Following up to yesterday’s rather idle post, I want systematically to take up questions raised in comments as to whether computer presentation software1 is evil and whether there are distinctive features of computer presentation software that make it useful in the classroom. As the title indicates, I will try to make a case that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the software and indeed it can do quite good things for a classroom instructor, particularly in this case a history instructor.

I. Preliminary notes.

A. An Inconvenient Truth.

While I’ve seen plenty of quarrels or quibbles with the science in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, I’ve seen no argument that his presentation is ineffective. Indeed, people often remember details of the presentation, like the use of the scissor lift. This is a nice performance, and a good use of props. But Gore makes generally effective use of graphs because he uses a simple trick characteristic of computer presentation software—building a graph, such that the software draws the time series at a constant speed left to right. When you do this, the “hockey stick” shows up as a dramatic spike.

When you watch An Inconvenient Truth you’re watching a lecturer use computer software to help make his point in ways beyond those available to someone using a chalk2 board and an overhead projector. The movie’s box office amounts to a prima facie case that presentation software is an effective tool in the right hands.

B. Don’t just link to Edward Tufte as if that settled the issue.

Edward Tufte makes gorgeous books that I believe are rightly regarded as classics of graphic display. In the broader community of the Internet, Tufte is probably best known for his Wired essay, “PowerPoint is Evil”.

There’s no question Tufte’s work is masterful. But he works under almost ideal conditions, producing his own books in custom sizes with lavish inks. Most of us don’t get to work under those conditions; we need to produce images that will look good-enough as a gray-scale image that would fit in a paperback—let’s call it 4″ x 6″—or else in 72 dpi as seen from the back of a lecture hall.

Tufte’s advice requires extensive adaptation for use in real-world circumstances. And anyway, even Tufte doesn’t say you should abandon presentation software altogether; he’d probably quite like you to buy his essay on “how can we improve our presentations?”

II. Like chalk2 and/or overheads, only cleaner. (Including a partial defense of bullet points.)

The pre-computer lecturing techniques for history teachers generally involved writing key terms on the chalkboard and, on occasion, showing a map—often with one of those roller-blind kind of arrangements teachers had to tote around with them; I can still recall my great history teacher‘s distinctive lope, maps swinging in hand, as he navigated the hot sidewalks of my coastal Florida school.

At the very worst, a computer presentation for a history lecture should be no worse than these hallowed methods and a good deal easier to carry through weather.

Here’s where I come to a defense of bullet points. I use them in the same way many teachers or professors might, to pull together key concepts by grouping them together. Let me put myself on the line here; I’ll post slides from a lecture I normally give in introductory US history.3

So you can see here the point of bullet points, I hope—you get the sense of a list of laws that belong under a heading because they work together to make up a system (“The American System”). By building the list, you can adduce supporting evidence as you go along to explain the bits and pieces to students, without losing a sense of the unified whole. And the writing is more legible than my handwriting, anyway.

If I’d presented this information using pre-computer technologies, it would have been much the same, really, or a bit worse. I’d have written the laws on the board in sequence. I might have written some of the quotations, but probably not all, as they’re a bit long for that. I’d probably have had to erase them to make room for myself as I went along. I would have shown the map on a transparency.

I believe that nothing is lost, here, over the use of chalk2 and overheads, and maybe a little is gained in legibility.

III. The potential to be better than pre-computer methods.

For many of us computers are fun to play with because we want to see what we can make them do. Some of the stunts are stupid computer tricks. But some immediately impress us with their potential usefulness. This observation is, I suppose, the cheerful opposite to Tufte’s dour contention that PowerPoint imposes a “cognitive style”. Yes, if you take a cursory look at presentation software, maybe you’ll follow its templates and produce a lousy or at least dull presentation. But if you spend time with it and find out what else it can do, you might be inspired to do something with its distinctive capacities that you wouldn’t have done with chalk2, because you couldn’t.

Here’s an example I used in a research talk I gave earlier this year. I wanted quickly to summarize a classic problem in the historiogaphy of progressivism: was there such a thing as progressivism? It’s still required, I think, of historians of progressivism that they address this question responsibly, but it’s difficult to address it without being tedious.

Now, I wouldn’t use a computer presentation solely to address this question, but I wanted the computer up there for graphs and builds. And as long as you’ve put the apparatus together, it’s expected that you’ll use it for some large part of your talk.

So here’s how I used presentation software to summarize the “was there such a thing as progressivism” problem. I’m going to bet that even though you don’t know what I would say along with these slides, you get a reasonably clear sense of the problem from the visuals alone.

Not only do I bet you understand, broadly, the questions at issue, but you get a sense of one particular part of my argument—that without the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, the idea of a unified progressivism falls apart (although even with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, it’s still a little conflicted).4

And you couldn’t get across this much abstract information this vividly and quickly with pre-computer technologies. Is it necessary? Of course not. But I do think it’s nicely effective at conveying the point, and a little surprising.

Which is, after all, what a performed argument should be: if you wanted only to convey information you could write out an essay and email it to students; you could simply assign them books to read. The added value of a lecture should be that you are constructing a performance to lead students through an argument in a way they’ll absorb and remember better than if they’d merely read it. You make your argument memorable by the usual methods—enthusiasm and wit—but also by keeping students’ attention. A little visual demonstration, perhaps a slightly surprising one, is a harmless and often effective way of doing so.

1For many people “PowerPoint” is, like Kleenex, Xerox, or Coke, a brand-name often used for the generic item. I’ll try not to do this; as previously indicated I use Keynote and think it’s better than PowerPoint, though I’m sure not in any intrinsic way that would mollify PowerPoint haters.
2I hugely prefer chalk to dry-erase marker and am fortunate to work in a university with a lot of good blackboards.
3This lecture draws on work ranging from the Beards through Louis Hacker to Heather Cox Richardson and Ha-Joon Chang.
4Which doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a unified progressivism, because there was such a thing as President Theodore Roosevelt.