Lesson Plan: Transforming Data Visualizations

Mac Scott

Data, Data Visualisation Week, Lesson Plans, Pedagogy

Contemporary rhetorical theory privileges a view of rhetoric as dynamic, where texts circulate both spatially and temporally to myriad effects. For instance, in her influential article “Unframing Models of Public Distribution,” Jenny Rice pushes against a view of rhetoric as contained and static, arguing instead that the “rhetorical situation is part of . . . an ongoing social flux” and that rhetorics “evolve in aparallel ways” (9, 14) as they circulate. Mary Queen, in “Transnational Feminist Rhetorics in a Digital World,” looks at how linking digital texts in different online contexts changes the meaning of what (and whom) those texts represent. And in Still Life with Rhetoric, Laurie Gries urges scholars of visual rhetoric to attend to how images undergo a process of “rhetorical transformation” as they “[unfold] with time in and across networks of complex, dynamic relations” (32).

This lesson plan takes up this conversation in terms of data visualization, attempting to synthesize the circulation and transformation of texts, digital writing, and visual rhetoric.

Learning Objectives

This lesson plan helps students recognize how the meaning of a data visualization isn’t inherent to the graphic, but is influenced by the surrounding text it’s situated within. Rather than positioning data visualization as subordinate to a larger text, however, this lesson plan emphasizes how text and visualizations influence one another dynamically. By looking at how visualizations are used in opposed arguments, students will encounter the subtle ways authors employ the “same” visualization to disparate ends.

This lesson plan fits with the Unit 2 objectives in the RHE 306 Instructor Guide. In particular, it could work well as an introductory lesson to the unit and rhetorical analyses (Week 6), as it helps students critically evaluate texts and discuss particular elements of texts. The lesson could also work well with Week 7’s focus on “Reasons to Feel and Practice Visual Rhetoric.” The lesson, as is, doesn’t emphasize source credibility, so it would be beneficial to discuss that with students beforehand; otherwise, you may run the risk of leveling sources who take up the same data visualization in different ways.

Students will learn:

  • How the meaning of data visualizations change depending on where and how they’re situated
  • How data visualizations and the surrounding texts interanimate one another in subtle, yet powerful, ways
  • How Google Images and TinEye can be used to research/track image circulation
  • Connector.

    Assignment Length

    One class

  • Connector.

    Required Materials

    Google Images and TinEye; Computer Projector; Computers and Internet Access; Worksheet

  • Connector.

    Skills Required

    Know how to take a screenshot of a data visualization

Access and Adaptability

Although this lesson plan is written for a digital classroom where students have access to computers and the Internet, it can be adapted for classrooms without computer access. Rather than including the Reverse Image Search as a part of class, instructors can provide students with print-outs of the data visualizations as well as the articles and website posts in which the visualizations were taken up.

Assignment Description

In this class, the instructor and the class will discuss their impressions of Lucify’s interactive data visualization about the refugee crisis. The instructor will then present two websites that frame the visualization differently, afterwards discussing how the websites encourage readers to interpret Lucify’s data visualization, and how that, in turn, informs how readers process the website’s argument.

The instructor will then pull up Ciaran Jenkins’ Twitter Thread challenging Nigel Farage’s tweet that claims a particular graph “says it all” concerning cases of rape in Sweden. After reading and discussing the thread as a class, the instructor will show students how to do a Reverse Google Image Search of the graph Farage tweeted and Ciaran complicated.

Afterwards, the instructor will split students up into groups and have them research a different data visualization (a static chart) about 2016 presidential campaign spending, asking them to first interpret the de-contextualized chart and then to analyze how different websites/articles/blogs take up and reframe the visualization.

For homework, students are given a different visualization and asked to similarly research the image and assess how it is taken up and transformed in different online contexts.

Instructor Preparation

  • Gather links to websites
  • Email students screenshots of data visualizations
  • Hand out or email rhetorical analysis worksheet

Student Preparation

  • None

In-Class or Assignment Instructions

1. Have students engage with the Lucify data visualization about the refugee crisis. Then, on the projector, show the students how the website ZeroHedge frames the visualization. Read the post and watch the video included. Ask the students how the author of the website situates the topic–what words are used to describe the event in question? what feelings does the video evoke? what information is privileged and how is it framed? Then have students engage again with the Lucify visualization and ask them if they’re interpreting it differently. If so, why? Do the same thing with a post on the website Vox. Discuss how these websites make different arguments, how they both encourage different interpretations of the Lucify data visualization, and how the visualization, in turn, informs their arguments.

2. Pull up Ciaran Jenkins’ Twitter thread that was written in response to a tweet from Nigel Farage. Ask students what Farage means when he says that the “graph below says it all.” How do they process the chart? What about it is particularly powerful? Read through Jenkins’ thread where he explains why the chart does not, in fact, “say it all.”

3. Email students a link to Jenkins’ Twitter thread. Show them how to take a screenshot of the data visualization/chart Farage used, and then show them how to run a Google Reverse Image Search and a TinEye Reverse Image Search. Have them run searches on the image for a few minutes to get used to it. Emphasize that this software produces limited results, which is why it’s helpful to use two services (although it’s still limited).

4. Split students into groups. Email them the data visualization about presidential campaign payroll spending. (You’ll have to take a screenshot of the chart prior to class and email that image to them.) Ask students to analyze the data visualization itself, and then conduct an image search, looking for how the image has been incorporated into larger arguments. Then have them select (or assign them) two larger texts that contain the data visualization and have them analyze those texts. Data Viz Research and Rhetorical Analyses can facilitate this process.

The image shows up in quite a few different places online. Here are two that would make for productive class analyses: [1] The Washington Post article it originates from, which has the headline “This simple staffing chart tells the story of the 2016 campaign,” and [2] ZeroHedge’s post has the headline “Chart of the Day: ‘Big’ vs ‘Small’ Government.”

For homework, ask students to analyze a data visualization about the refugee crisis that originated in a Washington Post article and was taken up by ZeroHedge. Both sources credit the Washington Post for the article, so a reverse image search isn’t necessary, although it would still show how else it’s been taken up. If you’d like students to see the data visualization before they encounter it in the Washington Post, you can email them a screenshot of it and ask them to read and analyze that first.

Animated data visualization depicting the flow of refugees to Western Europe
Visualization courtesy of Ville Saarinen and Juho Ojala, via Lucify Data Visualizations

Skills Workshop

In this lesson, you’re presenting your students with multiple articles that contain data visualizations; however, because the visualizations are used to different effects in different larger texts, you’ll need to isolate the graphs. To do so, you’ll need to take a screenshot of a website. You’ll also need to know how to run a image search through Google. Below, you’ll find a YouTube tutorial instructing you on how to do just that.

Assessment Suggestions

As this lesson is used to help students recognize the extent to which the meaning and effect of data visualizations can transform depending on the surrounding textual context encourages, it makes sense to have a less formal assessment. For homework, have students complete the Data Viz Research and Rhetorical Analyses for a new visualization (e.g., the one about refugees mentioned at the end of the previous section). More information is available in the “Traditional Assessment” tab below.

This lesson and assignment don’t exactly fit with a portfolio-style assessment approach. However, if you require your students to include a data visualization into a larger argument as part of their final project, you can ask them to analyze their own rhetorical choices in doing so. That is, they should explain the dynamic between their data visualization and the larger argument they’ve situated it within.
If you have students complete the worksheet on their own as homework, you could collect it and give them credit/no credit for the work. But before you collect the handouts, you could have students get into groups to discuss their analyses, allowing them to compare and contrast what they wrote. You could then ask groups to share their consensus responses as a way of generating discussion for that day. If you have an electronic submission website, having students submit their analyses before class starts may be a good idea (but I might recommend allowing them to revise their submissions based on the class discussion, if they so choose).

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