College launches major data-fluency initiative
We want to make data and digital fluency as central to a liberal arts education as writing and reading.
— MiddData Co-Director Caitlin Myers
MIDDLEBURY — Analyzing consumer shopping habits. Live road-mapping for vehicles. Online streaming. Pandemic tracking. All of these things are possible because of “big data.”
Most of us understand on some level that our lives are increasingly interwoven with big data, but very few of us understand how it shapes us and the way we think. Even fewer understand how to shape the data itself.
Middlebury College is hoping to change that with a new initiative called MiddData, which aims to provide its students access to powerful tools, empirical research analysis and critical digital scholarship — from the moment those students arrive on campus.
The initiative may be starting off small because of current public health and economic conditions, but in the long term it will likely have profound effects on the way Middlebury students gather, generate and shape information.
“We want to make data and digital fluency as central to a liberal arts education as writing and reading,” said economics professor and MiddData Co-Director Caitlin Myers at the initiative’s official launch event last month, which was convened virtually as part of the Clifford Symposium on Big Data.
“This is not just about the future of work,” Myers said. “More fundamentally and more importantly we’re talking about a sea change in approaches to knowledge, communication, persuasion. We’re talking about changes in the questions we can ask, about the tools that are available to answer them, and about how we communicate our knowledge and our views with the world. We humans use and misuse data. We interpret and misinterpret data. We ourselves become data.”
The college is launching the initiative at a particularly critical time, Provost Jeff Cason said.
“We are in a precarious circumstance when it comes to how we understand the reality around us, with fake news, fake fake news, contested facts, etc.,” he said at the symposium. “Our students need to learn how to deal with real data now more than ever.”
The college is going all-in, Myers said.
“A lot of other places are introducing data science and digital methodology into their curriculum in interesting and engaging ways — a new course here and there, a new data science minor — but we see an opportunity to do something much more bold and more innovative. We see an opportunity to integrate data and digital methods across the curriculum.”
The proposal for MiddData outlines an ambitious long-term plan:
• New campus-wide classes, including introductory courses in statistics, data science and digital methods; on-demand courses and workshops on programming; and data science “bootcamps.”
• An expansion of data-oriented and digitally oriented courses across the curriculum.
• New minors.
• New faculty and staff.
• Creation and support of professional development.
• Increased support for data analysis and digital methods.
• Building new places for collaboration.
• Improved computing infrastructure.
Because the college is at this time focused solely on educating students safely in the middle of a global pandemic, and because like all institutions of higher learning it’s struggling with the associated economic fallout, much of the MiddData plan will have to be put on hold.
But Middlebury will be offering its first data science “bootcamp” in the upcoming January term, which will be held remotely.
Students will take an Intro to Data Science class with math professor Alex Lyford in the mornings, Myers explained at the symposium. Students will learn, among other things, how to use a statistical computing software environment called “R.”
In the afternoons, they will take what they’ve learned and apply it to a disciplinary question in one of four “connector break-out sessions”:
• The economics of abortion access.
• Sentiment in Japanese pop culture and Manga.
• Textile trade and Dutch art.
• Forest ecology and tickborne disease.
DATA AFFECTS LEARNING
During last month’s symposium President Laurie Patton emphasized the profound effects data has had on thinking and learning, which makes the MiddData Initiative so important in this moment:
• Understanding data in its different forms is new kind of epistemology.
• Collecting and transforming data is a new kind of curatorship.
• Obtaining data through scraping and mining is a key research methodology.
• Parsing and transforming data into structures designed for analysis is a new form of synthetic thinking.
• Drawing meaning from data is a new form of interpretive skill.
• Visualizing data to improve or shape understanding is a new form of artistic and scientific creativity.
• Communicating effectively about data and methods and conclusions is a new form of 21st-century rhetoric.
“I believe that, used well, in the service of the human and the deeper questions, data is a way not only of healing the academy,” Patton said. “It’s also a way of healing the world.”Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
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