I wanted to kiss Dean Jose Bowen (of the Meadows School of the Arts at SMU) when he warned his professors against the evil of PowerPoint (from A&LD). When he arrived at SMU, “classrooms had two computers (a Mac and a PC), a DVD player, a VCR, and a tape deck, along with ‘one of those complicated control panels where you need a Ph.D. to figure it out.'” He does have a PhD, but he had the gear ripped out anyway and not replaced. My champion!
Why did he do this? It saved money (no need for support staff nor for replacement gear), but it also let Bowen dramatically put forth his motto: profs should “teach naked.” The writer of the piece is careful to tell us that Bowen has a goatee and that he plays jazz, man. So we know he’s cool and, ipso facto, so is the phrase “teach naked,” which we infer means “teach without gizmos.”
I have often decried PowerPoint as the work of the devil. (If it had been available, the Beatles would have displayed their lyrics with it.) Nothing–I mean it: nothing—encourages laziness in a teacher more than PowerPoint. They figure the stilted language that comprise their “bullets” will save them time preparing for class. They’re right. It also saves the students’ time. Instead of having to use the classroom to think about what their profs are saying, they can concentrate on thumbing more text messages (curiously, written with the same choppy sentences). The article on Bowen quotes a peer-reviewed study (so you know it can’t be wrong) in the “British Educational Research Journal [which] found that 59 percent of students in a new survey reported that at least half of their lectures were boring, and that PowerPoint was one of the dullest methods they saw.” Only 59%? Probably, the other 41% were dozing, mesmerized into a stupor by the soft yellow letters on a blue background of the researcher’s presentation.
But just as I was ready to swear allegiance to Bowen, I find he has gone too far. Sure, he dumped the classroom computers, but then he bought each professor a laptop (so much for the savings). And why? So that they could create podcasts and PowerPoint presentations with it, that’s why. In his zeal, he also removed the musty and frumpy “old desks and replaced them with tables and chairs” so that students could be arranged kumbaya style for healthy “group discussions.”
Now, I often use the device of student participation. I make each student (or as many as I can) go to the board and puzzle out problems with the help of the other students. This works particularly well for homework in the first few sessions of a new class: it shows students that the struggles they face are common. It’s good for morale. But it’s not terribly effective when the class breaks 15 or so: it’s just too many people, and you end up hearing from the same few unless you are assiduous about calling on everybody.
This kind of participation isn’t quite what Bowen has in mind. He wants the “information delivery” (yes, really) “to be recorded and delivered to students as podcasts or online videos before class sessions.” Profs are to make their own podcasts with their new laptops. Then, after a foreshortened lecture, the prof can introduce “issues of debate within the discipline and get the students to weigh in based on the knowledge they have from those lecture podcasts.”
Dude, like, we’re all working together and thinking and stuff.
Students, reticent at first (probably some resented missing their nap times), eventually liked the idea of sitting and chatting. However, the most telling quote:
If you say to a student, We have this problem in Mayan archaeology: We don’t know if the answer is A or B. We used to all think it was A, now we think it’s B. If the lecture is ‘Here’s the answer, it’s B,’ that’s not very interesting. But if the student believes they can contribute, they’re a whole lot more motivated to enter the discourse, and to enter the discipline.
Note: “if the student believes he can contribute.” I take this in the sense “if he believes he can contribute, which of course he cannot, because he does not know the answer is B.” It’s one thing to work out a math problem but quite another to guess a historical fact or to intuit a new theory.
A podcast isn’t going to cut it. There is no way it can replace a book. It is an empirical fact that there is more information to be had in one hour of reading that in one hour of listening (or worse, watching). Freeing students from reading also frees them from having to think too much. What we really have here is Bowen’s solution to the necessary dumbing down of college caused by increasing enrollment.
Update: 23 July Emily Smith at the WSJ has an article that hints that the Great Books are coming back. I truly hope so. “[R]ecently a small but vibrant group of important professors have been working to restore the great booksâ€™ prominence in a liberal arts education…The academic radicalism of recent decades is receding, and students are ready to be serious again.”