from the Library of Maura

The Data Left Behind

March 10th, 2013 by Maura A. Smale · 3 Comments

As my research partner and I have been wrapping up our research project I’ve been thinking about all of the data we have that we’re not going to use for the book we’re in the midst of writing. We have transcripts from interviews with 178 students and 63 faculty; we have photographs from 60 students and maps and drawings from over 100, as well as syllabi and assignments from faculty. We have a LOT of data. And then I read a great post not too long ago by art historian Renee McGarry on a similar theme, about the objects she’s researched that haven’t made it into her writing.

Such is the nature of research, though maybe studies like ours, in which we started by asking open-ended questions of the participants, are more susceptible to it. It’s good to have lots of data from our study, certainly better to have too much than too little. We’ve ended up with some “extra” data: stuff that’s not necessarily relevant to our plan for the book. It’s not a ton of data, certainly the minority. But sometimes I get a little sad when I think about it. Collecting data is time-consuming; we spent 2 years traveling around CUNY talking to students and faculty, experiencing, just a little bit, the commuter scholar lifestyle of our students. I’m also a no-leftovers, waste not want not kind of person, so it pains me a bit to think of the insights from interviews and images that we won’t include in the book. Our participants shared so much with us, and I want to be sure that we do justice to them and their stories.

But those data aren’t necessarily irrelevant either; they all say something, even if those somethings don’t fit into the narrative we’re weaving together for the book. We can return to some of them–the side conversations and explanations, the material culture in photographs and drawings that doesn’t primarily speak to students’ lives as scholars–later, after the book is finished, and analyze them further. To this end I’ve started a list of the very beginnings of ideas I have about some of the information we gathered, ideas that don’t work for the book but could turn into something else, maybe. The list has made me feel a bit better about the data left behind. It’s not going away, it’s just waiting, patiently, for us to have a chance to think on it more thoroughly, and to give it the respect and consideration it’s due.

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3 responses so far ↓

  • Valerie Forrestal // Mar 19th 2013 at 6:05 pm

    Many moons ago I got a degree in audio production, and we learned about notes contained in music that are outside the range of human hearing. Students in the class wondered why producers would bother leaving those notes in the final mix, when digital production makes it easy to find and cull them, and that would result in smaller music files. The answer is that, although you can’t hear those specific notes, they actually affect the way you hear notes that ARE in your range of hearing, so the recording would sound different without them. This is a very roundabout way of saying that even though you don’t use some data, it affected how you viewed and analyzed the data you WILL use, so technically you ARE using it.

  • Maura A. Smale // Mar 19th 2013 at 7:39 pm

    That’s so interesting, Val, I didn’t know that there were sneaky notes we can’t even hear in music. And you’re completely right — the data we’re not specifically referring to in the book is definitely there, too, even if we can’t exactly see or read about it. Thanks!

  • Digital Clutter (or why Inbox Zero is not a goal) // Mar 21st 2013 at 9:55 am

    […] the images I might use for projects, the articles I intend to read. In a blog post titled, “The Data Left Behind,” Maura A. Smale reflects on data that she spent time collecting but won’t include in […]

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