Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Teaching Notes 2: Playing with Paul on Powerpoint

[See also Teaching Paul and Teaching Notes 1]

Monday night was the second of my classes on The Life and Letters of Paul, another two-and-a-half hour slot. This one confirmed to me what I suspected from the first class, and what one could in any case have predicted, that this is a long session and that concentration and energy levels are flagging by the end, for the students too. The 15 minute break mid-way is very much needed, and I was pleased that there was a good amount of interaction from the students in the first half. I had asked them to read the second half of Acts as preparation (alongside a couple of chapters of Horrell) and they were full of interesting questions and observations. As the semester progresses, I am going to formalize the process of interacting on the pre-class reading by providing lists of questions they have to answer on the passages in question, and they will bring these to the class.

The topic yesterday was "The Paul of Acts and the Paul of the Letters". Some of this is enjoyably straightforward, introduction to the issues surrounding what Luke tells us about Paul and what Paul tells us about Paul, but other parts are more complex. In particular, Pauline chronology, and getting Acts alongside Galatians (and the rest) is a topic that is not easy to introduce to newcomers and it takes a little patience and teasing out. And for the first time in such a course, I decided to spend some time on the order (sequence) of Paul's letters, not least because it is a topic that I have begun to find fascinating and rewarding myself. Teaching is always so much more enjoyable, both for the teacher and the students, if the teacher has a particular perspective on the evidence, an original idea or a different slant.

As I was preparing my fairly detailed hand-out, I began to wonder whether the hand-out might on this occasion be usefully supplemented with a Powerpoint Presentation. As I mentioned last time, one of the perks of a larger class is that you get to teach in one of the nice large Divinity School classrooms, and these offer you far better technical facilities. In other words, you don't have to take in your own laptop and spend ages unlocking boxes and setting up. There is a console with full room controls, PC, CD and DVD player, big screen, microphone, the works. I don't think I have ever used Powerpoint before in a regular undergraduate lecture. I am one of those who sometimes uses it in public lectures or presentations, especially where I need to provide illustrations, but I find its usefulness limited in the weekly class. On this occasion, though, the thing that made me want to use it was the complexity of the data on the hand-out, with lots of quotations, views and ins-and-outs. I was concerned about two related things: (1) Would the students be able to follow the material on the hand-out, along with my lecture, over such a long period? (2) Would I be able to follow the material on the hand-out over such a long period? My concern on the latter is that I tend to prepare lectures carefully, but I deliver them largely from memory, occasionally using the hand-out to remind me of structure. But the more detailed the hand-out and the longer the class, the less straightforward it is to do that. So the Powerpoint Presentation acted as a kind of autocue, an aid for me keeping my thoughts coherent and ordered.

I was quite pleased with this as a device. It helped greatly in keeping me focused on the right material in the right order. Order is important -- it is too easy for me to leap to a related point that I might, in fact, have been planning to use at a different and more appropriate point. And it is too easy to miss out a given point altogether because one's eyes have slipped on the hand-out, or one's memory has forgotten the structure.

I began thinking about the use of Powerpoint again recently having read Scot McKnight's "curmudeongly carpings" in PowerPointing in Class: Not! on Jesus Creed, a post that received 68 comments, coming in all directions. I think I stand somewhere in the middle on this kind of debate. My general feeling is: use it if it is going to enhance your presentation in an important way; don't use if for its own sake. I suspect that Prof. McKnight might, one of these days, become a convert -- his seventh point, in which he admits that it has some uses, sounds like someone teetering on the edge of dabbling in it. Of his other points, the first, "it minimizes the word and the ability to speak with words", need only be the case if one uses it badly or inappropriately. One might as well say the same thing about hand-outs, which can also be used well or misused. The second point, though, I have a lot of sympathy with:
About 50% of the time something goes wrong: the computer doesn’t work, the connection doesn’t work, the screen doesn’t come down.
Too true; that's happened to me many a time, and I stopped using technology in classes in Birmingham for that reason. The only thing I'd add here is that it is ideal, if possible, to get to the classroom in good time, well ahead of the class. You can then check that everything is working fine. If you you are lucky enough to have Teaching Assistants, as I am, you can even ask them to do this (but I like to know for myself that everything's working -- a little neurosis doesn't do one any harm).

Further comments on Scot McKnight's critique:
Third, it’s an all-consuming passion for some to the effect that without PowerPoint they can’t teach. You can tell this when the stuff doesn’t work: they don’t know what to do with themselves.
If that's the case, then they are simply bad teachers and they have a lot of work to do. I must admit that I have sometimes wondered if Powerpoint helps to turn bad teachers into mediocre ones.
Fourth, most of the time it is just outlines on the screen; hand them out or speak your way through them. It permits more eye contact.
I agree that eye contact is important. One of the things that I dislike about Powerpoint is that it can encourage people to stare at the screen instead of engaging with me. The "hand them out" point, though, draws attention to one of the values of Powerpoint. If you have a detailed hand-out, you can then use Powerpoint to provide some visual representation of a handful of key points. In other words, I would always want to use it in addition to a hand-out and not instead. If you have hearing-impaired people in your class too, a detailed hand-out is ideal -- they then have a resource to take home and study and which can supplement the Powerpoint.
Fifth, it takes so much time to produce a presentation that its yield is less than its effort. How do I know this? I hear profs and preachers talk about how much time is involved.
No, I don't agree with this. It takes 30-40 minutes to put a simple Powerpoint presentation together, perhaps even less if you have already prepared your hand-out. And if you've used one once, you can go back and enhance it on another occasion.
Sixth — this is probably the bottom-line for me (that’s a pun) — it seems to me to be the transfer of the business model to the classroom, and teaching the arts and humanities is not business. Business dazzles. Human communication is not dazzling: it’s eye ball to eye ball talking.
Agreed, yet there are topics in our area that are data-intensive. This week I've had Pauline chronology on Monday and Synoptic Problem today, both data-rich, intensive subjects. Indeed, unless the students get a basic feeling for the data, they will have no idea how to navigate their way through the solutions (perhaps one of the reasons that some students want to rush to theories and solutions before they have mastered the data). I reckon that on such occasions, or on occasions where lots of pictures are going to be helpful, Powerpoint can be ideal. But it's like any tool: it's the way you use it that matters.

However, I am not sure whether I will use it again in the near future. One of the things that I dislike about it in the undergraduate regular lecture context is that it makes it harder to encourage student participation, not least because it gives the impression that they are an audience of a show, the passive participants in someone else's performance.


crystal said...

If you have hearing-impaired people in your class too, a detailed hand-out is ideal -- they then have a resource to take home and study and which can supplement the Powerpoint.

I'm visually impaired and had a hard time in class seeing presentations ... the handouts helped a lot, because I could hold them clos or magnify them.

Matt Page said...

Black screening in between a few well chosen slides is a useful technique, as it sends the message, "nothing is happening on screen for the moment". You can do this either by inserting a black slide or pressing the windows button and "b".

David Mackinder said...

I assume you've heard the joke 'Power Corrupts. PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely' -- have you encountered Edward Tufte's critique of 'the cognitive style of Powerpoint'? (see and
Aaron Swartz has provided a version of Tufte's material, 'in the Form of a PowerPoint Presentation'(, which is reminiscent of the (in)famous Powerpointing of Lincoln's Gettysburg address (