Visual Literacy & Effective Display

of Quantitative Data

  • April Seminar 2010
  • Presenter Bios
  • Humanities & Social Sciences
  • Smith Projects
  • Resources
Chris Jordan's Cans Seurat painting

Faculty Learning Community on Visual Literacy, school year 2010-2011.

Contact: Dominique Thiebaut, Assoc. Prof. in Computer Science,

Visual Literacy and Effective Display of Quantitative Data seminar was a 90-minute event featuring three presentations and a Questions and Answers panel on topics that explored quantitative representation and meaning. Smith College, April, 2010.

Thanks to Chris Jordan for Cans Seurat, a digital rendering that "depicts 106,000 aluminum cans, the number used in the US every thirty seconds."

The seminar was sponsored by Smith College's Quantitative Learning Center and Educational Technology Services.

Catherine McCune, former visiting professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Smith, is the inaugural director of the Quantitative Learning Center (QLC),  McCune received her doctoral degree in mathematics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  She came to Smith College after post-doctoral positions at the Technische Universitaet in Berlin, Germany and at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.  Her research was in differential geometry, in particular, minimal surfaces and constant mean curvature surfaces. 

Larry Owens earned his BA in Philosophy from Seattle University in 1966; he later earned PhDs in Biochemistry from Rutgers in 1972 and in the History of Science from Princeton in 1987.  Since 1984, he has worked in the History Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  His research and writing range over the last century and a variety of American topics from the history of engineering, the laboratory as a workplace, mathematical machinery, and the history of computers and computing cultures.  As a teacher, he's happiest in his introductory survey of science and technology in the western world and in upper-division and graduate seminars on comparative scientific traditions and on science and culture in the cold war.

Dominique Thiebaut received his Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from the U. of Massachusetts, and teaches in the department of computer science.
His current interests are in cloud computing, managing, mining, and visualizing big data.  He co-authored two patents on high-performance computing circuits and was involved in a Silicon Valley start-up company that developed the new architecture.

Tom Laughner is Director of Educational Technology Services at Smith College. Tom's work involves identifying appropriate technologies to assist in the teaching and learning process.  His current research interests involve making learning spaces more effective and examining learning communities in online courses.  His favorite part of working on his dissertation was the data analysis and visualization chapter.

Dear Humanities and the Social Sciences,
            We invite you to attend the Visual Literacy & Effective Display of Quantitative Data seminar, April 7, 2010, Nielson Browsing Room, 4:00-5:30 p.m.  If you are tempted to say that quantitative data is of no interest to you then, please, consider our research inside your disciplines:

We use numbers to study ourselves no matter the discipline.  We claim to have control over numbers.  We like to extrapolate meaning from patterns in the numbers we study.  And yet there are patterns being employed to do such studies, which implies a lack of control on our part.  A symbiotic relationship?  There are researchers throughout the academy who say that their research suggests that numbers and our use of them give us a look at a deeper consciousness within ourselves. [1]

"In learning how to abstract, we learn that all information is potentially expressible in numbers."[2]  That might be so.  A poet/artist/computer programmer has for many years used a computer program that turns texts into images to create poster art. [3]  In 2006, the program simply assigned a number to every letter of the alphabet.  Imagine your poem re-invented as a set of swirls on a page relating to other poem/swirls.        

Computers are being used in other ways to examine vast amounts of source data.  The National Endowment for the Humanities, in 2009, gave a grant to the Perseus Digital Library Project.  "No human being could read every source on Plato, but given the tools we have for searching (a supercomputer), we can now start to design an environment where you could ask who is talking about Plato and summarize what they say across ten different languages."[4]  Researchers plan to "branch beyond Greek and Latin works and start providing the same services (cataloguing) for Arabic texts."

A possible love/hate relationship with numbers plays out in the English department (everywhere).  An English professor, Franco Moretti, is pursuing a quantitative method for studying literature, "a text-free literary scholarship."[5]

Philosophers and anthropologists ask why most cultures have a counting system based on 10 while a few others have a system based on 2?  What exactly is being given primacy either way, that is, after we give a nod to biology?

Shakespeare didn't invent numeric symbolism but he may have sealed our fate in that we are focused on his three witches in MacBeth, "Loves her by the foot . . . He may not by the yard . . ." from Love's Labor's Lost, eight kings from MacBeth again, or the idea that a cat has nine lives from Romeo and Juliet, and more in our present day thinking.

Would someone, please, tell me why there are Three Wise Men in the Bible or Ten Commandments, five nails in the Cross or four rivers in the Garden of Eden?

Do you know a single scholar who hasn't had to learn to number tables and figures, format tables and figures, ask how to refer to tables and figures in the text of their manuscript, or seek consultation on when to use a table versus a figure to show a result?  And, is it okay to begin a sentence with a numeral?  No!         

We are interested, too, in numbers that tell us about popular attitudes toward literature:  "For the first time in more than 25 years, American adults are reading more literature, according to a new study by the National Endowment for the Arts."  The overall rate rose by seven percent.[6]         

The Humanities and the Social Sciences have benefited greatly from information that came to each discipline in non-text forms like pie charts, graphs, bars, and lots of figures.  And in return, every time, the world benefits from the fact that each discipline has given us interpretations of numbers---interpretations of human behavior and of the environment as a whole---that could only come from historians, philosophers, economists, anthropologists, sociologists, religion and government scholars, and professors of literature.


Educational Technology Services, Smith College

Article References

cluster of colorful points representing scholarly searches on web