If You Must

Via Margaret Soltan, an interesting thread on PowerPoint in the classroom.

I still think that PointPoint is a scapegoat of sorts, that bad pedagogy that uses PowerPoint was bad before PointPoint or even personal computers were involved in higher education. That said, I think Carolyn Blogs and her commenters pretty well nail what’s scandalous about some common uses of PowerPoint by professors: basing entire classroom sessions around reading off pre-made slides sold by textbook publishers is the kind of practice that a student who is paying tuition should be furious about. But it’s safer to keep your head down, finish a requirement, get your degree, and move on. If there aren’t many professors around in a given program who are teaching in a much more professional, committed way, what’s the point in protesting?

If you’re going to use presentation software, there’s a basic ground floor of competence. Some of the basics:

1) Don’t read a slide. Ever. Ever ever. The slide is there for people to look at. A professor should be saying something else while the slide is there. Something longer, something fuller, something more explanatory, something expert, something knowledgeable. A slide with pure text is not ideal under any circumstances, but if it’s there, it’s there as a mnemonic designed to summarize points that a professor is making at greater length, with more passion, in a way that justifies and rewards the physical presence of students in that room at that moment. Your lecture outline is for you. It’s not to be put up on a slide on the board and read verbatim. Ever.

One of the fascinating things about this point is that almost everyone seems to agree with this dictum, and yet…how many times have you sat through presentations where someone reads their slides verbatim? Quite a few of those for me, and I work in a discipline where very few faculty or students even use presentation software.

2) A slide is either an image, film clip or audio that’s an impressionistic, performative accompaniment to something being said, or it’s information. If it’s information, it should be up and visible for a long time, so that students can write it down, take notes on it, relate it to what is being said in a verbal lecture or explanation.

3) A good presentation takes as much time to create as a good lecture, essay, or anything else of the sort. It should be practiced, edited and thought about as much as other kinds of classroom preparation. It should be the work of the professor who is responsible for a given class. If it’s unethical to read a lecture prepared for you by a company, it’s unethical to read a presentation prepared for you by a company.

4) There should be some compelling reason why presentation software is being used, something it can do which adds particular and necessary value to a given lecture or class session. I rarely use presentation software, but one thing I have used it for is an opening lecture in my Image of Africa course where I show about fifteen slides on the history of depictions of missionaries or other whites in cannibal cookpots. In that context, it’s a much easier way to convey that information than older slide technologies, especially when I want to integrate film clips, audio or even bits of older text or quotations into the presentation. (I use a bit from an Abbott and Costello film in the presentation, for example.) If there isn’t a compelling reason, don’t do it. Ever.

This entry was posted in Academia, Information Technology and Information Literacy. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to If You Must

  1. David Chudzicki says:

    I still think that PointPoint is a scapegoat of sorts, that bad pedagogy that uses PowerPoint was bad before PointPoint or even personal computers were involved in higher education.

    This does make sense, and I have nothing but anecdote. But my anecdote is at least two professors from my college experience who almost always gave their lectures with Powerpoint, who I thought gave better lectures on those few occasions when something went wrong with the technology and they couldn’t use the slides.

    Maybe nothing was different about their presentations without the slides. Maybe the problem with the slides was how I related to them in the audience, and I could have had this better experience every class if I somehow managed to ignore their existence. (Though I doubt it.) But I was amazed at how instead of getting flustered at not being able to use the technology they expected to have at hand, they ended up giving what I thought were their best lectures.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    That would be a good test, wouldn’t it? Take away the software at the last second, hand someone the notes they intended to bring anyway, and see what happens.

  3. jliedl says:

    I’m a fan of PowerPoint as one of several tools that I use in the classroom. It’s great to make sure students aren’t panicked over how to spell this or that name, or interrupt the flow of our discussion to doublecheck in what years France was involved in the Wars of Religion. PowerPoint saves the department a lot of money in terms of maps and other illustrations that I used to print out on acetate sheets. (Sometimes the provided textbook map sets were useful, but I’ve never seen “prepared slides” of images or text that would be even remotely in line with what I do in class.)

    PowerPoint’s allowed me to use more visual material in my courses. I’m happiest about an entire seminar class on early modern visual culture and gender based on about twenty images pulled together with PowerPoint — nothing but the illustrations, the names of the creator and the dates. The images are a lot more prepossessing up on the screen than reproduced at about 2×3″ in a textbook or reader!

    Sure, you don’t have to use it and nobody should be entirely reliant on the technology, but my writing hand is fairly crippled from broken bones and nerve damage. I can keyboard well but I can barely write with chalk on a board so doing it by hand in class doesn’t work for me if there’s a viable alternative. And I much prefer the clarity of PowerPoint slides to my chicken-scrawled map of the Caribbean or attempt to lay out a statistical analysis of convictions in 18th century London on the blackboard!

    This year my senior students, following my lead, are doing a better job employing PowerPoint: they put up short passages from primary sources about which they presenting (so their classmates can take turns to read the passage and discuss their interpretations). This is much better than their usual impulse to put up enormous screens of text at about 14pt font!

    We’ve talked a bit about how to think about presentations but could do a bit more on this end. I’m hoping that next term will be even better and that they’ll come out of the class not only with a better-developed sense of history, but with some savvy about how they choose to present their knowledge, whatever technology they use.

  4. Phil Palmer says:

    I was once in a department where the manager had determined that we needed to communicate more. He therefore decided that we should each give presentations to the other departments, based on ones that he himself had previously given. Since this was before the days of Powerpoint, the presentations were on flip charts – that, youngsters, means a blackboard-sized pad of paper on an easel where pages can be flipped over in turn to reveal messages prepared in advance with sharpies – in different colors if you are lucky.

    There were varying degrees of resistance. One colleague, a particularly brilliant Swiss woman and a notoriously poor communicator – her view was that communication confused what should be a quite simple matter – refused outright. The manager responded with a direct order and an ultimatum.

    And so, come the day, she stood in front of the flip chart and read the bullet points off it. Very. Very. Slowly. Bear in mind that the visiting departments were well acquainted with the topics and were expecting some background, insight, structure, or just general enlightenment. At first she read the flip charts out in a flat monotone but as the presentation continued, she allowed a note of puzzlement to enter what she was saying, until finally her voice rose in squeaks of astonishment at the contents of her own presentation.

    The visitors were furious. Further presentations were canceled. But it wasn’t the fault of Powerpoint.

    And this wasn’t in academia, but in a competitive, private sector, unsubsidized shipping company.

  5. I’ve just started using powerpoint for visual materials, as I transfer my old slides to digital form, and I’ll probably start using it for maps and charts in the next few months if I can muster the patience to actually figure out where my textbook company has hidden them on their website.

    I only have a few lectures that are so organized that I’d actually consider putting the whole thing — in outline at least — in powerpoint form. What I’d really like to have, actually, is a kind of flexible presentation system so that I could quickly search through my collection for a particular chart or painting and display it, without the entire class seeing me scroll through directories of stuff or riffling through google images…. Sure, sometimes I know in advance exactly what I’m going to need, but between the improvisational nature of my brain and the unpredictability of student questions, powerpoint just doesn’t work that well most of the time.

  6. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    Tim, I agree you and the other comentors that this is less a problem of powerpoint and more a matter of pedagogy. In fact, I would say it has a lot more to do with the job description of “professor” than it does with even pedagogy. I am pretty sure Carolyn’s Operating Systems instructor is more esteemed by his colleagues and the institution for his research rather than his teaching.

  7. jim says:

    My general impression is that Powerpoint makes bad lecturers better, but not good. It generally restrains the overly discursive (not to say garrulous), for example.

    We talk about bad use iof Powerpoint. We tend not to talk about bad use of non-Powerpoint.

Comments are closed.