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If I Were King of the Forest …

… as the Cowardly Lion sings…

If I were king, enlightened deans would see that most instances of PowerPoint use in the classroom are lazy and irresponsible and even inhuman. They would understand that PowerPoint breeds a robotic remoteness and simple-mindedness in professors that in turn breeds boredom in students. These deans would firmly discourage their teaching staff from using PowerPoint.

Dream on, you fool!

… And yet…

College leaders usually brag about their tech-filled “smart” classrooms, but a dean at Southern Methodist University is proudly removing computers from lecture halls. José A. Bowen, dean of the Meadows School of the Arts, has challenged his colleagues to “teach naked” — by which he means, sans machines.

More than anything else, Mr. Bowen wants to discourage professors from using PowerPoint, because they often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather than using it as a creative tool. Class time should be reserved for discussion, he contends, especially now that students can download lectures online and find libraries of information on the Web. When students reflect on their college years later in life, they’re going to remember challenging debates and talks with their professors. Lively interactions are what teaching is all about, he says, but those give-and-takes are discouraged by preset collections of slides.

He’s not the only one raising questions about PowerPoint, which on many campuses is the state of the art in classroom teaching. A study published in the April issue of British Educational Research Journal found that 59 percent of students in a new survey reported that at least half of their lectures were boring, and that PowerPoint was one of the dullest methods they saw. The survey consisted of 211 students at a university in England and was conducted by researchers at the University of Central Lancashire.

Students in the survey gave low marks not just to PowerPoint, but also to all kinds of computer-assisted classroom activities, even interactive exercises in computer labs. “The least boring teaching methods were found to be seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions,” said the report. In other words, tech-free classrooms were the most engaging.


The biggest resistance to Mr. Bowen’s ideas has come from students, some of whom have groused about taking a more active role during those 50-minute class periods. The lecture model is pretty comfortable for both students and professors…

Yes well. You know how irritable you become when you’ve been sleeping and people try to wake you up.

“[S]tudents … are used to being spoon-fed material that is going to be quote unquote on the test,” says [one observer]. “Students have been socialized to view the educational process as essentially passive.”

Duh! The professor’s been socialized to be passive too, sitting there like a pointless nothing watching a movie or staring at slides along with the kiddies. What a rip-off. You’re paying a lot in tuition for your professor to warm her ass on the seat next to you. To read bullet points aloud to you like a kindergarten teacher.

UD certainly sees the benefit of PowerPoint to professor and student. Nobody has to do anything, and the only negative is that everyone’s bored out of their gourd.

But, as this enlightened dean notes, college professors are supposed to do something. So are college students.


thanks Bill for the link.

Margaret Soltan, July 20, 2009 5:50PM
Posted in: powerpoint pissoff, technolust

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23 Responses to “If I Were King of the Forest …”

  1. theprofessor Says:

    So if I want to talk about the Petit Trianon, I’m supposed to sketch it on the board or describe it orally, rather than use a picture?

    I know what you mean, UD, but don’t toss the baby under the bus with the PPs full of nothing but bulleted text in 8-point font. The problem is not PP, but profs who basically put their whole lecture on the slides and then proceed to read it verbatim.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    I take your point, tp, but the problem is that PowerPoint has become so popular, so pervasive, that defenses of it are starting to sound like defenses of communism among lefties decades ago. Nothing wrong with the thing itself! Just being used wrong! It’s a question of implementation!

    No. Not anymore. You’re talking, as an art history type (I gather) about putting a slide of an image in front of your classroom. This is something art professors have been doing since the dawn of time. LONG way from that to the practical realities of PP use. There’s simply something intrinsic to the technology that makes people abuse it…

  3. theprofessor Says:

    As a pathognomist who also is compelled to dabble in history, art, mythology, and other areas, PP is on the one hand simply a convenient way to package the images we have been using for donkey’s years. It is also a way to avoid scrawling illegibly over a blackboard, which is a very big problem for many profs. Some of my colleagues who are real historians are very interdisciplinary in their approach, including much more than names, dates, and events in their lectures. Their classes are, uniformly, 1000% more interesting than the wholly verbal harangues read from yellowed notes that were inflicted on me by various left-wing worthies at BU in the 70s. The good old days were not so good, UD. For every scintillating prof who could actually teach and interact well with students in class, there were three slackers who did nothing but read their notes and two terminally disorganized types who ended up creating more confusion than enlightenment. PP has done nothing to improve the slackers, but it has helped the disorganized to some degree.

    Today’s students are not as well prepared in terms of being able to discern key points in the course of a lecture or discussion. They either try to take verbatim dictation or take few/no notes at all. One of the key goals of my intro courses, typically taken by freshmen, is to develop the intellectual sonar to identify important points. Early on, I provide plenty of emphasized info on the PP. At some times in the class, we stop and try to see why I had highlighted/bulleted certain points (e.g., we talked about it for a long time, there is an entire subsection in the text about it, I used certain key words ("important," "fundamental," "one of the problems on the test…"). Over the course of the semester, I slowly kick out the props from the PP; many don’t even notice, because they increasingly have their heads in the game.

    It is actually the pathogomists’ hated rivals, the mesmerists (may they burn in hell), who abuse PP. They are almost as bad as senior university administrators. The true faculty slackers now have moved on from PP to Elmo overhead projectors. Last semester, while standing outside the door, I usually caught the last ten minutes of a burned-out colleague from the B-school turning page after page of the textbook and reading directly from it while the kids napped.

  4. In the provinces Says:

    For those of us who teach at public institutions (the vast majority of higher-ed instructors, let us remember) and whose classes range in size from 50 to, for instance, 750, the call for lively classroom debate and discussion rings a touch hollow. UD, who has profound discussions of literature with a dozen like-minded souls in her classes, might remember that her circumstances, and her students’ families, who can afford the astonishing tuition private institutions like GWU charge, are not even remotely typical of American colleges and universities.

  5. Dance Says:

    Ditto to In the provinces. This article made me leap right past any question of PPT or chalkboard, and focus on the issue of class sizes. You can’t have "more discussion" when class sizes are at 90, 100, 177, 256, etc, to pick some numbers I was just looking at while advising. I believe Intro to World Politics was 177 with no discussion sections. WTF?

    In addition, while I hate lecture and do not do it (well or much) myself, I think a full-on PPT one-way dissemination of information matched with discussion sections can allow profs to skip using an expensive textbook and have students put their energy into reading primary sources, articles with strong arguments, etc, so that even the worst forms of PPT can become a good use at many schools.

  6. Margaret Soltan Says:

    In the provinces, Dance, tp:

    If your university lacks professors who can command a large room of students – who can, by force of personality and eloquence and learning do an excellent lecture course which DOES in fact incorporate discussion — UD has never understood why people assume large numbers of people mean no discussion. All sorts of large bodies have discussions as part of their proceedings. — then it has a few options:

    1. It can use professors in its lecture courses who don’t lecture well, and who therefore rely too much on technology- PP and other stuff. These lectures are enormous, and the reality of the classroom, as the professor knows, is that she can’t maintain the attention of the students. So she will fiddle, head down, with technology.

    Keep in mind, by the way, not only what the professor’s doing in front of the class. The students are watching films on their laptops, talking to people on cell phones, etc. In the old days, they were reading newspapers. Today, total rapt attention is given to their OWN technology, all the bells and whistles they’ve brought into the classroom. Everyone his own fiddler. And why not? The professor, though aware of the situation, does not care. Rather than try to be an engaging lecturer (she doesn’t know how to do this; and, as I think one of you said, maybe it’s impossible given really enormous lecture classes… ), she will accept — even gratefully — the hushed wired classroom she encounters every session.

    Let’s evolve forward a few years from this approach. Much of the information on the PPs is already in the book; and she’s mainly just reading it aloud. How long before this absurd non-transaction, which resembles college education not at all, becomes obsolete? The SMU professor in the article is fully aware that universities are ASKING to be supplanted by online for-profits and not for profits when they offer option 1. “Now that so many colleges offer low-cost online alternatives to the traditional campus experience, and some universities give away videos of their best professors’ lectures, colleges must make sure their in-person teaching really is superior to those alternatives.”

    Ever-increasing PP’d classrooms with hundreds of students in them are just another way of making professors obsolete.

    2. It can admit fewer students into its university, or into certain majors.

    3. It can recruit excellent lecturers who can handle a large audience in a pedagogically responsible way. If a big public university can pay five million dollars for a football coach, it can find money for master lecturers.

  7. Dance Says:

    I’m disclined to plan a university around a rapidly disappearing species:

    professors who can command a large room of students – who can, by force of personality and eloquence and learning do an excellent lecture course which DOES in fact incorporate discussion

    I’ve barely met professors who have the personality and eloquence to command a small room of other professors when lecturing on their speciality, or even asking a question of a speaker.

    But, we are in agreement, I think. The true issue is the larger design of the university and what it does, and why. Focusing on PPT, I think, is a red herring distracting us from thinking deeply about the big lecture model and how it works. PPT in the hands of the person you describe will not be a problem.

  8. Shane Says:

    Long ago I coined a word out of necessity. We were watching Kubrick’s "Full Metal Jacket" and my mother asked me how they keep the Marines’ hips from swaying when they march on parade. I told her they don’t swing their hips, they bounce (at which point the DI in the movie broke his cadence to admonish the men, "You’re bouncing!").

    I told my mother she was being "gynopomorphic", a play on anthropomorphic, and meant to indicate that she was projecting the characteristics of women onto to men.

    Now, I need to word to indicate that UD is projecting the characteristics of liberal arts profs onto others. It is certainly the case the whipping out your PP to list the lesbian motifs in Woolf’s "To the Lighthouse" is a pretty silly way to go about things in a seminar with ten students. But when I want to demonstrate how a series of related chemical compounds differ in some physical property as a result of their structure, say, then I want pictures, graphs, and other representations. And if I can prepare these beforehand, and the students can bring printed versions with them to class, then we have escaped my poor artistic and board-writing skills and the tedium of the students simply transcribing notes.

    And what of the students who learn better visually, who can interpret graphical material rather than the same information in mathematical form? Doesn’t UD want us to engage the students in a way that best suits their "learning style"?

    For the word, I nominate "liberopomorphic", which I imagine will have utility beyond just describing the teaching styles of our liberal arts colleagues.

  9. Cassandra Says:

    It’s becoming tedious how the Power Point advocates keep trotting out the I-can-only-explain-X canard to refute criticism of the medium when it’s patently clear to so many of us that the worst offenders of Power Point don’t use the tech to teach at all.

    To point: Listing a series of bullet points in a series of slides is not a good or effective educational exercise.

    Effective users of the Power Point often have 1 or 2 key sentences per slide (or, as mentioned above, a picture) and then have 5-10 minutes of lecture or discussion around each slide. THIS IS NO LONGER THE MODEL BEING USED…at least by the majority. If you do it that way, you might want to poke around and take notice of how rare your strategy is.

  10. Dance Says:

    Follow-up to my #7: I suspect the ultimate problem is a massive disrepect for the value of verbal communication in the academy in general (likely related to the fetish for publications and written communication). I’m basing this on the number of crappy jobtalks I have heard, a moment when you would think people would work really hard to design a good lecture (plus a lot of bad conference presentations).

  11. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Dance: Really good point.

    I think it’s no accident that the dean who’s trying to get rid of PP comes from the performing arts. I’d say it’s not just verbal. Not to get too weird about things… about my own preoccupations… but I’d link it to the general anesthesia of the population — this is not only about disrespecting verbal interaction. It’s about disrespecting human immediacy altogether.

    Teaching may be one of direct human interaction’s final frontiers. And that one’s fading fast. The technology gives you all you could want by way of obstruction to direct engagement.

    And we haven’t even talked about clickers.

  12. GTWMA Says:

    While I agree with a lot of points, people are ignoring part of Shane’s point. I’m an economist with a fatal flaw–I can’t draw well. Powerpoint has enhanced my ability to present economics visually, preparing graphs ahead of class that are much better than anything I can draw or the multiple overheads I used to have to prepare. My students, as a result, don’t have to endure nearly as many repeated efforts at bad freehand graphs. I generally use PP in three ways–to provide my overall outline, to highlight the main points, and to present visual information that is better than what I can do by hand or in other ways.

  13. Margaret Soltan Says:

    I want, before I respond to GTWMA’s comment, to quote this:

    … [Clickers, PPs and other forms of technology] are the handmaiden[s] of an administration bent on sustaining huge classes where students need opera glasses to see the instructor. No wonder students are bored, answer their cell phones, and text messages to friends.

    It’s from an article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. I post about it here.

    One question implicit in this exchange today: When will faculty and students begin to rebel against this disgusting practice?

    University of Arizona officials will offer three classes in Centennial Hall, the largest of which will seat 1,200 students.

  14. Margaret Soltan Says:


    Give me your bad freehand graphs any day.

    Your list of the ways you use PP suggests to me you’re overusing it — it’s not just about your drawing skills — and in any case — I’d far rather, as your student, see the direct, real-time YOU sketching a graph on the board and talking about it as you do — with amusing side comments about your bad drawing — than see the oh so perfect inhuman march of graphs some machine has prepared.

    Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.

    The best is the enemy of the good.

    Be yourself. Be there fully – in all your whimsical lame illustrating, in all your human particularity. No one else can do it. It’s the best gift you can give your students. To use the terminology the dean in the CHE article uses — show your naked self.

    You say your students prefer PP? We’ve already talked about why THAT is. Reread the CHE article.

  15. theprofessor Says:

    Cassandra, I am very confident in saying that you could not find more than one or two individuals in the humanities or social sciences here who are doing PP with slide after slide of bulleted text. Ditto for bizarre animations and transitions, weird backgrounds, etc. We have had numerous unofficial workshops, coffees, and mutual class visits to work on how to make effective use of PP and other classroom tech without letting them become the focus instead of the material.

    UD, come on–the types you describe have always been few and far between. I could count on a single hand the number of such profs I encountered as an undergraduate, and on one finger the number as a graduate student. You yourself in another recent post pointed out the general patheticness of profs.

  16. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Oh, but not their patheticness in that respect, tp. I attended a lecture – a big lecture – Richard Rorty (you’re alluding to a post I wrote about Rorty) gave at NIH and he was wonderful. There were questions afterwards – -and why can’t large lecture classes have questions at the end, the way such presentations do? Oh, right, they have clickers…. — and Thelma Lavine, a local intellectual luminary, gave him hell about a lot of stuff, and he responded with great civility and great sharpness… It was all dramatic and exciting – a real intellectual event…

    And don’t tell me I’m unusual… The whole POINT of college is to stimulate an interest in intellectuality among students. Ain’t it? Or is it just to make them employable? And of course you won’t stimulate all — or even many — of them. That doesn’t mean you give up. And as for the rare nature of great lecturers — or maybe you mean great teachers altogether, seminar or lecture — so? Universities are supposed to look for such people, and encourage such people. The triumph of PP and techno-thinking in general among administrators – often, as my earlier quotation on this thread suggests, for cynical reasons — makes it harder and harder for naturally talented teachers to recognize themselves as such and seek to develop that talent.

  17. Shane Says:

    OK, Cassandra, so how DO you want me to express to my students the influence of bond polarity on boiling point? Interpretive dance?

    If demonstration by example is merely a canard in your logic, then I suppose there really isn’t much left to talk about. But the issue you raise about effective use of PPT is a good one. So I have this example: this summer, I taught general chemistry using a popular standard text and lectured with (only slightly modified) canned PPT lectures that come with the text. Pictures, equations, graphs, bullet points–all there, and I supplemented with worked examples at the board. This is how it is done across the country if not around the world. Now different profs will pull this off–deliver course content–with various shades of success. But that variation is purely a function of the how good the lecturer is as a teacher. Powerpoint has no real influence on that, for good or ill.

    So, as I hope I’ve argued, PPT is a useful way for conveying certain kinds of information. Like the gunfighter in the ol’ movie said of his gun–it’s a tool, only as good or as bad as the man using it.

    Ah, clickers…now there you may have me UD…I really hate those little buggers…..

  18. Dance Says:

    Edge of the American West defends not just PPT, but THE DREADED BULLET POINT, with a demo:

    UD@16 and Thelma Lavine, a local intellectual luminary, gave him hell

    I was going to note that the success of discussion in large groups depends on the audience….isn’t it likely to be the usual suspects every time in a 200-level lecture of 150 students? Maybe that’s a problem, maybe it’s not, I see arguments either way.

  19. Cassandra Says:

    Shane, sweetie…

    Where did I say not to use an example/demonstration in class? Although I am sure an interpretive dance of the influence of bond polarity on boiling point would be thoroughly enjoyable!

    If you re-read what I wrote you will see my objection parallels UD’s–the use of Power Point to provide a visual replacement for those apocryphal yellow lecture notes the so-called deadwood are always supposedly trotting out semester-after-wearyingly-dull-semester.

    Your example of using canned PP slides *ALONGSIDE* actual chalkboard examples seems much closer to my recommendation than not.

    Sadly, I think TheProfessor is ostriching. I’ve experienced far too many PowerPoint lectures in classrooms that really were just someone reading the notes off the screen. In some places, it’s even recommended to do it that way. ‘Twas so at my grad institution.

    I think the Internet acronym YMMV (your mileage may vary) must apply here.

  20. Bill Gleason Says:


    Since I fed UD this red meat-

    Upfront: I use powerpoint

    There are indeed lecturers who can handle 100 – 300 students and encourage and receive interactive comments. Even when the course is televised.

    Using powerpoint is not a barrier to having an interactive class. Go out into the studio audience, look ’em in the eye, and ask ’em what they think. Although UD hates clickers, there are devices that allow you to advance/go back on PP without being tethered to a lecturn.

    I do have to laugh at the yellowed notes. There have always been people who used the same notes – for years – without updates. There have also been people – long long ago – like Dick Ramette at Carleton, who are masterful lecturers who could do chemistry experiments in real time during a lecture.

    There are many ways to Nirvana.


  21. GTWMA Says:

    The problem, UD, is that my bad drawing skills were an impediment to student learning. The frequent corrections, the need to backtrack and re-explain something, the need to erase and start over again was simply preventing good learning. All the jokes in the world could not save that.

    And it’s pretty clear that I didn’t convey how I use PP. These are not machine made graphs. These are GTWMA made graphs, bee-you-tee-fully done with nice notations and even some nifty animatronics that makes the kiddies laugh. An opening slide, a closing slide, and a few pre-prepared pics is excessive use? Au contraire. They allow me to be myself in all my glory, without the fits and starts that my poor artistic skills created.

  22. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Okay, GTWMA. You convince me that you’re using PP well… I shouldn’t be so quick to jump on ALL people who use it… If you’re making the kiddies laugh, well and good.

  23. Derek Says:

    My quickie takes on Powerpoint:

    1) The next good powerpoint presentation I see will be the first.

    2) My general philosophy in dealing with my colleagues is as follows: Do not tell me what to do in my classroom and I will not tell you what to do in yours. But . . .

    3) Too many institutions are privileging the use of technology and presuming it as prima facie better. That is not the case. The Compact With Texans that state institutions in Texas establish, or at least ours, quite clearly privileged using technology in the classroom and in research — not doing it well, not using it to improve what existed. Instead it simply became using technology = better so that you are automatically put on the defensive if you say "I oppose the use of Powerpoint in my classes."

    4) For those of you saying "How can I possibly do X without Powerpoint" I just have to say, I wish that my work and teaching were so utterly cutting edge that it was impossible to do it before Powerpoint. Yet somehow I expect that very few of us are doing such work in the classroom that defies the loss of powerpoint. How can you possibly do X? Talk to your advisor or another person who somehow managed to muddle through prior to, say, the lost years of academia prior to 1995, if you really are at that much of a loss.

    5) I am seriously thinking of establishing a policy with regard to student use of laptops in the classroom that establishes that at any time I can call on you to show me the notes you have been taking in class. If you do not have notes that reflect that you have been using the computer for note taking, you are done using the computer in my class for the semester. I am pretty convinced that 90% of students are on the web when they are using that technology for "taking notes." And then they hide behind the university promoting technology to justify what I see as the privilege, and not the right, of using laptops in class.


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