The Countercultural Discipline of Data

In an environment where we are often judged by our most recent blog post or our next big idea, the process of collecting, analyzing, and sharing information about our work allows us to slow down and take stock of what we are actually accomplishing.

DataAnalysisBy Abby Knopp

Not long ago, an article popped up in my Facebook feed that captured everything I had been feeling about the process of collecting and analyzing data (an endeavor in which I have become deeply immersed this past year). In the article, The Power of Patience: Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention, the author talks at length about “creating opportunities for students to engage in deceleration, patience, and immersive attention.” A professor of humanities and art history, Jennifer Roberts suggested that, “…these are the kind of practices that now most need to be actively engineered by faculty, because they simply are no longer available ‘in nature,’ as it were. Every external pressure, social and technological, is pushing students in the other direction, toward immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity – and against this other kind of opportunity. I want to give them the permission and the structures to slow down.”

The ongoing commitment to data collection and analysis, similarly, offers professionals the structure and the permission to do for ourselves and our work what Professor Roberts does for her students. When we re-frame the work as permission, we can rid ourselves of the idea that data collection is the opposite – a burden. In an environment where we are often judged by our most recent blog post or our next big idea, the process of collecting, analyzing, and sharing information about our work allows us to slow down and take stock of what we are actually accomplishing. Slowing down is countercultural to the way we live and work today – but it is also a gift.

Approximately eighteen months ago, with the encouragement of UJA-Federation of New York, The Jewish Education Project embarked upon a journey to pursue a new organizational priority – the development and implementation of an agency-wide data infrastructure. Our goal for this initial phase was to build the internal capacity to gather information about the various streams of our work and to establish a baseline of data. Moving forward we will use this baseline data to measure our agency’s success and impact on individual educators, institutions, and the field of Jewish education, at large.

Through the regularized structures our agency is putting into place to collect and track information about where and how we are working, our team is compelled to think more intentionally about our path: what have been our goals with and for our constituents – Jewish educators and Jewish educational institutions – and what has been achieved through our engagements with them? Only with very concrete answers to these questions can we begin to imagine how much farther we can go and what resources we’ll need to get us there. And, of course, this is just the beginning of the cycle of learning that will be engendered through our ongoing interaction with data.

So often people balk when they hear about “data,” considering the process of gathering and analyzing information as the enemy of all that is creative and forward thinking. To the contrary, I would argue that a complete and data-centered picture of one’s work actually reveals trends that would otherwise be missed. Seeing a clear picture, in turn, can stimulate new explorations and problem solving.

The first thing that Professor Roberts requires of all of her students is to spend three hours observing a work of art. Three full hours – without distractions – looking at one painting. As she explained, “the time span is explicitly designed to seem excessive” and many of her students are very resistant, considering it a remedial and unproductive assignment. After all, “how can there possibly be three hours’ worth of things to see and think about in one work of art?” But, she claims, the students learn in a visceral way that, “in any work of art there are details and orders and relationships that take time to perceive.” Most, she says, are “astonished by the potentials this process unlocked.”

The more I’ve immersed myself in the “data endeavor” the more I understand how much the process can unlock. That is why I find the idea of data so compelling – and such a gift.

Abby Knopp is the chief operating officer at The Jewish Education Project.