Unpacking Tufte

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.

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10 responses to “Unpacking Tufte

  1. The participants in my “meetings” (read: classes) seem very reluctant to do much on their own.

    I have become quite adept at the Bad Keynote presentation. It takes less time to plan than the good presentation, and it keeps the students docile.

    (I’m having a cynical week.)

  2. barsidius

    I went to the course on Tuesday, and I agree with everything above. I can’t recommend this day enough. Two things Tufte emphasized made an exceptional impression on me.

    One was the high-resolution-data-dump style of presentation you described in your penultimate paragraph. This is (IMHO) why most PowerPoint presentations stink; the information is coming so slowly that one can’t help but think about other problems. People have a lot of unused gray matter “cycles” that don’t want to go to waste. If it turns out the other problems you’re thinking about are more interesting (and they probably are, or you wouldn’t be thinking about them), they’ll start to eat up enough cycles that the presentation you’re supposed to be watching becomes a distraction.

    Tufte does a nice job of modeling the style of presentation he promotes. You’re handed four books when you walk in, and you’re expected to read a chapter or two from three of them before the presentation starts.

    The other was this: (paraphrasing) “The evidence doesn’t care if you present it as words, or tables, or pictures, or graphs, so present it in the way that makes it easiest to understand. Present it more than one way if it helps—different styles of presentation don’t compete with each other, they augment and support each other.”

    I can’t add anything to that.


  3. RH – I can identify with that. Although one thing that really struck me from yesterday was just how readily students will settle in to a passive mode once there’s PowerPoint or Keynote going on (if that’s the *only* thing going on). The Keynote presentation becomes little more than watching a TV show… a really boring TV show at at that.

    Barsidius – Somehow I found the pre-workshop “reading assignment” to be a really appealing idea, even though I just barely had enough time to unwrap the books and skim the selections. Tufte expected us to be intelligent and active, and there was no down time with people checking email, etc. right up until the workshop started. We were actively doing something workshop related from the word “go”. And I think that’s got a powerful lesson for teaching in it.

  4. barsidius

    Robert – Absolutely right. I took my laptop along, expecting to have a minute to check e-mail, but found I was so engaged that I didn’t want to, not even during the breaks.

    And during the session, when he would say (e.g.) “Now I’d like you all to read page 47 of Beautiful Evidence, and then we’ll go on,” you could hear a pin drop. About 1,000 people in a hotel ballroom, all reading absolutely silently. I wouldn’t have believed it possible if I hadn’t been there.

  5. Liz

    Envy. I don’t have a personal or professional reason to attend one of his seminars, but I’ve long been attracted to his style of thinking.

  6. michael h

    Wow – I got really bummed when I read that Tufte was here and I missed it. Then I went to his web site and looked at the price to attend. I’m sure the workshop was mindblowing, though.

  7. That’s one of the perks of an academic job — I get a certain amount of money each year to go toward attending conferences and travelling. And most years, there’s nothing out there that I consider worth the money or the time to attend, so I had a pretty considerable amount left over from last year too. So generally as long as a conference doesn’t involve flying halfway around the world and staying in a 5-star hotel, my work will pay for it no problem. And this was definitely worth it.

  8. Jami

    I will never forget Tufte’s presentation and I attended almost 4 years ago! Talbert, I’m glad you went. In my opinion every human being in either a professional career or college should attend this. The stuff he talked about applies to just about anything.

  9. mrc

    I went to a Tufte workshop before Beautiful Evidence came out (and before I had become a teacher) and my feedback mirrors what’s already been said: Go if you have the chance. He’s a little overly-produced in terms of creating himself in the image of a genius / rockstar, but that’s a small complaint compared to the value of what he delivers. His point about the density of information humans can handle is well-taken by all of us. His re-drawings (corrections and improvements, basically) of the common mistakes are so instructive. I can almost hear his voice every time I’m tweaking out an Excel chart for maximum impact.

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