So I spent the entire day in a workshop with Edward Tufte and about 500-600 (!) other like-minded nerds folks interested in the effective presentation of quantitative information. The workshop was a tour de force that hit me on a number of different levels — as a mathematician, as a teacher, as a consumer of information, as a manager of information — and there is much to unpack and work out. I hope to do so in coming days. But for now, a few overall impressions.
The audience was, I’d estimate, 70% quantitative, scientific, or computer people (a large number of them from Eli Lilly Inc., located just a few blocks south of the workshop site on Meridian Street), about 20% corporate types, and about 10% artsy/graphic design types. I felt very much at home. (In fact, I ended up running into a friend who works as a scientist at Lilly who I hadn’t seen in a couple of years; and I ended up sitting behind a guy — also a Lilly emnployee — who custom-built some bookshelves in our old house a few years back. Indianapolis is a pretty small place.)
The workshop was probably the best teaching workshop I’ve been to — even though it wasn’t specifically about teaching. Perhaps it was so effective precisely because it wasn’t specifically about teaching. A lot of these MAA- or NSF-sponsored teaching events and workshops I’ve attended over the years have badly overpromised and undelivered. They end up being horrendously self-conscious, getting bogged down in eduspeak and in trying to evanglize the participants into an all-or-nothing acceptance of particular pedagogical idea. Those workshops tend to be nothing more than a way to put a big notch in the CV of the organizers and create a bubble of unreality wherein the participants are made to feel like the pedagogical flavor of the month is the solution to all their problems.
Not so the Tufte workshop. It has a clear message — and, importantly, one that can be taken at a number of levels by a wide variety of professions — and gets to the point, and sticks to the point. One of the main themes of the course is that content and design are separate entities and that the design should be so good that it should be invisible, leaving only the content and the information to be seen. (It was this idea that provided the starting point for Tufte’s famous essay, The Cognitive Style of Power Point.) The entire workshop exemplified that concept.
I learned that there was a lot that I was doing right with regards to the way I am presenting information visually to my students — the episode guides for calculus that I made out over the summer look particularly good after today — and a lot that I need to work on. Although I’m not exactly a Keynote junkie, I do have the tendency to rely on it to present information that is better presented on paper. Did you know that human beings can process information in a written form at three times the speed, and at three times the amount, of information that they hear? Tufte suggests "high resolution data dumps followed by probes" as the ideal sort of presentation; meaning that participants in a meeting (don’t know how well this translates to classes) should be given printed quantitative information that they can slice up and explore on their own, and then be allowed to ask questions — primarily because print information can be done at higher resolutions and greater densities than stuff put on a projection screen or computer display. Most of my recent Keynote presentations have focused on pulling together large pieces of graphics, equations, and schematics with a smattering of bullet point lists. Probably I could ditch the bullet point lists and do just as well.
Anyway, more probably to come on that. The course is highly recommended; he’s going to be in Cincinatti, Arlington, San Jose, and San Francisco next.