I was sitting in a friend’s office earlier this week talking about my current employment situation and how I really need to take whatever job comes my way. Money is tight, we have a kid and dogs and a mortgage. Life is expensive. I could see the thinly veiled sadness in his eyes as I talked about how I might have to leave our profession, at least for now. I said, “Well, I have to do what I have to do, and ya know, I jumped the chasm once, I can do it again. Twice, actually, going from admin to librarianship, then public and school to academic.” He broke out into a huge grin and said, “That should totally be on your resume – Jenni Burke, Chasm Jumper!”
This entire calendar year, particularly this summer, has been a fascinating journey of self-discovery. Shauna Niequist, in her book Present Over Perfect, calls this type of discovery a “sea change”. She refers to the change in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” when a man is thrown into the sea and transforms from what he was into something new, something wholly different. It’s one of those times in your life where something shifts so profoundly within you that you’ll never go back to that old self. While the whole world of academic librarianship has connected me with myself in really cool ways, discovering that there is meaning to what I always thought were “weird” parts of me has been really exciting. I was always quite good at English Comp and Rhetoric, pretty astute with literature, and found communication, particularly the psychology aspects of it, to be interesting. I graduated with a Bachelor’s in English and have a minor in Speech Communication, but I’ve always had this lurking numbers side. I even have a certification to teach up to Algebra 1 and Geometry in the state of Missouri, much to the shock and amazement of my fellow English educators (and by this, I mean, they’d kinda lean away like I was mildly horrifying).
But my true love affair with data began the last week of May of this year. I had finished my contract at Auraria and was having a bit of separation anxiety, so I began searching the internet for presentations from my recent colleagues. I landed on one from the aforementioned nickname-giving friend who, at the time, I knew more as a person than a professional. I’d never seen him present, and honestly, I didn’t really know anything about his background. The majority of the year, I would randomly wander into his office to talk about kids and pets and drones and picking locks. My first exposure to this man was when he walked in on a conversation about age and I was surprised to learn he was younger than me (sorry, dude, it’s the hair). My second, and still probably one of the most amusing, was him staring blankly at a microwave in the staff room and muttering something about always being wrong on how long he needs to microwave his lunch for. This led to me suggesting a time and him declaring me a genius when the timer went off and his food was actually hot. Based on these brief interactions, you can’t blame me for not having a clue he’s a department head with a ridiculous amount of knowledge and passion for his work. Had I known that, I probably would’ve been too intimidated to pop into his office, out of the blue, and say something to the effect of “Hi! We’ve never actually talked. What’s up?” in the first place. Anyway, in this presentation, he talked about the issue of consent in the commercialization and commodification of personal data on the web, particularly from dating websites and that-big-social-network-that-shall-not-be-named. He also discussed the ethics surrounding the uses of this data in academic research.
I was hooked. I’ve always found data and statistics interesting but it was the first time I had ever heard anyone talk about those things through the lens of human impact and ethics. This type of thing screams through the Framework for Information Literacy and something I’ve given a tremendous amount of thought to, but this was truly my first exposure to someone explicitly articulating examples of the issues behind the “Information Has Value” frame. Little did I know there’s entire groups of people in this profession, and those who work alongside us, that think about these things and work daily to connect students and faculty with this type of thought.
From here, I started reading journal articles and books about data, reading up on data management cycles, and having conversations with this colleague about data services. But it wasn’t until I went to the National Data Integrity Conference this week that I truly connected with this sector of my industry in the truest and deepest way. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the morning sessions of each day, but I still walked away with more packed into my little brain than I could have imagined.
There were amazing talks: Dr. Matt Hickey discussed the sea of data and our ethical responsibility to it, opening with my FAVORITE poem and prompting this tweet:
Dr. Safiya Noble gave a jaw-dropping presentation that I won’t discuss since her book is coming out soon and you should just read it when it does, because she’s awesome and so is her research. Here’s a link to it: http://bit.ly/AlgorithmsOpp
I’m COMPLETELY fangirling over this like crazy.
On Friday, Dr. Kathy Partin talked about what does and does not lead to research misconduct and the importance of mentorship in data ethics education. Dr. Brad Woods discussed the unique challenges of data ethics when gathering data in the social sciences, particularly when commercial growth and politics creates and perpetuates power hierarchies within communities (this one actually evoked tears). Dr. Patrick Lee Plaisance discussed how we must understand our own role in moving from consumers only to citizens within this digital age, especially when it comes to news. Finally, Michael De Yoanna, a news director and an NPR affiliate, talked about how every data point represents a person and a story.
While these were great talks that got me thinking, the one that had the most impact on me in a very personal way was the very first one. The conference opened with a presentation from Dr. Colleen Strawhacker from the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder. She talked about Indigenous Knowledge and how some uses of this knowledge could be detrimental to those who created it, but one of her largest points was while these data sets may not be highly cited nor do they have “impressive” qualitative metrics, they are deeply valuable to the people who make the observations. This data could be, and should be, used in a way that gives the voice back to the people from which it came. She asked how we can change the conversation and shift value from how many downloads these data sets get to the narratives that it could bring about. My literature background started creating fireworks in my brain.
We tell stories. Stories demonstrate and exude the very essence of humanity. Literary archetypes, like the “hero”, the “mother”, and the “arch enemy”, exist for a reason – they display our view of human category. Our brains want to create familiarity and in so doing, we categorize individuals and groups in an effort to know them. Unfortunately, this distorts reality as we all have different backgrounds, amounts of exposure, and levels of motivation to learn of “others”. The data created by these indigenous cultures means something very different to them than it does to us. But if they were to be able to take that information and use it to create the narrative of their own experiences and, destroying the framework of categorization we, as outsiders, have built, then they would hold the potential to forever change the world’s view on highly politicized issues like climate change and endangered species. If we could see what they see, our ideas of what matters within these issues would drastically change.
This made me think a lot about an entirely separate thing that has been holding on to some of my mental space lately. I grew up around the Boy Scouts. I have an older brother and a father who was a Den Leader and a Scout Master. I was also a tomboy, so I had a tendency to hang out a lot around the guys. I was inducted into the BSA honor society at the age of 21, the youngest a female could be inducted, and while it was a great honor, I always found the tradition of using Native American regalia and ceremonies weird and uncomfortable. When the honor society was created, permission to use these things were granted by a local tribe and it grew from there. While the current traditions are believed to be based off of the Lenni-Lenape (that is, the Delaware), and the tribal counsel still supports this, I have to wonder if they would still approve if they felt like there was another way for them to preserve their tradition. There has been a few side discussions lately about whether or not the organization should remove Native American tradition, which I strongly support. So why aren’t we asking THEM? Do they even feel that they have their own voice? They’re a small tribe, all things considered, and if they were given a way to share their stories in their own way, would they continue to allow the BSA, which is a very large national organization, to use their traditions? The types of projects that Dr. Strawhacker presented focuses hugely on giving power back to groups that have long been ignored and quieted. Growing up around the honor society within BSA, I saw the anger the frustration of the Native boys who had to watch as white, non-Natives wore regalia and danced dances that were deeply meaningful to them. While they didn’t see the ceremonies, the dances, or even the use of regalia as inappropriate, they were upset to see these things being utilized by others who were outside their culture.
Why is it that people who are not Native and not part of this tribe the ones who get to decide how these traditions are used? So many say of the BSA’s use that, “There’s no harm” and “It’s honoring them” and “I learned so much about their culture this way”, but how is this true?! If THEY aren’t telling the story, how do YOU know that what you’re “honoring” or “learning” is true, accurate, or significant? What does this even have to do with the mission of this organization, anyway? Why do we feel justified in taking “data” from another culture and creating our own version of their narrative?
Part of this “sea change” that I’ve been going through this year is allowing passing thoughts and ideas that I’ve always had to become fully formed, to let these them settle in, and to hold them up against my pretend reality that was created by ignorance. Social justice has always been on my mind, even when I was young, but I could easily push it away and think that I’m doing alright because it’s not like I’m actively hating anyone. But the bigger reality is that misuse of data, unharnessed commercial growth, and the placement of value on qualitative metrics alone pulls us further and further away from the essence of who we are. Data isn’t neutral, technology isn’t neutral, data analytics aren’t neutral. We have a responsibility to utilize all of it ethically and with deep regard for those it may disadvantage. We have a responsibility to recognize that companies and individuals create, manipulate, and steal information while they lull us into believing that they have our best interest at heart. They’d never lie to us, right?
Humanities and science aren’t mutually exclusive. Data is created by humans and it can be used for good or for bad. As bell hooks said in Teaching to Transgress, we need to be self-actualized. We need to stop leaving parts and pieces of ourselves at the door when we come to work. We need to bring our whole selves to what we do. I’m not two disjointed halves. Maybe I’m just jumping another chasm, but I feel that my “data” side and my “people” side cannot be divorced.
I don’t think they were ever meant to be.