So You Want to Work with Data? Use Everything

For several years before I started working in prospect development and fundraising, I taught writing and literature classes to college students.  I mention this fact because even though it is not an active part of my social or professional persona anymore, it remains a part of who I am and informs how I perceive things in the world.  And while there may be disadvantages to not having had more extensive formal training in statistics and analytics earlier in life, I also recognize that, as I wrote in my first post on this blog, there is a distinct advantage in coming at questions indirectly or unconventionally.  One of the most significant advantages is that sometimes it means that one is sometimes not afraid to ask questions that one doesn’t yet know how to answer.

As I have learned more about both research and data analytics during the course of my career, I am reminded frequently of a bit of pedagogical wisdom I received when I first started teaching.  I’ll say more about the source of the advice below, but the advice, as I recalled it, consisted mainly of two words: Use Everything.

It is great advice, amazingly deceptive in its simplicity.  It applies to teaching and to research and to data analysis, and it also applies to the way we live our lives on a daily basis.  It calls on us to constantly make connections, to imagine new pathways, to find new methods of creative and adaptive reuse.

 “Bottle House, Calico Ghost Town” by StevenM_61  is licensed under CC BY NC-ND 2.0.

When I was teaching, it helped me explain a book my students didn’t like by relating it to story about an eccentric neighbor I had as a child, or by connecting a story they claimed not to understand to a song that had been very popular three or four years before.   When I am researching, it means I keep my eyes open for unusual details that might lead elsewhere, even as I try to keep my memory sharp enough to recall things I have learned in the past that might help me answer the question I am trying to solve.  When looking at data, it means looking at all kinds of variables no matter how distant or remote or unnecessary they may seem at first.  And as a homeowner, it has meant that sometimes a Chinese take-out chopstick is the perfect implement for fishing an item out of an inconvenient spot, or for providing a way of affixing a loose screw in a door hinge.

Appropriately enough, the fact that I had forgotten the name or the author or even the context in which the advice was given in the article serves to validate the strength of the advice.

I’ve thought about this bit of advice so much over the years, that I was a bit surprised when I went to rediscover the article where I encountered it when I was first teaching.  The source turned out to be an article by Michele Russell entitled “Black Eyed Blues Connection: Teaching Black Women II” that was originally published in Women’s Studies Quarterly in 1977 and republished again in 1997.

Reading through it again many, many years later, the article was much more political than I recalled, reflecting an approach and an ideology largely influenced by Frantz Fanon and Paulo Freire.   The injunction to “use everything” headed a passage about Russell’s interpretation of the political implications of school desks.  The “Blues Connection” appears elsewhere in the article where Russell relates the experiences blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Jackson to the lives of her students at Wayne County Community College.

Russell’s agenda and ideology are not mine, and yet I have benefitted greatly from what she taught of her approach.  It may have just been that her approach fit in with my existing predispositions, but I continue to use and to call upon that advice repeatedly in my career.

I’d be interested to learn below: 1). how you’ve “use[d] everything” in your working life, or 2). if you’ve ever received advice that may have been meant one way which you reinterpreted and made your own.

 

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