Death by PowerPoint
The style of academic performance has undergone a quiet makeover. The clumsy rustling of notes set against the backdrop of a broken overhead projector or upside down slide show has been replaced by the slick digital wizardry of PowerPoint and 'data projection'. This transformation is worthy of a reality TV miracle. Busily hooking up my laptop at a recent conference in Copenhagen a friend who had been working abroad asked: "Does everyone do that now? All looks very corporate!" The edge in his aside made me realise quite how fast and completely things have changed.
The increasingly digitised forms of academic performance have a downside. The worst example I've witnessed was a conference in America where a sociologist merely read the content of his talk from the large shimmering screen. During the entire paper he had his back turned to the audience. This was not a knowing academic version of Bob Dylan's famous stage antics. It was as if he was speaking to his new gadget or worshipping it as if it were an altar of ideas.
The 'bullet point effect' can produce a situation where presentations seem like a long series of lists without much exposition. Complex argument cannot be crafted through a series of quick-fire points at the click of a mouse. Here technological sophistication results paradoxically in less textured communication. Presentations that suffer from this
syndrome can result in something akin to a nail gun approach to thinking. Like all technological innovations though, this is a matter of how it is used and not the technology itself. While there might be risks in relying on these technologies, there are also real opportunities.
A study of PowerPoint usage by educationalist Stephen Dobson, published in 2006, claimed the real prospect offered by this technology is that academics can display and evoke ideas in new ways and 'exhibit themselves' differently. Using what Walter Benjamin called the 'mimetic faculty', Dobson argues that the challenge is to communicate and make "connections between different senses and to assign meaning to these connections." Such a multi-modal (textual, imagist and spoken) approach might just be the most useful way of approaching the technology. Here the interplay between vision, text and sound may help evoke ideas and reflection.
This is something I've been trying to experiment with in my own teaching. At the end of one of my courses last year a student said after completing the quantitative course review form: "I really like your lectures and the way you use music, sound and pictures - it kind of leaves a trace on all your senses that makes you think again afterwards." It was the best compliment about my teaching I've ever been paid. PowerPoint offers more options to blend words, sound and vision and it for this reason that it offers a major resource.