorgas Library. Students from Religious Studies courses collaborated with advisors on written projects before presenting their work at the event. The unique topics, challenging question-answer portion, and free coffee made for a refreshing Friday morning. Professors, alumni, MA students, and undergraduates used social media to keep up with the event.

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Spotlighting Graduating MA Students

Emma Gibson and Sierra Lawson have spent the last two years developing their skills in research, social theory, and the public and digital humanities among other useful accomplishments. This spring, both students will graduate with a Master’s of Arts in Religion in Culture and plan to put their analytical tools to work as they further their education. Emma will pursue a Master’s of Architecture while Sierra earns a Ph.D. in Religious Studies. Find out what these young women have planned after graduation.

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Spotlighting REL Graduating Seniors

The Department of Religious Studies will have a variety of students graduating in May after earning a Bachelor of Arts as majors in the Department of Religious Studies. Over the last four years, each senior has learned and applied social theory through various research projects, independent studies, and a number of unique REL courses. Taking classes like Religions of the World, Theories of Myth, and Religious Existentialism, students were able to shape a unique study of religion that best fit their personal interests. From Medical School to Museum Studies, the Class of 2019 has diverse plans for the application of their undergraduate studies in the Department. Several of these students are spotlighted below.

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