Edward Tufte and classical intellectual inquiry

Near the begin­ning of Edward Tufte’s Beau­ti­ful Evi­dence, he writes “My books are self-exemplifying: the objects them­selves embody the ideas writ­ten about.” The same could be true of his presentations.

On a recent Tues­day, Friends Jour­nal spon­sored me to attend one of Tufte’s one-day work­shops. He’s most well-known for his beau­ti­ful books on data visu­al­iza­tions but his work­shop touched on a num­ber of fas­ci­nat­ing top­ics. “The world is way too inter­est­ing to have dis­ci­pli­nary bound­aries,” he said at one point as he took us from music to maps to space shut­tles to magi­cians. The range was pur­pose­ful. He was teach­ing us how to think.

I esti­mat­ed a crowd of maybe 450. A large per­cent­age were low-level cor­po­rate types (I over­heard one say “I was not expect­ing that he’d bash Pow­er­Point so much”; this slack­er obvi­ous­ly hadn’t even tak­en five min­utes to skim Tufte’s Wikipedia page). There were small­er mix­es of techie, cre­atives, and design pro­fes­sion­als, some of whom were there after fawn­ing over his books for years. Bonus if you go: part of the work­shop reg­is­tra­tion fee is gratis copies of his books!

I have 13 pages of notes. Some high­lights for me:

  • The heart of much of the work­shop was crit­i­cal think­ing. Tufte dis­sect­ed var­i­ous news web­sites to take us through the ways they gave attri­bu­tion and pre­sent­ed data. He also went through stud­ies and gave var­i­ous point­ers to sniff out when ver­i­fy­ing data was being withheld.
  • “Pro­duc­ing a good pre­sen­ta­tion is a moral and eth­i­cal act.” (dit­to for being an good audi­ence mem­ber). There is a form of civic respon­si­bil­i­ty to inquiry.
  • Tufte is a big believ­er in meet­ings that begin with read­ing. The highest-resolution device most of us have is paper. Peo­ple can read 2 – 3 times faster than a pre­sen­ter can talk. By let­ting peo­ple go at their own pace they can tai­lor the pre­sen­ta­tion to their own needs.
  • Data pre­sen­ta­tion: A theme through­out the work­shop was “doc­u­ments not decks,” an empha­sis on flat, web-like pre­sen­ta­tions that allow read­ers to con­trol scrolling. He con­tin­u­al­ly called out “flat sur­faces” and mate­r­i­al that is “adja­cent in space” to give an almost the­o­log­i­cal argu­ment for their supe­ri­or­i­ty over deck-like pre­sen­ta­tions (think Pow­er­Point) that can obscure impor­tant data.
  • He urged us not to pan­der to our audi­ence: Con­sumer sites show that data can be pop­u­lar: the New York Times’s web­site has 450 links; ESPN’s has tables atop tables and yet peo­ple read these sites every day. Why can’t we have the same lev­el of data-rich acces­si­bil­i­ty in our work lives? “Have we sud­den­ly becomes stu­pid just because we’ve comes to work?” He urged the mid-level execs in the audi­ence to demand good pre­sen­ta­tions. We should push back against the low-expectations of their boss­es to ask “Why can’t we live up to ESPN?”
  • Data as beau­ty. From gor­geous maps to graph­i­cal music nota­tion (below), Tufte loves design and data that come togeth­er in beau­ty. It is amazing.

One of my favorite parts of the work­shop was an after­noon digres­sion from strict data that he intro­duced by say­ing, “It’s time for a heart to heart.” It began with a ser­mon­ette on cred­i­bil­i­ty: how to make your­self account­able and just other’s arguments.

Then he talked about how to respond when some­one chal­lenges your work. I could tell there must be a long list of per­son­al sto­ries inform­ing this part of the work­shop – lessons learned, yes, but sure­ly oppor­tu­ni­ties lost too. Tufte told us it was only nat­ur­al to respond in defen­sive­ness and anger and coun­seled us to not be too quick to dis­miss cri­tique. You’ve got to do the hard work to see whether your chal­lenger might be correct.

He remind­ed us that when we’re in a room full of peers, every­one present has been fil­tered and select­ed over the years. You should assume the room will be just as smart as you are. “How dare you think your motives are bet­ter than those of your col­leagues!” he thun­dered at an emo­tion­al crescen­do. He admit­ted that this self-doubt is a hard pos­ture to adopt. He’s polled pub­lic fig­ures he respects and even the thickest-skinned are stung by challenge.

He said he had learned to back off, go slow, and con­tem­plate when he’s chal­lenged. Just when I thought he had found some super-human abil­i­ty to ratio­nal­ly con­sid­er things, he told us it could took him three to five years to real­ly accept the valid­i­ty of dis­sent­ing views.

This was a much-needed ser­mon for me and I nod­ded along along. As some­one who pro­fes­sion­al­ly ampli­fies opin­ion, I’m often in the mid­dle of peo­ple in debate (I’ve been an actor in these con­flicts in the past, though these days I gen­er­al­ly play a role some­where between an agent and medi­a­tor). It’s good to see intel­lec­tu­al debate as a process and to remem­ber that it can take years. “This con­cludes the ther­a­peu­tic por­tion of today’s course”, he con­clud­ed, before going back to visualizations.

He end­ed by show­ing us time­less first-editions of beau­ti­ful sci­en­tif­ic works by Galileo and Euclid. He felt a gen­uine appre­ci­a­tion of being part of an intel­lec­tu­al tra­di­tion. He was a mas­ter and for this day we in the audi­ence were his appren­tices. “In life we need tools that last for­ev­er and give us clear lever­age in clear thinking.”

 

Update: appar­ent­ly some num­ber of data visu­al­iza­tion peo­ple have dis­liked his work­shops. What I found fas­ci­nat­ing­ly wide-ranging they found ram­bling. Per­haps Tufte has tight­ened his pre­sen­ta­tion or I caught him on a good day. More like­ly, I think they came look­ing for a more tech­ni­cal dis­cus­sion of data visu­al­iza­tion and was sur­prised that Tufte focused so much on crit­i­cal think­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills. I have a par­tic­u­lar soft spot for quirky and opin­ion­at­ed peo­ple who don’t fol­low scripts and Tufte’s detours all made a cer­tain sense to me. But then I’m a phi­los­o­phy major turned do-gooder writer/publisher. Your mileage may vary.

More coming in from this weekend’s workshop

Both of my work­shop co-leaders Wess and Robin have now checked in with pre­lim­i­nary reports. More mate­r­i­al is being col­lect­ed on the Quak­erQuak­er event page.

Wess and I have both been upload­ing lots of pho­tos to Flickr using the “quakerreclaiming2009″ tag. I’ve been upload­ing my video inter­views both on Youtube and Quak­erQuak­er. You can see them at the reclaiming2009 tag (I have the feel­ing we’ve just dou­bled the Quak­er con­tent on Youtube but it’s not that extreme). Any­one present with more pho­tos can either upload them to Flickr with the “quakerreclaiming2009” tag or send them direct­ly up to Quak­erQuak­er. Same with videos.

First thoughts about convergent weekend

Hey all, the Reclaim­ing Prim­i­tive Quak­erism work­shop at California’s Ben Lomond Cen­ter wrapped up a few hours ago (I’m post­ing from the San Jose air­port). I think it went well. There were about thir­ty par­tic­i­pants. The make­up was very inter­gen­er­a­tional and God and Christ were being named all over the place! 

Group shot

I myself felt stripped through­out the first half, a sense of vague but deep unease – not at how the work­shop was going, but about who I am and where I am. Christ was hard at work point­ing out the lay­ers of pride that I’ve used to pro­tect myself over the last few years. This morning’s agen­da was most­ly extend­ed wor­ship, begun with “Bible Read­ing in the Man­ner of Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends” (video below) and it real­ly lift­ed the veil for me – I think God even joked around with me a bit.


As always, many of the high points came unex­pect­ed­ly in small con­ver­sa­tions, both planned and ran­dom. One piece that I’ll be return­ing to again and again is that we need to focus on the small acts and not build any sort of move­ment piece by piece and not wor­ry about the Big Con­fer­ence or the Big Web­site that will change every­thing that we know. That’s not how the Spir­it works and our push­ing it to work this way almost invari­ably leads to fail­ure and wast­ed effort.

Anoth­er piece is that we need to start focus­ing on real­ly build­ing up the kind of habits that will work out our spir­i­tu­al mus­cles. Chad of 27Wishes had a great anal­o­gy that had to do with the neo-traditionalist jazz musi­cians and I hoped to get an inter­view with him on that but time ran out. I’ll try to get a remote inter­view (an ear­li­er inter­view with him is here, thanks Chad for being the first inter­view of the weekend!)

Wess and Martin computeringI con­duct­ed a bunch of video inter­views that I’ll start upload­ing to my Youtube account and on the “reclaiming2009” tag on Quak­erQuak­er. When you watch them, be char­i­ta­ble. I’m still learn­ing through my style. But it was excit­ing start­ing to do them and it con­firmed my sense that we real­ly need to be burn­ing up Youtube with Quak­er stuff.

I need to find my board­ing gate but I do want to say that the oth­er piece is putting togeth­er col­lec­tions of prac­tices that Friends can try in their loca­tion Friends com­mu­ni­ty. Gath­er­ing in Light Wess led a real­ly well-received ses­sion that took the Lord’s Prayer and turned it into an inter­ac­tive small group even. We took pho­tos and a bit of video and we’ll be putting it togeth­er as a how-to some­where or other.

Pic­tures going up on Flickr, I’ll orga­nize them soon. Also check out Con​ver​gent​Friends​.org and the Reclaim­ing Prim­i­tive Quak­erism work­shop page on QuakerQuaker.

Convergent Friends, a long definition

Robin M posts this week about two Con­ver­gent Events hap­pen­ing in Cal­i­for­nia in the next month or two. And she also tries out a sim­pli­fied def­i­n­i­tion of Con­ver­gent Friends:

peo­ple who are engaged in the renew­al move­ment with­in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends, across all the branch­es of Friends.

It sounds good but what does it mean? Specif­i­cal­ly: who isn’t for renew­al, at least on a the­o­ret­i­cal lev­el? There are lots of faith­ful, smart and lov­ing Friends out there advo­cat­ing renew­al who don’t fit my def­i­n­i­tion of Con­ver­gent (which is fine, I don’t think the whole RSoF should be Con­ver­gent, it’s a move­ment in the riv­er, not a dam).

When Robin coined the term at the start of 2006 it seemed to refer to gen­er­al trends in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends and the larg­er Chris­t­ian world, but it was also refer­ring to a spe­cif­ic (online) com­mu­ni­ty that had had a year or two of con­ver­sa­tion to shape itself and mod­el trust and account­abil­i­ty. Most impor­tant­ly we each were going out of our way to engage with Friends from oth­er Quak­er tra­di­tions and were each called on our own cul­tur­al assumptions.
The coined term implied an expe­ri­ence of sort. “Con­ver­gent” explic­it­ly ref­er­ences Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends (“Con-”) and the Emer­gent Church move­ment (“-ver­gent”). It seems to me like one needs to look at those two phe­nom­e­non and their rela­tion to one’s own under­stand­ing and expe­ri­ence of Quak­er life and com­mu­ni­ty before real­ly under­stand­ing what all the fuss has been about. That’s hap­pen­ing lots of places and it is not sim­ply a blog phenomenon.

Nowa­days I’m notic­ing a lot of Friends declar­ing them­selves Con­ver­gent after read­ing a blog post or two or attend­ing a work­shop. It’s becom­ing the term du jour for Friends who want to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves from business-as-usual, Quakerism-as-usual. This fits Robin’s sim­pli­fied def­i­n­i­tion. But if that’s all it is and it becomes all-inclusive for inclusivity’s sake, then “Con­ver­gent” will drift away away from the roots of the con­ver­sa­tion that spawned it and turn into anoth­er buzz­word for “lib­er­al Quak­er.” This is start­ing to happen.

The term “Con­ver­gent Friends” is being picked up by Friends out­side the dozen or two blogs that spawned it and mov­ing into the wild – that’s great, but also means it’s def­i­n­i­tion is becom­ing a mov­ing tar­get. Peo­ple are grab­bing onto it to sum up their dreams, visions and frus­tra­tions but we’re almost cer­tain­ly not mean­ing the same thing by it. “Con­ver­gent Friends” implies that we’ve all arrived some­where togeth­er. I’ve often won­dered whether we shouldn’t be talk­ing about “Con­verg­ing Friends,” a term that implies a par­al­lel set of move­ments and puts the rather impor­tant ele­phant square on the table: con­verg­ing toward what? What we mean by con­ver­gence depends on our start­ing point. My attempt at a label was the rather clunky conservative-leaning lib­er­al Friend, which is prob­a­bly what most of us in the lib­er­al Quak­er tra­di­tion are mean­ing by “Con­ver­gent.”

I start­ed map­ping out a lib­er­al plan for Con­ver­gent Friends a cou­ple of years before the term was coined and it still sum­ma­rizes many of my hopes and con­cerns. The only thing I might add now is a para­graph about how we’ll have to work both inside and out­side of nor­mal Quak­er chan­nels to effect this change (Johan Mau­r­er recent­ly wrote an inter­est­ing post that includ­ed the won­der­ful descrip­tion of “the love­ly sub­ver­sives who ignore struc­tures and com­mu­ni­cate on a pure­ly per­son­al basis between the camps via blogs, vis­i­ta­tion, and oth­er means” and com­pared us to SCUBA divers (“ScubaQuake​.org” anyone?).

Robin’s inclu­sive def­i­n­i­tion of “renew­al” def­i­nite­ly speaks to some­thing. Infor­mal renew­al net­works are spring­ing up all over North Amer­i­ca. Many branch­es of Friends are involved. There are themes I’m see­ing in lots of these places: a strong youth or next-generation focus; a reliance on the inter­net; a curios­i­ty about “oth­er” Friends tra­di­tions; a desire to get back to roots in the sim­ple min­istry of Jesus. What­ev­er label or labels this new revival might take on is less impor­tant than the Spir­it behind it.

But is every hope for renew­al “Con­ver­gent”? I don’t think so. At the end of the day the path for us is nar­row and is giv­en, not cho­sen. At the end of day — and begin­ning and mid­dle — the work is to fol­low the Holy Spirit’s guid­ance in “real time.” Def­i­n­i­tions and care­ful­ly select­ed words slough away as mere notions. The newest mes­sage is just the old­est mes­sage repack­aged. Let’s not get too caught up in our own hip verbage, lec­ture invi­ta­tions and glo­ri­ous atten­tion that we for­get that there there is one, even Christ Jesus who can speak to our con­di­tion, that He Him­self has come to teach, and that our mes­sage is to share the good news he’s giv­en us. The Tempter is ready to dis­tract us, to puff us up so we think we are the mes­sage, that we own the mes­sage, or that the mes­sage depends on our flow­ery words deliv­ered from podi­ums. We must stay on guard, hum­bled, low and pray­ing to be kept from the temp­ta­tions that sur­round even the most well-meaning renew­al attempts. It is our faith­ful­ness to the free gospel min­istry that will ulti­mate­ly deter­mine the fate of our work.

Hey who am I to decide anything

Over on Non­the­ist Friends web­site, there’s an arti­cle look­ing back at ten years of FGC Gath­er­ing work­shops on their con­cern. There was also a post some­where on the blo­gos­phere (sor­ry I don’t remem­ber where) by a Pagan Friend excit­ed that this year’s Gath­er­ing would have a work­shop focused on their concerns.

It’s kind of inter­est­ing to look at the process by which new the­olo­gies are being added into Lib­er­al Quak­erism at an ever-increasing rate.

  • Mem­ber­ship of indi­vid­u­als in meet­ings. There are hun­dreds of meet­ings in lib­er­al Quak­erism that range all over the the­o­log­i­cal map. Add to that the wide­spread agree­ment that the­o­log­i­cal uni­ty with the meet­ing is not required and just about any­one believ­ing any­thing could be admit­ted some­where (or “grand­fa­thered in” as a birthright member).
  • A work­shop at the Friends Gen­er­al Con­fer­ence Gath­er­ing and espe­cial­ly a reg­u­lar work­shop at suc­ces­sive Gath­er­ings. Yet as the very informed com­ments on a post a few years ago showed, the­ol­o­gy is not some­thing the plan­ning work­shop com­mit­tee is allowed to look at and at least one pro­po­nent of a new the­ol­o­gy has got­ten them­selves on the decid­ing com­mit­tee. The Gath­er­ing is essen­tial­ly built on the non­de­nom­i­na­tion­al Chau­taqua mod­el and FGC is per­fect­ly hap­py to spon­sor work­shops that are in appar­ent con­flict with its own mis­sion statement.
  • An arti­cle pub­lished in Friends Jour­nal. When the the Quak­er Sweat Lodge was strug­gling to claim legit­i­ma­cy it all but changed its name to the “Quak­er Sweat Lodge as fea­tured in the Feb­ru­ary 2002 Friends Jour­nal.” It’s a good magazine’s job to pub­lish arti­cles that make peo­ple think and a smart mag­a­zine will know that arti­cles that pro­voke a lit­tle con­tro­ver­sy is good for cir­cu­la­tion. I very much doubt the edi­to­r­i­al team at the Jour­nal con­sid­ers its agree­ment to pub­lish to be an inoc­u­la­tion against critique.
  • A web­site and list­serv. Fif­teen dol­lars at GoDad​dy​.com and you’ve got the web address of your dreams. Yahoo Group is free.

There are prob­a­bly oth­er mech­a­nisms of legit­i­ma­cy. My point is not to give com­pre­hen­sive guide­lines to would-be cam­paign­ers. I sim­ply want to note that none of the actors in these deci­sions is con­scious­ly think­ing “hey, I think I’ll expand the def­i­n­i­tion of lib­er­al Quak­er the­ol­o­gy today.” In fact I expect they’re most­ly pass­ing the buck, think­ing “hey, who am I to decide any­thing like that.”

None of these decision-making process­es are meant to serve as tools to dis­miss oppo­si­tion. The orga­ni­za­tions involved are not hand­ing out Impri­maturs and would be quite hor­ri­fied if they real­ized their agree­ments were being seen that way. Amy Clark, a com­menter on my last post, on this summer’s reunion and camp for the once-young mem­bers of Young Friends North Amer­i­ca, had a very inter­est­ing comment:

I agree that YFNA has become FGC: those pre­vi­ous­ly involved in YFNA have tak­en lead­er­ship with FGC … with both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive results. Well … now we have a chance to look at the lega­cy we are cre­at­ing: do we like it?

I have the feel­ing that the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of lib­er­al Quak­er lead­er­ship doesn’t quite believe it’s lead­ing lib­er­al Quak­erism. By “lead­er­ship” I don’t mean the small skim of the pro­fes­sion­al Quak­er bureau­cra­cy (whose mem­bers can get _too_ self-inflated on the lead­er­ship issue) but the com­mit­tees, clerks and vol­un­teers that get most of the work done from the local to nation­al lev­els. We are the inher­i­tors of a proud and some­times fool­ish tra­di­tion and our actions are shap­ing its future but I don’t think we real­ly know that. I have no clever solu­tion to the issues I’ve out­lined here but I think becom­ing con­scious that we’re cre­at­ing our own lega­cy is an impor­tant first step.

Visiting a Quaker School

I had an inter­est­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty last Thurs­day. I skipped work to be talk with two Quak­erism class­es at Philadelphia’s William Penn Char­ter School (thanks for the invite Michael and Thomas!). I was asked to talk about Quak­er blogs, of all things. Sim­ple, right? Well, on the pre­vi­ous Tues­day I hap­pened upon this pas­sage from Bri­an Drayton’s new book, On Liv­ing with a Con­cern for Gospel Min­istry:

I think that your work will have the great­est good effect if you wait to find whether and where the springs of love and divine life con­nect with this open­ing before you appear in the work. This is even true when you have had an invi­ta­tion to come and speak on a top­ic to a work­shop or some oth­er forum. It is wise to be sus­pi­cious of what is very easy, draws on your prac­ticed strengths and accom­plish­ments, and can be treat­ed as an every­day trans­ac­tion. (p. 149).

Good advice. Of course the role of min­istry is even more com­pli­cat­ed in that I wasn’t address­ing a Quak­er audi­ence: like the major­i­ty of Friends schools, few Penn Char­ter stu­dents actu­al­ly are Quak­er. I’m a pub­lic school kid, but it from the out­side it seems like Friends schools stress the ethos of Quak­erism (“here’s Penn Charter’s state­ment”). Again Dray­ton helped me think beyond nor­mal ideas of pros­e­ly­tiz­ing and out­reach when he talked about “pub­lic meetings”:

We are also called, I feel to invite oth­ers to share Christ direct­ly, not pri­mar­i­ly in order to intro­duce them to Quak­erism and bring them into our meet­ings, but to encour­age them to turn to the light and fol­low it” (p. 147).

What I shared with the stu­dents was some of the ways my inter­ac­tion with the Spir­it and my faith com­mu­ni­ty shapes my life. When we keep it real, this is a pro­found­ly uni­ver­sal­ist and wel­com­ing message.

I talked about the per­son­al aspect of blog­ging: in my opin­ion we’re at our best when we weave our the­ol­o­gy with with per­son­al sto­ries and tes­ti­monies of spe­cif­ic spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences. The stu­dents remind­ed me that this is also real world les­son: their great­est excite­ment and ques­tion­ing came when we start­ed talk­ing about my father (I used to tell the sto­ry of my com­plete­ly messed-up child­hood fam­i­ly life a lot but have been out of the habit late­ly as it’s reced­ed into the past). The stu­dents real­ly want­ed to under­stand not just my sto­ry but how it’s shaped my Quak­erism and influ­enced my com­ing to Friends. They asked some hard ques­tions and I was stuck hav­ing to give them hard answers (in that they were non-sentimental). When we share of our­selves, we present a wit­ness that can reach out to others.

Lat­er on, one of the teach­ers pro­ject­ed my blogroll on a screen and asked me about the peo­ple on it. I start­ed telling sto­ries, relat­ing cool blog posts that had stuck out in my mind. Wow: this is a pret­ty amaz­ing group, with diver­si­ty of ages and Quak­erism. Review­ing the list real­ly remind­ed me of the amaz­ing com­mu­ni­ty that’s come togeth­er over the last few years.

One inter­est­ing lit­tle snip­pet for the Quak­er cul­tur­al his­to­ri­ans out there: Penn Char­ter was the Gur­neyite school back in the day. When I got Michael’s email I was ini­tial­ly sur­prised they even had class­es on Quak­erism as it’s often thought of as one of the least Quak­er of the Philadelphia-area Quak­er schools. But think­ing on it, it made per­fect sense: the Gur­neyites loved edu­ca­tion; they brought Sun­day School (sor­ry, First Day School) into Quak­erism, along with Bible study and high­er edu­ca­tion. Of course the school that bears their lega­cy would teach Quak­erism. Inter­est­ing­ly enough, the his­tor­i­cal Ortho­dox school down the road aways recent­ly approached Penn Char­ter ask­ing about their Quak­er class­es; in true Wilbu­rite fash­ion, they’ve nev­er both­ered try­ing to teach Quak­erism. The offi­cial Philadel­phia Quak­er sto­ry is that branch­es were all fixed up nice and tidy back in 1955 but scratch the sur­face just about any­where and you’ll find Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry atti­tudes still shap­ing our insti­tu­tion­al cul­ture. It’s pret­ty fas­ci­nat­ing really.