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MCH8104 : Cultures of Data Visualization

  • Offered for Year: 2022/23
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Murray Dick
  • Owning School: Arts & Cultures
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
Semester 2 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 0.0


Data visualization is a constant presence in our modern, mediatized lives. But where do these ubiquitous forms come from; what inspired them, and what explains their popular today?

This module will introduce a range of theoretical and practical skills that may be used in order to critically appraise and to create (entry-level) infographics and data visualizations, in the contexts of news, popular culture and communications.

In this unique syllabus, based on The Infographic: A history of data graphics in news and communications (MIT Press, 2020), you will have the opportunity to develop skills in identifying and evaluating competing ways of understanding and talking about what data visualization is.

The aims of this module are:

To critically establish what infographics are, what data visualization is, and what purpose these phenomena serve in today’s networked, knowledge economy.
To explore cultural meanings that may be encoded within data visualizations.
To interrogate the historic rise of popular infographics and data visualization; to understand what factors shaped them, and why they take the various forms they do today.
To engage with competing (and overlapping) approaches to infographics, in order to better understand their place and function in popular culture.
To critically assess the key innovators in the field and the ideas and thinking that inspired them.
To critically appraise what makes a ‘good’ infographic, what makes a ‘bad’ one, and to interrogate the matter of who decides.
To explore the ‘universality’ of data visualization in terms of the comparative appeal of particular forms to different audiences.
To explore widely-held criticisms of infographics, and the extent to which these criticisms are well-founded.
To situate the study of infographics and data visualization firmly within the fields of cultural studies and intellectual history.
To instil introductory skills in the creation of infographics and data visualizations.

This module will draw upon approaches, methodologies and skills from a range of disciplines, including:
• Journalism studies
• Cultural studies
• Digital humanities
• Intellectual history

IMPORTANT NOTE: This module incorporates only introductory skills in infographic design; it is primarily a theoretical module.

Outline Of Syllabus

This module is aimed at anyone who is new to the field of infographics and data visualization. It is for anyone who wishes to develop both a critical understanding about these forms (where they come from, how they emerged, why they are important, and what purpose they serve in today’s networked society) and introductory skills in how to create and how to evaluate them.

In this module, you will critically engage with the key themes in data visualization and its core values, including, for example:

What cultural meanings may be encoded in data visualization, and how does this affect their interpretation?
What data visualization is, and why and how it emerged as we recognise it today.
What makes a ‘good’ data visualization and what makes a ‘bad’ one, who decides, and on what basis?

Much of this module will be structured around key themes in the historical 'narrative arc' of data visualization, as they began to emerge, and to shape visual culture.

The lecture series (twelve 1-hour lectures) will introduce theoretical ideas that are central to understanding data visualization in cultural contexts, and may include any of the following topics:

Introduction to definitions and to histories of data visualization.
Data visualization within the broader context in the culture of diagrams.
Proto-data visualizations, and the classical (late-Enlightenment) school.
The Improving school (mid-nineteenth-century).
The Commercial school (fin-de-siècle illustrated newspapers, and the new journalism, to the mid-twentieth century).
The Ideological and the Professional schools (from the second half of the twentieth century).
Lies, Damned Lies and Maps.
A cultural-discursive theory of data visualization.
Methods for appraising cultural components in data visualization; standards and best practice.
A comparative, transnational account of the emergence and evolution of data visualization (in US and UK journalisms).
Infographic design for health communications.
Conclusion and future fields of study.

Small-group seminars (twelve 1-hour seminars) will enable students to critically appraise the significance of key ideas in the history and development of infographic design from a range of theoretical perspectives (and epistemologies). Key readings from the field will be introduced in order to tease out competing (and overlapping) discourses which encourage comparative, critical assessment, in different communicative contexts (and amongst different audiences). As such this module represents both an introduction to the substance of the history of infographics and an introduction to the study of visual culture and communication.

Practical workshops (six 2-hour workshops) on infographic practice will introduce the fundamentals of design in infographics and data visualizations for a range of audiences, using a range of software.

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture121:0012:00On-campus lectures (can be delivered synchronously online if necessary)
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion163:0063:00End-of-module written assessment
Guided Independent StudyDirected research and reading136:0036:00Weekly required reading (for discussion in small-group seminars)
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching121:0012:00On-campus seminars (can be delivered synchronously online if necessary)
Guided Independent StudySkills practice145:0045:00Skills practice in students' own time
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesWorkshops62:0012:00On-campus workshops in computer clusters (can be delivered synchronously online if necessary)
Guided Independent StudyProject work120:0020:00Preparation of end-of-term skills assessment
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

This module involves a range of learning approaches, intended to nurture a nuanced analytical approach to primary and secondary sources, towards entrenching methods for the critical evaluation of theory in cultures of data visualization.

Each method selected is intended to enhance the learning experience, providing the opportunity to acquire key learning (and skills) outcomes, in a structured accumulation.

Critical evaluation will be the dominant feature of this course, and generally speaking, skills in critical evaluation will be encouraged both inside and outside of class time.

Lectures will be used to explore competing discourses on cultures of data visualization, around key themes in the ‘narrative arc’ of its historiographic emergence. The directed nature of the medium will support students’ engagement with the factual content on the module (Knowledge outcomes 1, 2 and 3; Skills outcomes 6, 7).

Small-group seminars will allow students to learn discursively, and to negotiate answers (in the context of peer-interaction) to some of the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions in cultures of data visualization, accommodating a more collaborative approach to learning (Knowledge outcome 5; Skills outcomes 1-3).

Workshops will involve elementary skills-development (or ‘praxis’) in infographic design, and reflective learning activities in order to support (and help students engage with) the mapping of theory to practice.

Critical engagement will be nurtured through directed research and reading concerning material covered in lectures, and in small group exercise (Knowledge outcomes 1-5; Skills outcomes 1, 2, 6, 7).

Independent study, in the forms of skills practice and project work, will enhance students' sense of initiative (Skills outcomes 1-5).

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Essay2A703,000-word theoretically informed essay
Design/Creative proj2A30Infographic/data visualization for a news story
Formative Assessments
Description Semester When Set Comment
Written exercise2MAnalytical framework
Written exercise2MAnnotated bibliography
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

Formative and summative methods are combined on this module in order to more effectively support students (across the duration of the semester in which the module is taught) towards achieving aims and learning (and skills) outcomes.

Formative assessment
1. The Analytical framework will allow students to demonstrate their awareness of the conceptual bounds of a select theme in cultures of data visualization (Knowledge outcomes 1, 3, 5; Skills outcomes 2 6, 7).
2. The Bibliography with brief precise of contribution of each work to the argument will help students to ground their theoretical understanding, towards improving academic communication (Knowledge outcomes 1, 3, 5; Skills outcomes 2 6, 7).

Summative assessment
3. The Infographic/data visualization for a news story (30%) will allow students to demonstrate their capacity to apply the theory learned with real-world, journalistic outcomes (Knowledge outcomes 4, 5; Skills outcomes 4, 5).
4. The 3000-word reflexive essay (70%) will allow students to explore the material covered during the module, while undertaking their own original research in journalism studies (Knowledge outcomes 1, 2, 3, 5; Skills outcomes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7).

The completion of each summative assessment will be informed by prior submission and tutorial discussions concerning the formative components. This approach will provide the module leader with a clear perspective on your progress on the module, and will help identify suitable interventions (and provision of extra tutorial support) where necessary, as well as reinforcing key learning outcomes.

Reading Lists