One Thing Leads to Another in IR

Marin Clarkberg is Director of Institutional Research, Cornell University, and immediate past chair of the AAU Data Exchange Council

MarinClarkberg.jpgeAIR: Please tell us a little about your role as chair of the AAU Data Exchange Council.

AAU Data Exchange is a consortium comprising the institutional research offices of AAU institutions. It is a lean, volunteer-driven organization. AAUDE simply could not function without individual IR offices stepping up and agreeing to shoulder many of the various tasks that are essential to delivering the mission of the organization. Different from AIR, people are not really "elected" to the governing body, known as the “council.”  There is a nominating group that identifies likely suspects, considering a number of factors. Becoming chair was more like a mutual agreement. After some discussion, I agreed to do it!

Seeing the organization from the inside has been stimulating and has also led me to develop a much deeper appreciation for everything about the organization: its history and all that has been accomplished, the dynamics of what gets done now and what doesn't, and the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of organizational operations. Even in a great organization like AAUDE, not everything operates as well as it could. During my time as chair, we spent a lot of time thinking through those organizational processes and how things could be done better. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to serve the organization in this way.

eAIR: Having traveled to several developing countries to help them establish IR functions in their institutions, what is one takeaway you can share with others who may follow in your footsteps? 

I did not really set out to engage with IR issues in an international context. Indeed, just a few years ago, I did not know this was a possible career path. However, I’ve found that one thing leads to another in life, sort of like a random walk. I volunteered to serve on accreditation teams, and that has taken me to Puerto Rico, Italy, and Saudi Arabia. Out of the blue, I was asked (and I agreed) to serve as a host for an IR director from South Africa for a couple of months. That subsequently led to invitations to present workshops about data-informed decision-making to university leaders in Accra, Ghana and in Baghdad, Iraq. I have really learned so much from visiting non-Western countries and considering the work of IR in different contexts. It has helped me see what we take for granted and that other solutions are possible. I would love to do more work in the non-Western world, but I will have to wait and see what comes next.

eAIR: As a pioneer in using Tableau for visualizing data, what are some ways IR professionals can present data in this way to leadership for use in decision-making?

I have found that Tableau helps me to make effective data visualization with little effort, but it’s a just a tool and can be used to good or ill effect. Indeed, I’ve seen Tableau used to make some dreadful stuff. There are many information design books and blogs available, but the No. 1 practice I recommend to support effective information design is usability testing. A particular data visualization can sometimes be quite impressive looking (like those newer charts that look like colorful “dream catchers”) but be non-intuitive to interpret. When I work on a data visualization, I like to test it out on a handful of willing subjects, such as people in my family. I’ll bring home a graphic and set it down at the dinner table and say, “Tell me what you see.” If my husband or my co-worker or my lunch date can’t figure out what I am trying to say, it’s unlikely that the provost will get it. 

eAIR: What advice would you give other IR professionals who are considering deploying a fact book at their institution?

Do it. The fact book is the single greatest resource an IR office can have. An effective fact book frees IR staff from having to answer the steady stream of mundane questions that can overwhelm an office. We can use that found time to engage with more complex and nuanced work that really supports senior leaders.

eAIR: How has your AIR membership shaped your professional development and career?

One thing I have loved about institutional research is that it is fundamentally a service profession, and the people who work in this field have a service mentality. Networking and collaborating with IR colleagues is an enormous pleasure, as everyone seems to want to be helpful. The AIR Forum offers many opportunities to build and reinforce informal and even formal professional networks. Because AIR is so large, you can meet people through AIR that you might never otherwise encounter. And, in life, I’ve found that one thing leads to another; you never know where that new relationship might take you.

 

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Marin posted on 6/23/2016 2:37 PM
Oopsie, I'm immediate past chair, no longer the current chair. Craig Abbey is the current chair!