The style of academic performance has undergone a quiet makeover. The clumsy rustling of notes set against the backdrop of a broken overhead projector or upside down slideshow has been replaced by the slick digital wizardry of PowerPoint and ‘data projection’. This transformation is worthy of a reality TV miracle. Busily hooking up my laptop at a recent conference in Copenhagen, a friend who had been working abroad asked: ‘Does everyone do that now? All looks very corporate!’ The edge in his aside made me realize quite how fast and completely things have changed.
The increasingly digitized forms of academic performance have a downside. The worst example I’ve witnessed was a conference in America where a sociologist merely read the content of his talk from the large shimmering screen. During the entire paper he had his back turned to the audience. This was not a knowing academic version of Bob Dylan’s famous stage antics. It was as if he was speaking to his new gadget or worshipping it as if it were an altar of ideas.
The ‘bullet point effect’ can produce a situation where presentations seem like a long series of lists without much exposition. Complex argument cannot be crafted through a series of quick-fire points at the click of a mouse. Here technological sophistication results paradoxically in less textured communication. Presentations that suffer from this syndrome can result in something akin to a nail-gun approach to thinking. Like all technological innovations though, this is a matter of how it is used and not the technology itself. While there might be risks in relying on these technologies, there are also real opportunities.
A study of PowerPoint usage by educationalist Stephen Dobson, published in 2006, claimed the real prospect offered by this technology is that academics can display and evoke ideas in new ways and ‘exhibit themselves’ differently. Using what Walter Benjamin called the ‘mimetic faculty’, Dobson argues that the challenge is to communicate and make ‘connections between different senses and to assign meaning to these connections’. Such a multi-modal (textual, imagist and spoken) approach might just be the most useful way of approaching the technology. Here the interplay between vision, text and sound may help evoke ideas and reflection.
This is something I’ve been trying to experiment with in my own teaching. At the end of one of my courses last year a student said after completing the quantitative course review form: ‘I really like your lectures and the way you use music, sound and pictures – it kind of leaves a trace on all your senses that makes you think again afterwards.’ It was the best compliment about my teaching I’ve ever been paid. PowerPoint offers more options to blend words, sound and vision and it is for this reason that it offers a major resource.
Too often though, I think conference presentations are less about the ‘exhibition of ideas’ and more about the display of academic credentials and distinction. For a properly turned out academic to be taken seriously it seems three things are needed: a research centre logo to brand their PowerPoint presentation, a web address and, increasingly, being smartly dressed in a good costume. Perhaps this version of academic performance is not unrelated to the pressure all of us feel to undergo an impression management drive in anticipation of the next audit of ‘research excellence’. However, reliance on PowerPoint, or for that matter any other form of multimedia, means that professional undoing and embarrassment can be just a click of the mouse away.
At the public lecture mentioned earlier I lined up a full array of PowerPoint gimmicks with the assistance of my laptop, including photographs, sound clips, animation and text. At the end of the talk questions followed from the audience, but while I was doing my best to answer them something quite unplanned unfolded behind me. I take the laptop home and my children make use of it for their homework and also their weakness for social media. Unknown to me Stevie, 12 years old at the time, had set the screensaver function to a ‘My Pictures Slideshow’. As I talked earnestly about the ‘war on terror’ and the London bombings the automatic slideshow treated the audience to a hi-resolution sequence of holiday snaps of my family in various states of beach undress and my kids head-banging with guitars like extras from Jack Black’s movie School of Rock.
Completely unaware, I continued to pronounce on Samuel Huntingdon’s ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis and London’s multicultural landscape. No one said a word until a young Dane approached me afterwards. In a strange Scandinavian variant of a mid-Atlantic drawl he said, ‘Nice slideshow and nice guitars. Is that Les Paul Gold Top yours?’ Realizing that a secret self had inadvertently been revealed, I replied, ‘Er yes, it is.’ Doing my best to make small talk through the embarrassment I feared that I had unwittingly become a character in a scene from a yet to be written David Lodge novel. Not very flattering and in the end not very corporate! The lesson is perhaps to be wary of the computer’s uncanny potential and always check your screensaver setting.