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Visibility

Before I started my PhD project I had plenty of time to get thinking of goals I want to set myself for the following four years. Apart from the obvious fact that I need to write a dissertation, I have several ideas which I hope to realise. You are looking at one right now: a website on which I share the progress of my research. As a researcher working on a niche subject there is serious risk of being misunderstood on birthday parties and adopting an apologetic tone when being asked after the relevance of your work. No wonder then, that valorisation and visibility have become the mantras of modern academia. So, while most of us will be able to point out the necessity and validity of our work, there is still a gap between what researchers (especially in the humanities) do, and the public perception of our work.

Graph

A Google Ngram (read more below) of the use of ‘visibility’, ‘visualisation’, and ‘valorization’.

 

This is why I believe visualisation should be logical next step after valorisation. Perhaps unnecessarily, I want to stress the obvious causal connection between visualisation and visibility, as the latter can be achieved through the former. Of course there are many examples of making research more visually attractive. For instance, the trend of presenting research in poster format has been going on for a while, especially for students in the natural sciences. This is one step towards enhanced visibility, but even though images and graphs can be used to attract more attention for the subject, most of these posters are still text-driven.

John Skelton Connections

A diagram showing the connections between John Skelton’s poems and the common themes in his work.

Therefore, I think it is time to embrace the infographic. For the moment, please disregard the fact that they are usually created by hip design studios and consider the possibilities of presenting more intricate arguments or connections without using full sentences, both online or in printed form. A great example of interactive information sharing is this network diagram of Middle Eastern politics, and other infographics listed on the website Information is Beautiful. This type of diagram is more likely to activate an audience than passively scanning information on a poster. The added benefit of filing your own data in diagrams such as these, is that you gain a better overview of the core of your research – much like a mind map, only one that is still understandable a week after you blotted your paper full of circles and arrows. For me, the network diagram pictured above was helpful in realising the underlying structure for The Skelton Project website, but it doubles up as a quick reference for Skelton’s oeuvre. Even though it is not interactive, the diagram stimulates activity rather than passivity. A caveat with this kind of model is that they may become too cluttered to be understandable, such as a famous graph used by the US Army, see We Have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint (New York Times, 2010).

English Husbandry Books Timeline

Timeline from Palladius’ “De Re Rustica” until Gervase Markham’s “Farwell to Husbandry”, showing the sources that were adopted by various writers. From my dissertation “Imagined Estates and Armchair Agriculture” (2014).

Another example of my tendency to visualise my data is this timeline. Of course, timelines have been around for so long you could even make timeline of the development of timelines. I made the one above for my dissertation, and while it is not particularly revolutionary, it nicely reflects the shared sources that run through the husbandry genre. I realise that making graphs and dabbling with image editing software is not for everyone, but there are plenty of useful tools to make visualisation easier. Google Ngram viewer, for instance, makes neat graphs for the occurrence of words in the Google Books corpus, like the one I used above in this blog post.

From now on I aim to produce infographics to share on my blog and other media, showing the networks of ownership of husbandry books, for instance. By combining quantitative data with images and hopefully making them interactive by using javascript I can make my own research as visually appealing as possible.

 

 

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