Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Teaching Naked

In an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "When Computers Leave Classrooms, So Does Boredom", Jeffrey Young reports that the Dean of Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University has recently banned all "machines" from classrooms and challenged his faculty to "teach naked" ... by which he means, to teach without the crutches that modern technology provides. I'm actually surprised to hear that anyone could get away with such a suggestion, what with the millions of dollars that colleges and universities have spent to build and maintain "smart" classrooms, but I really like the idea. SMU's dean, Jose Bowen, worries that professors are using in-class technologies like PowerPoint (which he calls "the absolute worst form of technology for the classroom") as a substitute, instead of a supplement, for good pedagogy. Now, it's important to note that Bowen is no Luddite-- he actually uses a lot of the technologies that he has now banned, only he makes those resources available to stundets outside of actual class-time, in order to make more space for engagement and participation during those precious 50 minutes professors have with students.

Bowen's main argument for teaching naked is that we in the professorate need to find ways to demonstrate to students that there is an unique value to being in the classroom. So, if what we're giving them in the classroom is merely stuff that they could download to their laptops (like PowerPoint presentations) or their iPods (like straight lectures), then there's really no reason for them to pay a lot of money to attend a "real" college or university. They can get all of that material from online courses. The sorts of things that you can only get in the classroom are profound conversations and debates with classmates, or real and dynamic engagement with a real expert in the field, or exposure to questions (and answers) that might be unexpected or unusual. Those are the sorts of things that make interesting classes interesting, and they're the sorts of things that transcend the simple information-transmission model than bores the pants off so many students.

Young's article does note that some students are initially put-off by these changes, preferring instead the non-participatory model to which they've become accustomed. But those same students also admit to being bored in class, and bored by PowerPoint in particular. I never use PowerPoint in the classroom (for many of the same reasons that I harly ever use small groups), so it is some consolation to me to hear that students actually find those presentations boring. I heard a story a while back about Gayatri Spivak beginning one of her lectures, at a conference where most of the presenters had used PowerPoint, by saying: "Today, my lecture will be both pointless and powerless." I still think that's hilarious.

So, although I can't really endorse being pointless and powerless in the classroom, I can and will enthusiastically endorse getting naked. Leave the stuff that can be done outside of the classroom where it belongs... OUTSIDE of the classroom!


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I hate hate hate powerpoint. And yet in my evaluations, one of the most consistent complaints I get is that they wished I use powerpoint --- I have to remind myself that I only get 4 or 5 of those in a class of 40 students, so that's 10% of the class, but it still represents the most consistently heard complaint . . .

In fairness to students, I have learned (and this will vary depending on the kind of university you're at) that some students no longer know how to take notes absent the poewrpoint frame. With that in mind, I'm trying next semester having three concepts per day that I'm listing on the syllabus as something like "organizational concepts" (haven't thought of exactly what I'm going to call them), and I'm trying to come up with ways to help students navigate discussion and my jumpy lecture while discussion style though that. I'll let you know how it goes...

Art Carden said...

Nice set of points, powerfully presented. I rarely/ever use ppt, but I like having a projector so I can show clips that underscore my point (The Onion's "Flying Cars" video illustrates what a lot of conversations about economics are like). Google (Tufte Powerpoint) for Edward Tufte's view, and one of the best examples of how ppt can be used poorly is the Gettysburg Address powerpoint (easy to find via Google).

My rules for using ppt in lectures and conference presentations are pretty simple: max pictures, min text, min slides, never use ppt as a teleprompter/outline, never, ever, ever read directly from the slide unless you're giving a block quote from a Certified Great Thinker (and even that is debatable). In short, don't use your audience's ability to read as a substitute for your ability to present. For many more hints, tips, and tricks, see my paper "How to Be a Great Conference Participant," available here.

anotherpanacea said...

I think the students who like powerpoint are the students who think there should be a test and objective measures of success and failure. They want to download the lecture notes in powerpoint form and memorize them.

Those students are missing the point.

This fall, I've decided to reorganize my intro course so that it focuses on one question: "Is education a placebo or the real pharmakon?" I may use this powerpoint argument (perhaps with an amusing pointless slide performance) on the first day, so thanks Leigh!