Old wine in new bottles.

7 03 2012

It’s hard for me to write about lecturing because I still think I have a lot to learn. Perhaps because of my TA experience, I’ve always been much more comfortable talking with people than talking at them. Nevertheless, I’m a historian. That means my job is to convey a lot of historical information to students. Over time, as I’ve come to realize that a lot of students need help in the basic skills necessary to do anything useful with the historical information that I’m supposedly conveying to them, I’ve substituted work on skills for additional facts. However, there are some compromises that I am unwilling to make.

Even if I cut back on the number of historical facts I cover due to discussion, tech or whatever, I’m going to have to lecture at some point. After all, you can’t count on everyone to do the reading (let alone understand it). And as I wrote the last time Kate requested a post about lecturing: What are you going to replace it with? You can’t poll students on this question because most of them will recommend showing movies all semester, or perhaps just giving them an “A” now and letting them sleep in until graduation.

The key then is to make sure that you lecture well. I got this from the comments of the Chronicle piece that started this whole discussion:

But what’s silly is to say that “lecture” is flawed, or “Powerpoint” is flawed. It’s equally problematic to say that “social media” is the answer, or experiential forms of learning, etc. etc….Those, again, are tools, mediums. One could imagine ways in which they are used very well. One could imagine ways in which they were used very badly and contributed nothing to the learning environment.

As an undergrad, I never had a class with fewer than thirty people in it. Therefore, my education consisted of listening to a lot of lectures. Some of them were very good. Some of them weren’t.

How can you tell a good lecture from a bad lecture? I’ll let Plashing Vole begin those festivities:

One of the useful things about a lecture is that you’re eyeball-to-eyeball with your audience. I can tell when people are texting, listening to music, checking Facebook, Tweeting or simply zoned out.

That’s only true if you’re actually looking at your students when you’re talking. Keep your head buried in notes and that won’t work. Read off PowerPoint slides and that certainly won’t work. Sometimes I forget things that I know I should remember, like the other day when I couldn’t come up with the title of Michael Harrington’s most famous book.* I care a lot more about such lapses than my students do.

In general though, I know my own survey class material well enough now that I can simply use the pictures and minimal text on my PowerPoints as prompts to remind me what I want to talk about. Then I talk about it, looking at the class the whole time. While hardly original, I developed this skill after starting to do book talks, because I recognized that a general audience has to be engaged with the material if they’re ever going to buy your book when you’re done. It’s the same way with undergraduates who you (presumably) want to be invested enough in the material in order to pass your class.

Kate has a more cynical take on lectures than I do:

[W]e keep on lecturing because—as a colleague reminded me this week—when we don’t, we’re often assumed by either administrators or students to be reneging on the deal that trades student college costs for academic face-time.

I lecture not out of fear, but out of necessity. I lecture sparingly in upper-level classes because there’s so much else that can be done to promote critical thinking. In survey classes, there is far too much ground to cover so that students have something to think critically about. There is no viable alternative to such methods. That’s why so many of those much-vaunted high tech start-ups are just taping other people’s lectures and delivering them over the Internet.

Old wine in new bottles. Not all of it has spoiled.

* The Other America. I got it about five minutes after I couldn’t come up with the name the first time I mentioned him. Memory is funny that way.


“To the casual observer, an academic conference must appear to be one of the strangest of modern rituals.”

13 12 2011

I believe that the anonymous author of the blog “100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School” is an absolute bloody genius, and certainly more deserving of higher education industry-wide fame than that Pannapacker dude. To me, this post on academic conferences (#74 for those of us who are counting) stands out as the crème de la crème of one of the great academic blogs of all time:

The ostensible purpose of an academic conference is to provide a forum in which scholars present and critique research. Rarely, however, is the emptiness of academe put on more public display than in the context of an academic conference.

To the casual observer, an academic conference must appear to be one of the strangest of modern rituals. At various sessions, speakers present their own research by reading aloud to an audience. Someone who has attended a full day of sessions will have listened to people reading for five or six hours. How well do you suppose the audience members are listening? They sit politely and at least pretend to listen, because when their own turn comes to stand up and read aloud, they would like others to extend the same courtesy to them. Sparks fly occasionally during question time, which can be mean-spirited or (less often) enlightening, but decorous boredom is typically the order of the day.

I have already come out against reading conference papers here and here. To me, the sort of bemused detachment present in reason #74 really drives home how stupid reading a script for twenty minutes would look to anyone but an academic. Indeed, as my brother the economist loves to point out, absolutely nobody in his profession ever does this. Therefore, it’s actually just a few of us academics from a limited number of disciplines who seem to like to torture one another. Seriously, would you ever consider teaching this way? Ever? Then why subject your colleagues to this kind of cruel and unusual punishment?

That said, as I’ve been not reading papers at a lot of conferences lately, I’ve noticed another really interesting development that has to do with technology. Powerpoint is now practically required at all the conference sessions I’ve attended lately. If you’re a participant in the session (or even if you just go in about ten minutes before start time) everybody will be dutifully loading their presentations onto someone’s laptop so that they too can seem as 21st century as possible.

Yet they still read their papers from a script. I am always part of that PowerPoint ritual when I do papers now, but I have resolved to do conference presentations the same way I teach lecture courses. The slides are almost entirely pictures (with the occasional film clip) and they serve as prompts for me to talk off the cuff about my topic. I do not read anything verbatim.

My colleagues who read their papers, on the other hand, have to stop their reading in the middle to advance the slideshow and talk about what’s on the slide. This seldom jibes with whatever they happen to be reading at that moment, making the entire exercise even more awkward than simply standing up and reading from your script. At least if you go totally old school, there’s no chance of getting lost. Clarity inevitably suffers otherwise.

The other funny thing about PowerPoint in conferences is how the whole layout of sessions has to change in order to accomodate the technology. If everyone is showing PowerPoints and the screen is at the front, then the entire panel has to sit in the audience in order to see them. Those waterglasses on the front table? Useless. And do we really need all those chairs up front for just ten minutes of questions?

Yet there the old setup remains, which should make the entire ritual of the academic conference seem even stranger to any casual non-academic observer who cared enough to visit. By the way, did I mention that I’m going to the AHA in Chicago this year? Just try to tell me that going to Chicago in January isn’t bizarre. I dare you.

How can you tell good educational technology from bad educational technology?

23 08 2011

When I first started teaching at what was then known as the University of Southern Colorado, there were two sets of old maps printed on canvas stored in an upstairs closet which I’m sure dated from about 1960. One set had historical maps for world history. The other set had maps pertaining to American history. Faculty had to drag them out of the closet and move them into their classrooms whenever they had to make a geographic point (and to be fair to today’s student’s for one moment, the last batch of non-digital natives didn’t know much about geography either). I was still teaching the first half of the US survey class at the time so from time to time I had to drag those maps out of storage to make some point, usually about the sheer magnitude of the British Empire.

Then I discovered those plastic sheets with maps printed on them. They went on top of what we around here call an ELMO machine (basically, a flattop projector that displays on a vertical screen) so suddenly there was no need to drag the maps around at all. Not only that, there were pictures of things on those sheets besides maps! Now instead of talking about what a cotton gin looked like (“It’s like a giant rotary mower, only stationary.”), I could actually show a picture of one.

Put off by too many canned presentations where the technology didn’t work, I was late coming to PowerPoint but I’m very glad to be there now. Thanks to Microsoft (I guarantee you I don’t write those words very often), I’m no longer dependent upon publishers for the pictures I want to show in lectures. The entire Internet is my slide library, just as it is everybody else’s.

When Spencer Crew of George Mason University visited us a few weeks ago for our teacher colloquium, I developed a terrible case of slide envy. For example, he had a picture of a clipping of Black Panthers serving breakfast in a Baltimore ghetto. Now I’d been talking about the more nurturing side of the Black Panthers ever since I saw Bobby Seale speak back around the time I was still using an ELMO machine. So he and I traded slides and now I can illustrate that point beautifully!*

I think the nature of the improvement apparent in this anecdote applies well to other educational technologies as well. Certainly, PowerPoint is more convenient than maps. I also have a much better choice of material than I did when I ordered every publisher’s plastic overlays and picked only the ones I liked most. But I think the quality that’s most important here is the increase in instructor control over time. If I get to design the slideshow exactly the way I like it, I know that I am running the technology rather than letting the technology run me.

Let me offer up one more example to illustrate that point. I’ve written any number of times here now about killing my survey textbook and using Milestone Documents, a subscription website with primary sources, instead. This may seem strange coming from someone who purports to hate e-reading, but in fact it gives me much better control over my curriculum than if I used a paper alternative.

Let me illustrate that point with another anecdote: This semester, I’m also using Milestone Documents as a reader for my upper level course on America from 1877-1945. [Best. Period. Ever.] While designing my syllabus last week, I was looking for something about Prohibition because I assigned Daniel Okrent’s awesome book on this subject, Last Call to the class for a text this time around. Seeing none, I shoot Neil Schlager of Milestone Docs an e-mail which said, in part, “You guys should really have the Volstead Act in your collection.” Yesterday, I get an e-mail back telling me that it’s up on the site and ready for classroom use.

Now I’ve sent enough e-mails like that to Neil this last year that they put me on the editorial board over there, but that’s beside the point. The advantage of the Milestone Documents model is that when they get enough documents up there, every history professor can get access to the precise historical materials that they already teach. No extra pounds to lug around that students won’t read anyways. No useless revisions of the text designed solely to destroy the used book market for that particular text. The teacher is in control, and the students can even use their subscription to read around other documents if they’re so inclined.

Hopefully, you get my point. This post is getting a little long so I’ll end it here. Perhaps I’ll make this a two-parter and talk about a few more illustrations of this argument that are swimming around my head at the moment, but I’d like to see what you all think of it first.

* There has to be some way that history professors can get together and trade PowerPoint slides without running afoul of copyright laws. After all, it makes no difference to me if someone else uses the same slides that I do. After all, we should hope that the same students won’t take the identical survey course twice from two different instructors.

A (somewhat trivial) PowerPoint issue.

28 02 2011

Despite the fact that its so easy to misuse, I still lecture with PowerPoint in my survey classes. I’ve defended that practice elsewhere, so I don’t feel like I need to do it now. I will say this again though: The illustrative power of pictures in a history class is so great that to me not using PowerPoint is a form of educational malpractice.

There is also great value to using PowerPoint for primary source quotes. In my pre-Power Point days, I remember reading out relatively long primary source quotes from my notes as if I was the narrator from a Ken Burns documentary. Now this strikes me as rather inefficient since I can now talk about the quote rather than read what students can read for themselves.

But thanks to a couple of conversations I’ve had lately, I’m beginning to wonder if that much multi-tasking is too much to ask from students. So professorial readers, the questions of the day are:

Do you ever read text (particularly quotations) from a PowerPoint lecture? If so, why? If not, why not?

Yes, I know this whole line of questioning is somewhat trivial, but I still think there’s some interesting teaching philosophy issues under-girding this seemingly insignificant argument.

Teaching requires thinking and a few other painfully obvious observations.

1 11 2010

College Misery is not nearly as much fun as its predecessor, the sorely-missed Rate Your Students. How could any blog be? My theory is that this is simply a function of editing. Whoever runs CM gave out usernames and passwords to something like a hundred people. It is simply impossible for all of those people to be as interesting as the “pick and chose the cream of the crop” formula that guided RYS.

I read CM regularly though because every once in a while a really good post comes up, the kind that makes me wade through the unremarkable bellyaching on its average days. Besides having a very interesting story in it about pre-prepared PowerPoints distributed by publishers the discussion in the comments is both civil and informative. What I liked the most here though are the questions at the end:

They [meaning publishers] are ENCOURAGING professors to suck. Is it a conspiracy? If they make enough of us worthless, are they going to take over the world with online education? WTF?

Much as I wish this was a conspiracy, I think the causation here is probably reversed. I recently got called out for complaining about lazy professors, and I think there is some truth to the point that economic conditions rather than character traits might explain the use of technology to cut corners.

Nevertheless, I remain unsympathetic. It wasn’t that long ago that my teaching load was five sections of survey each semester. I specifically remember demanding that I be allowed to teach both halves at the same time because I couldn’t stand the prospect of boring myself.

Consider this line from the comments to the CM post:

I used PowerPoint during my first year of lecturing, to hide behind.

[Emphasis added]

I don’t think she was hiding from the fact that she wasn’t prepared for class. After all, she had enough time to write the PowerPoint. What she was hiding from was the need to do any thinking because she wasn’t sure enough of her own authority. Without thinking, you might as well just hit the play button and show movies every day. Giant publishers will probably be delighted to provide you with those movies very, very soon, but in the meantime we should resist that future with every fibre of our being.

How should a good lecture be prepared?

28 07 2010

When I started graduate school, I was determined not to be one of those professors who lectures off the same yellow notes for thirty years. In my upper-level classes, this is easy as they are almost always structured around discussions of some sort or another. In my survey class, I feel I have no choice but to lecture most of the time. There’s too much to cover and too many people to do anything else (although I try to run at least a few directed discussions when non-textbook reading is due).

I still remember how hard it was to write my first set of survey lectures during my first semester teaching. “Assign the second-best textbook and steal from the best,” I was told. I followed that advice too, but have changed those lectures enough since then that I know they’re all my own now. In fact, that doesn’t really matter anymore because I barely even look at my notes when I’m lecturing. I have them handy in case I have an early “senior moment,” as my older colleagues like to call them, but after ten years I can explain most of the important points in my survey class off the top of my head. I like doing it this way as I can concentrate on speaking slower, paying enough attention so that students don’t reach for their phones and seeing when hands go up with questions.

That said, this article (via UD, of course) got me thinking. The writer is explaining why her students don’t know how to take notes:

They told me that in their schools, teachers deliver content via PowerPoint. Teachers upload slides to the virtual learning environment and print them out for the students to revise. There is a reason for this attentiveness. So many schools are conscious of league tables that teachers cannot risk student failure. They not only teach (to) the exam, but give students page after page (after page) of PowerPoint slides so that they do not risk missing anything from their notes.

One consequence of their actions is that students do not learn how to take notes from research material. A dependency culture on teachers is created, facilitated by PowerPoint and its non-Microsoft equivalents Keynote and Impress. When these students arrive at university, many academics perpetuate the problem. A lack of planning and preparation for a teaching session means too many walk into a lecture with a memory stick of PowerPoint slides. They have not written a lecture. They have written PowerPoint slides. They think these two things are the same. They are not. We see similar problems in conferences. Researchers are meant to present scholarship to colleagues. Instead they project PowerPoint slides.

As I’ve written before in this space, I use PowerPoint like a slide projector: Almost all pictures with very little text. I hand the students nothing when I’m done. My aspiration is to redo my lectures so that all I need is a one page list of what each slide is in its proper. That way I can talk directly to students in an organized fashion off the top of my head without having to read anything verbatim.

Am I off my rocker? Isn’t that what a good lecture is supposed be? UD writes, self-referentially:

UD argues that the burgeoning popularity of both the mobile person-hiding machine and the PowerPoint machine involves a growing terror of public interaction in itself. Not merely public speaking. Public anything.

I, on the other hand, aspire to lecture without notes in order to facilitate interaction and spontaneity rather than avoid it. Isn’t it the reading verbatim that’s the problem rather than the PowerPoint per se?

A good teacher should know better than to trust Microsoft.

7 03 2008

I have been using all of UD‘s posts on PowerPoint as an inspiration for my musings on this subject. Not this time.

This article is by historian Michael Flamm in this month’s AHA Perspectives, and his position is pro-PowerPoint, anti-PowerPoint abuse. Here’s the thesis:

What too many critics of PowerPoint too often fail to bear in mind is that it is simply a tool—nothing more and nothing less. Used well, the program can help motivate students, improve their retention, and organize their notes. Used poorly, it can distract or confuse them. But in the end, PowerPoint remains only a tool—and a good carpenter should never blame his or her tools.

It’s actually hard to argue with that, but I’m going to try nonetheless. I do this not because I disagree with the overall sentiment of that statement, but in this case I do believe that the tool does deserve some blame.

This is from the 2001 article from Ian Parker in the New Yorker that I linked to the last time I tackled this subject:

Clifford Nass has an office overlooking the Oval lawn at Stanford, a university where the use of PowerPoint is so widespread that to refrain from using it is sometimes seen as a mark of seniority and privilege, like egg on one’s tie. Nass once worked for Intel, and then got a Ph.D. in sociology, and now he writes about and lectures on the ways people think about computers. But, before embarking on any of that, Professor Nass was a professional magician—Cliff Conjure—so he has some confidence in his abilities as a public performer.

According to Nass, who now gives PowerPoint lectures because his students asked him to, PowerPoint “lifts the floor” of public speaking: a lecture is less likely to be poor if the speaker is using the program. “What PowerPoint does is very efficiently deliver content,” Nass told me. “What students gain is a lot more information—not just facts but rules, ways of thinking, examples.”

At the same time, PowerPoint “lowers the ceiling,” Nass says. “What you miss is the process. The classes I remember most, the professors I remember most, were the ones where you could watch how they thought. You don’t remember what they said, the details. It was ‘What an elegant way to wrap around a problem!’ PowerPoint takes that away. PowerPoint gives you the outcome, but it removes the process.”

The program leaves out the process because you’re supposed to leave out the process in a business presentation. Pitches are supposed to look smooth and shiny, so that no client can resist your proposal or that no audience can resist your ideas.

Education, on the other hand, should be at least a little bit messy. I prefer to teach the process so that students can come evaluate the historical facts I present them on their own. I use PowerPoint in my survey classes, but only for pictures and an absolute minimum of text (like people’s names). Giving students everything gives them no reason to listen.

So getting back around to Flamm, for professors to use PowerPoint well, they have to actively work against the software designer’s desire to get them to use more bells and whistles to jazz up whatever they’re presenting. What’s worse, new bells and whistles are required every few years in order to give users at least some justification for shelling out more for the updates other than the fact that Bill Gates is now only the third richest man in the world and therefore needs more money.

That’s Microsoft’s fault, not the professor’s. Nevertheless, I agree that a good teacher really should know better than to trust Microsoft to do their thinking for them.

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