Joseph Nathan Cohen

Department of Sociology, CUNY Queens College, New York, NY

Early Points of Feedback for First Round of Reports

Early points of feedback for Round One of our data analytics' classes submissions.

For posterity’s sake, I am going to list out some points of feedback that came up in early submissions for Round One of class assignments. The first submission is usually the one where students learn what I want in submissions. It’s a good time to remember the big points of advice, before the semester settles into overall technical competency with disagreements that are more minor quibbles and matters of preference.

Here is the Spring 2024 list. I will be sure to update it when I see the class’s final submissions:

  • Process the Question Mindfully and in Earnest: People hire analysts to create information. However you use Chat-GPT, it should be in service of you conducting an active meditation of a question or informational need using your technical skills. Don’t be the next Chat-GPT lawyer. A report (1) forces the analyst to organize the many lessons learned in a research project into an organized whole, and (2) conveys the fruits of those lessons to other for evaluation and further use.
  • Walk the Reader Through the Process. Focus your writing on conveying one line of thinking that produces a practically-useful conclusion. Typically, scientists deliver this information in a standard format: (1) describe an informational need, (2) describe existing knowledge, (3) describe your empirical data and how you looked at it, (4) describe what you saw, (5) make an inference from what you saw. The text of your report should walk your audience through that process.
  • Write in the Speaking Voice of Your Most Professional Self. Many of you write well in the sense that your writing is clean, understandable, and direct. In this class, and perhaps in life, that will get you to an “A-“. However, I think that many of you could produce more engaging texts if you were to write in your own voice (in professional mode). I do this by imagining myself talking to all of you when I write, and then I clean it up so that it maintains the tone and follows my own sense of good scholarly writing. Try it out and see if you, your colleagues, and your professors like the result.
  • Incorporate Zotero Into Your Workflow. There is no need to feel hassled by the need to cite sources. Good citations serve a practical purpose in the wider field of knowledge production, and people use them as a signal of whether or not your report is serious (not a good basis, but people still do it). With a little bit of effort, try using Zotero. It can save bibliographic entries, PDFs, and more straight from your browser or run locally as a standalone. The app has great notation and database tools to compile research materials. The pro account offers synchronization and is quite affordable.
  • Use Headers. Absolutely divide your report into different parts, and demarcate them clearly using headers. When you use a new header, give at least one sentence that describes what will be discussed in the section that it demarcates. If you can’t think of what to say, ask yourself if you are making a point in that section, or if the header is necessary.
  • Sandwich Tables and Figures. Before every table and figure, insert a short paragraph that explicitly references the table (or figure), explains the data it conveys, and provides advice that the reader might require to understand it. After the table or figure, list one or several paragraphs outlining the insights gleaned, and how they relate to the central insight that you are developing in the report. If you have trouble thinking of why the table or figure is relevant, then ask yourself if it really needs to be included in the report.
  • Speak To Your Intended Audience. Always use a style of discussion and explanation that will resonate with the people who will read it. In my classes, I would like you to write your report for an intelligent, university-educated person who understands sophisticated and complex ideas but is not trained in statistics or computer programming. Don’t dwell on the dirty details of your data-wrangling problems or how you had trouble using this or that package because non-specialists will have no idea what you are talking about. Put these details in the comments of your code, where we can read about it in RStudio.
  • Aesthetics Matter: It is important for your assignment to be attractive, because people use aesthetics to judge the quality of a report. Always prioritize following explicit formatting instructions, if given. Otherwise, make your assignments attractive in the sense of clean, polished, minimalist, and professional. Do not be ornate. Absolutely do not write reports with code blocks, output, system symbols, and other items that you would not expect to be of interest to your audience. In my opinion, it’s best to write a simple Word document in Markdown and then format in Word.
  • Use Advanced Grammar Check. Though it may be unfair or illogical, people judge the intelligence and value of your communications by your command of spelling, grammar, and similar writing-related skills. More advanced grammar check programs, like Grammarly or Microsoft Editor (free for CUNY students) will help improve other common writing problems, like awkward phrasing, wordiness, and similar problems. I hate to be giving this advice because I know that I am totally guilty of not following it. It’s something that would benefit both of us. Do not mindlessly accept the AI recommendations, but rather consider the advice mindfully.

What do you think? Do these points of feedback make sense? Do you disagree? Please add your comments below.

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