Two years into my professor career, my students have given me no shortage of feedback. To be sure, I listen carefully to in-person comments. I read my formal evaluations but I ignore Rate My Professor.
Many of my analytics students seem surprised throughout the semester that I’m a stickler for clear writing. Yes, I require that students’ 30-page individual research projects are professionally written, grammatically correct, and data-driven. To emphasize the point, in the first lecture I tell them the infamous Jim Barksdale quote: “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”
A common and expected student refrain to my admittedly high bar is “But I’m not an English major.” Students who ignore my rubrics and admonitions find that their grades suffer if they do any of the following:
- Fail to cite their sources and to define their terms
- Use jargon and the passive voice
- Use a big word when a small one will do (utilize drives me bonkers)
- Incorrectly substitute words such as amount for number (big pet peeve)
- Ignore my template’s suggested fonts, formats, conventions, and styles (I’m a big fan of headings and tables of contents in long documents. What’s more, by insisting that students use the same font, I eliminate the potential for unconscious bias when I grade their papers. Try taking something written in Comic Sans seriously. )
- Capitalize random words
By the end of the semester, most have learned that I mean business when it comes to effective writing and, for that matter, speaking. It’s a critical lesson for them to absorb. To that end, I’m willing to let my student evaluations suffer to reinforce the point.
Rather than focus exclusively on avoiding mistakes (re: the negative), I try to accentuate the positive. I believe in the carrot more than the stick. From the get-go, I sprinkle examples of excellent articles in each class’s Slack data_in_the_news channel and encourage the students to read them. That way, they know what cogent data- and analytics-based writing looks like.
Here are four sites whose articles I routinely recommend.
This site is perhaps the gold standard of contemporary data-driven journalism. Many of my best students are already fans. Although Nate Silver earned his stripes analyzing politics and sports, I’ll often recommend interesting articles to my students that have nothing to do with either topic. Many 538 pieces demonstrate a unique approach to data and dataviz. Case in point: A look at Meryl Streep’s movies with the following graphic:
538 demonstrates illustrates the way that 400-level students ought to be analyzing contemporary issues.
Each 538 piece describes the author’s methodology. Often articles involve data extraction and manipulation, explicit assumptions, critical thinking, and statistical methods. Crucially, all 538 writers support their opinions with data. These are the exact things that 400-level analytics students ought to be doing on their assignments.
In similar vein, this site looks at contemporary issues with a data-driven focus. (How do you not love a site whose tagline is “In Data We Trust?”) Apart from analyzing interesting issues à la 538, the site recently launched its own DIY charting tool.
I discovered this site about six months ago and I’m already smitten. Perhaps most impressive about The Pudding is the interactive nature of its data visualizations. That is, readers can play with different data filters and ask question of the data. (It’s a key point in The Visual Organization.) One of my faves: Are Pop Lyrics Getting More Repetitive?
Run by my friend and fellow anti-jargon zealot Josh Bernoff, Without Bullshit is one of the few sites that I make a point to read every day. No, it’s not a data-driven destination per se, but the ex-Forrester analyst is not afraid to dig into data when necessary. More important, Josh does an excellent job of breaking down thorny issues and asking tough, essential questions. I strive to write as
good clearly as he does.
Simon Says: My analytics students benefit by becoming better writers.
I know that I’m not minting future reporters and poets—nor can I predict the future. I do know this much, though: Effective business communication will increasingly require the ability to incorporate data and data visualizations. Proficiency with data will serve as a future point of differentiation in the job market. (This is why they are studying analytics in the first place.) It follows, then, that those who study data and analytics are not absolved from needing to communicate effectively and exhibit critical thinking. In fact, the opposite is true.
Any other data-driven sites that you recommend?