On My Way Out – Advice to Young Scholars VI: WeakPoint, On the Uses and Abuses of PowerPoint

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I have most certainly reached the final phase of my academic and professional career and as I look back I want to offer, for what it is worth, some dos and don’ts on different topics to younger scholars in the early phases of theirs. This is the sixth instalment and regards that staple of academic life: PowerPoint.

There is a concept in Jewish law called ‘Fencing’ (Seyag). It is a prophylactic; a new prohibition is decreed, which is not, in and of itself, biblically based but is introduced in the interest of protecting people from inadvertently committing an infraction of a divine commandment or in order to prevent people from entering into a danger zone of temptation. Here is a trivial example: the recitation of one’s nightly prayers can (and should) take place during the night. Night time lasts, surely, until daybreak – just before dawn. One o’clock in the morning is surely still night time. The Rabbis decreed a ‘Fence’ and fixed a deadline of midnight. ‘A man’, they reasoned, ‘will return home, and say to himself: I’ll eat a little bit, and drink a little bit, and sleep a little bit – and then recite my prayers. [After all, I have all night ahead of me]. He ends up sleeping all night and missing his nightly prayers.’

I have imposed on myself a Fence: No PowerPoint at all (for that matter, no FaceBook, Twitter or Instagram). It is an extreme (im)position, which I am not suggesting others should adopt. However, I am advocating a far more prudent and discerning use of PowerPoint.

The technology was originally developed for the American corporate world, driven by an ethos in which time is money – cut it short, get to the point – and in which presentation trumps deliberation, decisiveness trumps doubt, and communication is oftentimes in the command mode.

It migrated rapidly and with a vengeance into the world of higher education and has become a default in both the classroom and all manner of conferences, workshops and other forms of presentation. Students expect it and will oftentimes criticize an instructor who does not use it. When invited to give a paper one is almost automatically prompted for one’s memory stick or link. And as the technology has developed, the PowerPoint presentations have become fancier. Now it is not enough to have bullet points: better to present photos, and embedded videos, and caricatures and artwork, and even musical effects. Wow – or, rather, wow them. It has many advantages that I need not highlight, seeing how ubiquitous its use has become, but here are some shadows.

It has an almost inherent tendency to ‘dumb down’ complex issues, to drive the classroom to resemble a Primer, a Nutshell, an Emmanuel or other learning aids more associated with Bar exam preparation. And yes, from there the road is short to Twitterholicism and Facebookitis. Colleagues will often tell me: ‘But in my class, the PowerPoint is but the shell around which I build the complex and deep discussion.’ This may be true, but what often rests in the students’ minds is the slide and the bullet points – the kernel, with the discussion inadvertently reduced to the shell. Revision often focuses on the slides or on slide mentality. And should not at least part of what you teach be the training of students to follow a complex argument, keep five balls spinning in the air and follow a train of thought that is not reducible to bullet points?

It is not only the students who run the dumbing down risk. The PowerPoint mentality drives teachers to the ‘here is a difficult problem, here is a (neat) solution’ modus pensandi and away from ‘here is a difficult problem and after our discussion you will see it is even more difficult than you thought’. The very process of preparing the slides, though salutary in some respects, can have this inimical impact on our own thought processes.

In a somewhat different vein, the PowerPoint rigidifies the class scheme. It is the King’s Way through the forest. It militates against exploring alternative routes (unless these are predetermined, which in some ways defeats the purpose) and free, innovative discussion. It over-privileges the function of the class (important of course) as the transmission of knowledge at the expense of exploration, interrogation, and critical thinking. It has a propensity to shut down discussion or channel it to the content and scheme of the slides and thus reduces the potential of learning from one’s students. It has a tendency to put a premium on conclusion and certainty at the expense of open questions and dilemmas.

Even more than lecture notes it also risks rigidifying the year-to-year rethinking and evolution of the teacher. Once one has perfected one’s slides to cover the entire course the barriers to change are elevated – they are used from year to year, in this case with the false assumption that ‘if it works, why fix it?’

I must confess here to another idiosyncratic extremism. When I started teaching many more years ago than I care to count, a wise colleague at the University of Michigan Law School (Richard Lempert of Law & Society fame) advised me to tear up my lecture notes at the end of each year – a recipe for both keeping fresh and spontaneous with one’s students and being forced to rethink even a subject that we believe to have mastered. Not just updating, but rethinking. It has happened more than once that a Teaching Assistant has said to me: ‘But last year you said something quite different!’ I feel vindicated when that happens.

As I mentioned above, graphics of all manner are now a staple of most PowerPoint presentations, a de rigueur background and accompaniment to practically every slide. What’s wrong with that, you may ask? Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, as the adage goes. Yes, but the emphasis should be on the ‘sometimes’. In my recent piece on Achbita, no words could convey as effectively the message delivered by three photographs I used. But the graphic inflation I observe in one PowerPoint after another has the precise opposite effect. One deep and profound insight is worth a thousand pictures may be true too. And with some slide sets I often wonder where education and knowledge end and entertainment begins. It is not uncommon to see ‘credit’ given to the graphic designer of the presentation – usually a hapless assistant.

PowerPoint is second to none in the ability to project graphs and tables and matrices, and there is a case to switch it on when one gets to that part of a class or presentation. But there is a danger, and it is real, that one is pushed to develop graphs and matrices by the medium itself and that, when the point of the graph is simply to show a trend, a few well-chosen words could be just as effective without the distraction.

It is, indeed, distraction that is the operative word when thinking of PowerPoint in the context of conference presentations. True, when one has only 10-12 minutes in so many conferences there seems to be a compelling case to resort to PowerPoint. What can be more effective, many think, than a series of slides capturing the essence of a serious paper that I am compelled to squeeze into 12 minutes? My view is exactly the opposite. It is perhaps sometimes the case, but in my experience it usually has the opposite effect. A long and involved presentation may (or rather might) perhaps benefit from a PowerPoint presentation that helps keep the audience from losing the long train of thought. But when you have just a few measured minutes (not unlike an oral argument before an appellate jurisdiction in many systems) there is nothing more powerful, communicative and effective than the Word, than eye contact, than a conversation-style talking with (to) your audience, than modulating your presentation with the subtle signals you pick up from your audience. You see perplexed faces? You explain again. You insert a quick example. There is only one thing, in these measured time situations, that is worse than PowerPoint – reading a text. But have you not noticed that with PowerPoint the presenter is looking at the screen instead of at you, and then back to his smartphone? That she is reading instead of listening? Do you really think that a bunch of sophisticated academics are unable to keep three and a half ideas and five propositions (how much more can one manage in 12 minutes?) in their mind for 12 minutes? You may be thinking that you are not a gifted speaker, but this is a learnable virtue, one that improves dramatically with practice. Paradoxically, a gifted speaker can survive the distractions of PowerPoint because her manner of delivery will capture attention – but in this case too, the PowerPoint is a superfluous distraction. In my view if you are an average or unconfident speaker, not only will PowerPoint distract and debilitate in many cases, but it will remove the incentive to improve and perfect your presentation skills by offering false comfort. Is it not the case that preparation of the slides oftentimes replaces the thinking about, designing and practicing an effective oral presentation? And presentation skills are essential to our profession as teachers, educators and scholars. Profound thinking that is ineffectively presented is lost.

I would like to end with two pleas:

Please do not dismiss all of this as the rumination of an aging (correct) technological troglodyte (incorrect). I use technology extensively in my research – notably empirical work – and have no phobia of it. These are ruminations that are rooted in my lifelong commitment and reflection on good teaching, and I include conferences as integral to our teaching vocation.

And kindly accept that I have, of course, overstated the case and, as I mentioned at the outset, I do not advocate my own extremism of eschewing PowerPoint altogether (and anyway I cheat, I do use the blackboard when helpful). But I am recommending a much more judicious, reflective and restrained use of PowerPoint. Not in every class. Not in the whole class. Not for every presentation. A measured use of graphics. And pictures only when they really serve better than words.

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BYO says

December 10, 2019

Brilliant. Improper use of external tools is so common that it has became the core of the presentation, rather than a supplement.

However, the bigger problem is when young scholars are in fact evaluated by the university on the extended use of power point during the lectures.

Paolo Pasqualis says

January 7, 2020

Great and perfect! It was my own opinion, which I never dared to express. The King is naked!