About 10 years a university lecturer could be made to feel deficient if he or she hadn’t embraced Powerpoint. Now, if you’re not tinkering with Twitter, you’re exhibiting the same moral weakness. PowerPoint, on the other hand, is so familiar that it can be treated with contempt. We have Malcolm Gladwell to thank for the observation that, “Power corrupts; PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.” But there is also a kind of backlash in the growing movement for “naked teaching” which (I think rightly) objects that the new technologies can obstruct ordinary old person-to-person interaction in the classroom.
This is in part because we’ve all had a chance to see PowerPoint dreadfully abused. By abuse, I mean not just the aesthetic crimes – the saccharine clip-art and queasy animations – but the banality as well. As plenty of commenters have recently observed, complex situations like Afghanistan can’t be reduced to bullet points. Moreover, bullet points, graphs and pie-charts wielded by an un-engaging speaker only heighten an audience’s sense of disengagement.
On the other hand, one shouldn’t be too hard on bullet points. Thomas Aquinas used them (what are ad 1, 2, 3 etc. if not bullet points?). Pierre Ramus used them. The Puritan sermon is flesh on a skeleton of bullet points. The classical mnemonic devices of ‘places’ (loci) – mapping out the structure of your speech across the the geography of a visual memory – isn’t a hundred miles from the PowerPointilist’s use of structured print to impress an argument on an audience’s mind.
Sure, PowerPoint has its weakness; so do old-fashioned lectures, speeches and sermons. My mind has wandered off in about 90% of the sermons I have listened to. The rate for academic conference papers is probably not much lower. If I’ve paid attention in more university lectures, it’s often been because the lecturer had the advantage of my interest in the subject to begin with – and of course, I wanted to pass the exam. It’s not, in other words, as though the traditional oral presentation was inherently superior.
It seems to me that what university lecturers should be working on – and what we should be trying to inculcate in our students – is a ‘rhetoric’ of the visual presentation (of course the programs PowerPoint and Keynote may go the way of Claris Works and Lotus 1-2-3, but it’s likely that the format will be with us for longer). Because the genre’s in its infancy, so are the conventions of the genre. But conventions are developing nonetheless.
For this reason I think we should consider assessing student’s skill in the visual presentation as we already do their use of the essay. In some ways, writing is a denser medium, and I’ll admit that I have to think harder when I want to fill a screen or a blank page with an orderly, coherent and persuasive sequence of words. On the other hand, I also find that the conventions of PowerPoint force me to shape my thought in ways I may not have anticipated when I first open the “new” file and choose a visual theme or slide layout. It’s not just a question of the concision imposed by bullet points or the constraints of the individual slide. It’s also the possibilities opened by the the visual image. It’s true that a picture’s worth a thousand words – especially for those like me who find it easier to abstract from what can be seen, heard, touched etc. than the other way around. Often a picture lets you make an intuitive leap that seven densely argued paragraphs don’t.
So I’m going to keep using PowerPoint, and expecting my students to use it as part of their own presentation.
I hope that in time the tradition will develop to a degree of sophistication that produce its own Ciceros and Quintilians.