My PowerPoint Boycott

I wish I could say that it started as a mindful act of pedagogic policy. Or a flourish of revolutionary resistance. But no, my PowerPoint boycott was simply born of carelessness. (Although by now it has taken on a life of its own.)

I had been invited to give the plenary presidential lecture at the annual meeting of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, in San Diego. My talk—an examination of various female evolutionary mysteries, subsequently elaborated into a book (How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories, Columbia University Press, 2009)—was dutifully compressed onto a handy little flash-drive. Before I flew to San Diego that morning, and while sharing breakfast as is our wont, my cockatoo had grabbed the flash-drive and scurried off with the electronic marvel. Quickly retrieved, it looked OK to me.

Only later, in front of 5,000 physicians, did I discover in real time and to my horror that the cockatoo had done her worst. It was a genuine case of the ubiquitous “academic’s nightmare,” in which the dreamer is confronted with taking a final exam or giving a lecture on a topic for which he or she is painfully unprepared. Except this was real!

Surprisingly, however, it went well. Having no choice, I explained my situation, the audience was sympathetic, and many commented afterward that they appreciated the human-ness of directly encountering a speaker (albeit in a huge conference center), as opposed to bouncing photons off a distant screen. And after—sort of—getting over my agitation, it was fun to look at my audience instead of my computer!

Since then, I have gone whole hog and sworn off PowerPoint, at least most of the time. Accordingly, when spring quarter begins at the University of Washington this Monday, I will tell my large-enrollment “Introduction to Animal Behavior” class that this course will be taught the old-fashioned way: Just them, and me, and an antique overhead projector on which I’ll draw the occasional graph and spell out any unusual terms.

I know, there are lots of arguments pro and con regarding PowerPoint and pedagogy; like most other things, it is a technology that can be overdone to the detriment of all, and underdone, too—which, I admit, may well be my current situation. I suspect that ideally, we should refrain from tossing out the baby with the bath water and take advantage of Powerpoint to augment our lectures, provide visual detail not otherwise available and maintain student interest when it might otherwise flag, all the while not leaning on the technology so heavily that our classes become mere automated techno-performances.

But for now, I’m content to hold down the Luddite end of the normal curve, for the same reason that the chicken crosses the road: To show the opossum that it can be done … all the while, blaming my cockatoo.

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