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Digital humanities expert Lauren Klein named 2023–24 Chronos Fellow
Lauren Klein

Lauren Klein, whose research focuses on the digital humanities, data science and data studies, has been awarded the Chronos Faculty Fellowship in Emory College of Arts and Sciences.

— Tamara Gonzalez

Lauren Klein knows that conventional wisdom views data visualizations — pie charts, timelines and other graphic representations of information — as clear windows into information.

Klein, the Winship Distinguished Research Professor of English and Quantitative Methods, also knows there is fertile scholarly ground to challenge such generally-accepted beliefs. She demonstrated, for instance, how data itself is not free from bias in “Data Feminism,” a book she co-authored that suggests an equitable path forward for data science.

Klein will similarly challenge the canonical beliefs of visualizations as the 2023-2024 recipient of the Chronos Faculty Fellowship at Emory College of Arts and Sciences. She will apply the award to “Data by Design,” an interactive digital book that charts the history of data visualization from the European Enlightenment to today.

“Data visualization is a powerful way of producing knowledge, and I think we can greatly expand what we know by including other perspectives,” Klein says. “I started on this project because I think data visualization is really amazing, and I want us to do it more and to do it better.”

The Chronos Fellowship, funded by a grant from the Abraham J. & Phyllis Katz Foundation, aims to support such ambitious scholarship in the post-tenure period, when time for immersive research, deep thinking and writing can be difficult to secure.

It includes a year of leave and $10,000 in research/travel funds. Klein has already conducted the archival research and is now in the writing phase while working with students to implement the book’s website and the visualizations for each chapter.

The students, including 2022 graduates Anna Mola and Zhou Fang and doctoral students Marguerite Adams and Shiyao Li, will be listed as co-authors of the book. MIT Press will publish “Data by Design,” in both interactive digital and print form.

“In the intensely busy life of a tenured faculty member, especially one working interdisciplinarily, the Chronos award offers a very special opportunity to engage deeply in humanistic scholarly inquiry,” says Emory College interim dean Carla Freeman. “Lauren Klein’s exploration of data visualization its historical roots and its proliferation in the contemporary moment invites just such immersive research.

“This scholarship will probe the unexamined assumptions and systems of power undergirding seemingly neutral ‘data’ and will offer timely and cautionary perspectives for every field today,” Freeman adds. “I am delighted to support this important research and recognize Lauren as our fourth recipient of this special award.”

Visualizing history

Klein began her quest to broaden the history of data visualizations after coming across a factoid about Thomas Jefferson’s favorite professor at the College of William and Mary.

She was researching how the former president created tabular and visual representations of the people he enslaved when she spotted the familiar name William Small. Research confirmed it was the same William Small who tutored William Playfair, often considered the father of modern data visualization.

Klein’s research showed both Jefferson’s and Playfair’s creations were informed not just by Enlightenment empiricism but also by the capitalist and colonizing impulses of the day. Playfair’s charts depicted the economic data that derived from British colonialism, while Jefferson’s charts transmuted the lives of those who were forced to contribute to the colonial project into dehumanizing data points.

“Data by Design,” will literally illustrate this interconnected history, recreating and updating some visualizations that show how the images carry implicit assumptions about what knowledge is — and who gets to produce it.

“The British colonial project brought about a codification of exclusion, itself brought about from a re-orientation of the role of humans in making knowledge,” Klein says. “The idea of this project is to create counter-visualizations that can imbue more humanity into the data and to show the broader scope of who can and did create knowledge.”

Each of the book’s five chapters, told chronologically, will focus on a central visualization. As part of the context, Klein also introduces contemporary visualizations in each chapter, approaching each image as an artifact of a larger trend.

For instance, the book will compare the work of three 19th-century female educators to Playfair’s clear and compelling creations. The analysis not only examines voices left out of the official history but also shows the influence Playfair’s authoritative approach has on how humanists and social scientists approach visualizations today.

“Data visualization connects to so many larger issues about how we tell history,” Klein says. “I want us to be more aware of the choices we make in creating these images, so we can better understand the knowledge that they help bring to light.”

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