When I found my college transcript last week, I was reminded that three of the courses that I took as an undergraduate have particularly influenced me. I have written about the other two in previous posts. The third was a class that I took with Professor Edward Tufte – it was called Statistics and Data Analysis for Public Policy. That class appealed to me for three separate reasons. It was an introduction to an essential tool for learning how to think, it was also an appeal to numerical honesty in marshalling an argument, and thirdly (an especially distinguishing matter for me), it was informed with an aesthetic sense. If I had not taken that class, I would certainly not (for better or worse) have gone on to graduate study in the field that I chose.
If you are not familiar with Tufte’s superb books on the visual display of information, you ought to be. A review that he cites called them “cognitive art,” and that’s precisely how I think of them. If you are like me, you will wish you had written those books, or books of similar quality in whatever happens to be your subject. Tufte’s current web site is http://www.edwardtufte.com/. When I checked it out recently, I learned that he also designs giant landscape sculptures.
When I took Tufte’s class, there were some fifty fellow-students from a variety of departments and from the law school. I felt that I had an advantage because I had a stronger background in mathematics and certainly in computers than most of the others. It was, however, my first taste of professional data analysis.
I was a little dubious of Tufte from my seat in the back row, because he seemed so confident in himself. It was too large a class for me to form a personal relationship with the teacher, but in retrospect, Tufte was generous with me in several regards. He read my papers carefully and commented on them in detail, and he wrote me a short but lovely letter of recommendation – which I know because years later I discovered that I could request such a document from my college, and did so, and read it a bit guiltily.
In order to publish his books to his own standards, Tufte started his own Graphics Press. I find his kind of vision and ambition inspiring.