Blogs > Cliopatria > The Luddite within

Mar 8, 2005 10:48 pm

The Luddite within

Today, we had our monthly noon Social Sciences Division faculty meeting.  As usual, I stayed quiet, though I perked up a bit during a brief discussion of the new Internet filters.  (All of my colleagues are adamantly opposed.)

But then we launched into another discussion about creating "smart classrooms."  This has nothing to do with real teaching, mind you.  A "smart classroom" is one filled with all sorts of technological gizmos:  DVD players, wireless Internet access, various modern projectors, and lots of something called Power Point.  I am now convinced I am the only tenured professor in America under 40 who has no idea what Power Point is.  To me, it sounds like a basketball term (wasn't Magic Johnson kind of a "power point" guard at 6'9"?).  Anyhow, my colleagues all seem to be busy showing videos (or DVDs) and creating fancy Power Point projects for their classes.  It all sounds dreadfully dull, and I'm just not interested.

I show -- maybe -- one or two videos a year.  When I first started teaching, I showed a lot of them -- largely because I was afraid I wouldn't have enough to say.  Now, God help me and my students, I have plenty to say.  I know damn well that my students spend enough time interacting with technology outside school; the last thing they need is to sit mutely in front of a TV screen.  I'm not saying that videos don't have their place -- in an art history class, I would imagine that they would be essential, but too often I think they (and all the other fancy-shmancy stuff) are just cover-ups for mediocre teaching.

I am sick and tired of having folks with doctorates in education (Lord help us) tell me that "lecturing is an outdated teaching style."  Well, it's still a damned effective teaching style if it's done well.  I put a lot of time and energy into crafting articulate, interesting, lectures, largely because I believe that for most students, it remains the most effective and memorable way to learn.   I do invite discussion and debate in some of my classes, and I welcome questions -- but I cling tenaciously to the old-school notion that my job is to be an interesting, compelling, and provocative deliverer of information.   (And along the way, raise up young feminists and pro-feminists.)

The content of the information varies:  today, at 8:50AM, I lectured on the 20th century  drop in age of menarche (from over 16 to under 12), and its impact on American girlhood.   At 10:25, I lectured on the concept of arete and the relationship between Hector and Andromache.  And at 1:00PM, it was time for Charles II, James II, and the Glorious Revolution.  (Ya gotta love the community colleges with the breadth and diversity of the teaching loads!)  Especially with the first topic, I invited questions and discussion.  It's vital that mine not be the only voice heard in the classroom, especially in the gender studies courses.  But though it was an interactive forum, mine was still the dominant voice.  I'm not ashamed of that, though from the sort of exasperating edu-speak I hear from some of my well-meaning colleagues, I am apparently hopelessly out-of-date.

One thing that would improve college teaching immensely would be mandatory drama and speech classes for all new faculty.  Forget the expensive technology.  Teach them how to use their voices, how to modulate their tones, how to string together an exciting narrative without notes.  Teach them to make the passion that is surely inside them manifest in their words and in their movements.  Teach them the forgotten art of the genuinely engaging lecture.  Twelve years of college teaching (and over 120 classes taught in that time), as well as thousands of student evaluations, have made it clear to me that students really prefer a professor who is willing to bring his passion and energy into the classroom.

This is not to say that good teachers can't be both great lecturers and skilled employers of the latest technology.  I have a few colleagues -- a very few -- whom I know to be both.  But I do know that the college culture is one where innovation and novelty tend to be prized more than the ability to teach effectively using the same methods used for centuries.   No one writes grants to get money to teach professors how to tell good stories using their memories and their voices alone.  I think that's a pity.  I, as the son and grandson of teachers, delight in knowing that I use little or nothing that those who came before me would not have used.  I take inordinate, perhaps excessive, pride in that.

I expect to spend another 25 years teaching, perhaps more.  I am always interested in developing new classes and discussing new ideas.  But I have yet to see the need to show many videos, or to have a smart classroom, or to put up Power Point whatevers for my students.  Don't wire my classroom.  Give me a cup of coffee, put chalk in my hand, put me in front of a blackboard, and let me do my damn job.

UPDATE:  I'm not going to delete any of this rant (what else is a blog for if not ranting), but I do want to apologize to my readers who might have Ed.D degrees.  I am sure there are many lovely, thoughtful, interesting people out there with those letters after their name -- I just have not had the good fortune to yet meet any.

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David Lion Salmanson - 3/11/2005

I think most folks would be surprised but I am a big technology advocate if the technology enables me to do some aspect of teaching better. My department was notoriously anti-technology at my school. We could never seem to find time for the Powerpoint tutorial (although it is a good slide viewer), ignored a lot of the computer programs thrown our way etc.. But then we got SMARTboards. These are whiteboards that are touchsensitive (you can draw on them, write, manipulate the internet etc.)and hooked up to a computer. Now when I teach a document, not only do students have a copy, but it is projected behind me and I annotate as I go (modeling annotation). My department went from Luddites to technogeeks overnight. Need to compare the worldviews of the Abbasid Caliphate and Medieval Europe? Through up a couple of world maps and use them as jumping off points. The Tate, the Met in NY, the Artchive, are all in my classroom.

A picture is worth a thousand words and it helps the visual learners.

Next up 3-D objects to discuss how to interpret material culture.

If the technology has a good purpose, it is phenomenal.

Now Blackboard on the other hand....

Van L. Hayhow - 3/11/2005

I am sure that your update will make them feel much better. On a serious note, I always lecture or do group projects in my courses as an adjunct.

Julie A Hofmann - 3/10/2005

I don't think that's the case where I work, John :-) I actually have been toying with using Powerpoint myself -- if I were in a smart room, I might. But in my case, it would be a tool to force me to mention things I want to make sure I mention, and to use instead of the whiteboard, so that I don't have to turn away from the class. Since my classes are heavy on discussion of primary sources, using powerpoint could be disruptive, if the students brought out points or asked questions I was not expecting. In such cases, it's almost destructive to stick with the plan. But it would be nice to be able to take the high points of the discussion and re-integrate them, via powerpoint, with other points I wanted to make sure they got, and start the next class with a short re-cap. I can see where having that on powerpoint would help to demonstrate that that section of class was a separate re-cap unit, and would help move things along while helping the students re-form their notes. Just a thought.

Derek Charles Catsam - 3/9/2005

I tend to agree with Professors Zook and Lederer -- at the risk of sounding like I am retrograde in the classroom, I am not certain that I care what students want. I want them to learn history. In my classes they do. But in the survey in partiocular, there is a vast amoun fof information that I want to convey. Most power points as I have seen them have been attempts to spoonfeed information that sometimes does not come in spoonsized bites. Students do not know what they need in most cases anywhere near as well as we do. I didn't when I was an undergrad. And thus to think that they are the experts on what will be most effective is silly. Most of us have spent an awful lot of time in the classroom. i think it is safe to say that we have a pretty good idea of what is effective, what is not, and what we are most comfortable with. Furthermore, i would never tell anyone else what techniques they should or should not use -- I have never suggested that anyone not use Powerpoint. All i ask is that they not tell me that I ought to.


John H. Lederer - 3/9/2005

There has long been a discord between "teaching students to learn" and "teaching students what needs to be learned". Both have bad odours from having been wrapped up in various half baked theories.

I realize that by its nature, history possibly leans towards the latter school of teaching. However, history is being created at a prodigous rate.

"Teaching students to learn" has my vote if accompanied by including the fundamental knowledge they need to have. That leaves little room for power point.

Carl Patrick Burkart - 3/9/2005

I would like to second the last comment. My experience with online teaching has changed the way I do in person teaching. Before planning a lecture or talk, I now think, "Could this be done better by simply writing it down and having folks read it ahead of time?" If so, that's what I do. Then, I'm free to use face to face time for stuff that can only be done face to face.

Note, this does not mean replacing instructor led classes with free for all discussions in, as someone recently put it, the professor turns the class over to the 2 or 3 most obnoxious members of the class.

Anne Zook - 3/9/2005 do understand what they're asking for, right?

If you create a PowerPoint presentation, what you're doing is "summarizing" for them. You're telling them the Important Bullet Points" to memorize.

Instead of asking them to read their own class notes, determine what's "important" for the test, and study that material, your PowerPoint tells them where to focus test study time.

Not that I diss the desire to identify what's going to be on the test (I was a student, after all), but this request isn't about audiovisual materials enhancing their learning experience.

It's about audiovisual materials easing their testing experience.

(Of course, in these times, schools are increasingly encouraged to focus on easily measured "testing scores". My opinion? By the time these kids get to college, it's not too late to teach them that learning is about more than test scores.)

Anne Zook - 3/9/2005

None of my business since I'm neither an educator nor a student at the moment, but I'd probably "drop" a class too heavy into technology.

I can watch a movie, or a PowerPoint presentation, any time I want. I don't need a classroom for that. To my mind, a classroom is for the exchange of ideas and knowledge. (No matter how loudly I shout at my computer, it never answers my questions.) I've picked up thousands of facts from books, but I've done most of my "learning" in interaction with human beings.

John H. Lederer - 3/9/2005

Agreed, though I do not think the barrier insuperable or even particulalry high.

I made my post deliberately to provoke. I don't think that the main technology issue in education is whether or not to use power point ( my sympathies lie with the Army Theater Commander who banned the use of power point in his command).

I do think that education is largely communication, and communication has been the principal area that technology is affecting.

I have taken some online technical courses, and contributed to some online professional courses. They have run the gamut from very good to awful. So have my in person courses. The advantage of the technology is that it should allow the very good to become the predominant format.

Will it replace in person teaching. Of course not. But it will replace in person teaching that does not take advantage of the peculiar opportunities that in person teaching offers.

Large lectures impress me as low hanging fruit for technology to take over. Smaller seminars, socratic teaching, discussions are more difficult, and thus more likely to survive.

Of course, now that I think about it, we are having a discussion about this .,.on line.<grin>

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/9/2005

If the lecture stood alone in the educational process--or at least the course process--you might be right, though perhaps at the cost of lessening diversity. :)

But courses are necessarily about interaction, if only for grading purposes. One can have people other than the lecturers be the "interaction person," as happens in some online courses (course designers and course "instructors") and in many large-scale lecture classes (profs and TAs). But unless the class content is defined strictly the interaction is hard to coordinate with the original lecture. When it is strictly defined, then the dominance of the expert "lecturer" (Or lecture writer in the case of online courses) reduces the extent to which the "interaction person" can utilize his or her own knowledge or insights.

John H. Lederer - 3/9/2005

do we need?

There is nothing wrong with a good lecture, and less wrong with a great lecture.

On the other hand, a lecture is essentially a broadcast medium. One speaks; many listen. Yes, I know there are questions, and, yes, a live audience provides feedback by posture, attention and expression. But it is essentailly a one way medium.

So why don't we simply use the best lecturers and through bandwidth give them an audience of tens of thousands. The ones that are both great actors and great explicators of the subject matter they know well.

Why should a student have to listen to my inferior lecturer when for much less money, the university could have piped in that really great lecturer on the West Coast.

The barriers, of course, are institutional, not rational.

Greg James Robinson - 3/9/2005

I dunno, I just got my course evaluations, and, and of perhaps 10 students who made comments, 5 asked for more audiovisual materials, including 2 asking specifically for PowerPoint. I fully agree with the importance of skilled lecturing, but I do not think we can or should dismiss the omportance of technological aids.

Jonathan T. Reynolds - 3/9/2005

Go Hugo! Go Hugo! Go Hugo!

I, too, often feel that calls for "innovative teaching" are often misguided or misplaced. For far too many instructors, using bells & whistles is just a crutch.

When it comes down to it, what students are paying for is interaction with a Professor. Not a powerpoint slideshow, not a video, not group work with other students. They can get all that far cheaper and somewhere other than a University.

I myself, however, prefer discussion to lecture. If a lecture is good enough, it deserves to be written down, and students can then get it on their own. I think the classroom is for what can't be done elsewhere... face to face give & take driven & moderated by somebody who is an expert on the subject.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/9/2005

I like PowerPoint to show pictures. That's because slide projectors always intimidated me. They jammed even before I touched them. PP's also a handy form of storage, as there is a place you can put bibliographic information.

For the Depression I worked out a PP "mood presentation" Roughly three minutes worth of pictures concerning the Great Depression with "Brother can You Spare a Dime" in the background. That was inspired by another colleague's truly wonderful and truly terrifying montage on lynching in the South with "Strange Fruit" in the background.

However, the vast majority of the time I lecture, and use the classroom projector for nothing more than to show an outline (in Word), maps, useful web sites, and various pictures.

Sherman Jay Dorn - 3/9/2005

I'd encourage you by referring you to the Edward Tufte essay about the evils of Power Point, but you'd have to get that via the Internet. :-)

Yes, there are silly exhortations to faculty to use technology simply for the sake of using technology. I use more than you do, but I try to match the tools to the job. Your and my decisions about what are important come first.

Derek Charles Catsam - 3/9/2005

Hugo --
Two issues stand out for me -- one, thank you so much for saying what almost all of us know -- that for effectiveness, many of us will take a great lecture over most any other teaching style.
Two -- and I cannot say this ardently enough: I have never seen a Powerpoint presentation that was not more of a distraction than an addition. Sometimes students do not realize that they are being distracted, but in any case, I see a whole lot more fumbling or reliance on the technology when Powerpoint comes out than I do actual teaching.
This all is part of the wretched "student as consumer" mindset that pervades academia. Ugh.

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/8/2005

You will find some in Ed.D's in Curriculum and Instruction who go off the deep end, and trash the lecture method. You will also find many who will say it has great value as method in the right circumstances -- not all circumstances demand a lecture format, nor preclude it.

You'll also find some people who have gone off the deep end on whole-language reading instruction. For some reason, the education field has few defenses against fashion, and is little wedded to empiricism (it has its share of ideologues, and more than its share of badly designed studies, which sprout badly designed reform movements).

My experience is that those with an EdD in Measurement and Testing tend to be bright and well-informed, and thoroughly empirical. You might want to look there -- they may not be many, but you can find your lovely, thoughtful, and interesting people there if you look.

Hugo Schwyzer - 3/8/2005

As an evangelical, Michael, I have no such problem being unfashionable in exactly that way.

Jason Nelson - 3/8/2005

I loved this post, for what its worth, good stuff.

Michael Meo - 3/8/2005

It is an interesting aside that our profession orginated -- pardon the reference, but it seems fitting in responding to such a self-conscious traditionalist -- in the preparation of clergymen.

And along those lines it is expected in the ministry that the course of preparation should include just what you suggest -- advice on how to speak persuasively before a group, how to build to a conclusion, how to add rhetorical tools to your repertoire.

The problem lies perhaps in the unfashionableness of seeing ourselves as winning souls.