Teaching Data Driven Cultures

In my recent blog post, Teaching Queer America, I reflected on my second senior seminar. In this post, I want to briefly touch on the pleasures of teaching my first intermediate-level course, Data Driven Cultures, at Trinity this spring. The course is fueled by a pair of basic yet profound question: how does the internet work, and how does it work upon us? Our daily existence is increasingly structured by code and data, from the algorithms that time our traffic lights to those that filter our search criteria and record our thoughts and ideas. In this course, we explored the possibilities, limitations, and implications of using digital methods and analytics to study issues that affect our everyday lives through a social scientific approach. We pay special attention to the ways we collect, trust, analyze, portray, and use data, most especially the tools and meanings involved in data visualization and modeling.

My goal in the course is twofold. It is enriching and exciting for students to grasp what data is, where their data is and what is can and cannot offer, and the political economies and cultural dimensions of algorithms that work upon that shape surveillance, public-private life, and so on. Yet it is equally important for students to be in possession of their own data and to conduct their own variety of data analysis to understand the successes and limits of big data and data visualization techniques. Students each scraped Twitter data on a hashtag of their choice and learned to map, graph, and use text analysis to make sense of their data along with conducting academic and media research. By putting various dataviz in conversation with one another, they learned how data and algorithms veil as much as they reveal. In other words, I am happy to report that we met both of these goals. The members of the class also happen to be terrific young scholars and I am proud to teach them and see their ideas and approaches continue to get more complicated and insightful.

I originated and taught Data Driven Societies twice at Bowdoin College during my postdoc there. These first two passes were co-taught with the statistician Eric Gaze and much more math heavy, including social network analysis as a technique of analysis as well. It was an adventure to convert the co-taught course with a weekly lab into my own course sans lab. I am happy to report that I was awarded an Information Technology in Education Committee (ITEC) Technology Exploration Grant for the summer to reoutfit the course to be even stronger. Learning what excites and drives Trinity students in comparison to Bowdoin students also helped me to rethink the structure, readings, and assignments for upcoming years of this course.

Most exciting, transforming this course into a semester grounded foremost in American Studies as a discipline was a total blast! I added and will continue to add more work from the scholars of the Digital Humanities Caucus as well as cutting-edge social scientists addressing issues of the role of the US in the production of internet spaces and selves, as well as political economies and cultural structures.

Below are the final video presentations of the Data Driven Cultures ’16. The remainder of the class’s work has been archived so that I recommend just viewing them from here. Enjoy!