by Nick Osbaldiston
Recently I was struck by a commentary piece written on the Sociological Imagination blog entitled “The Craft of Giving (Bad) Presentations”. Written by one of the better followed twitter user/sociologists Mark Carrigan, the post initially caught my interest because of this nicely phrased confession: “I don’t like slides. I never have. I struggle to synchronise myself with them, I’m bad at designing them and they completely preclude any extemporaneity on my part”. I have to admit a similar disdain for PowerPoint slides, in academic presentations I’m most hopeless at using them (I shall return to this soon). Yet I use them constantly in teaching for no other reason than student expectation. It seems to me that those who would even consider momentarily teaching without them risk the disapproving keystrokes from the student come student evaluation time (why we pay so much attention to these I have never fully understood). I’m sure readers who are lecturers/tutors in academia will have experienced the frustrated emails from undergrads wondering when the ‘lecture slides are going up’ as though these will automatically preclude them from doing any of the actual readings. Or perhaps you like me have peered down or up (depending on the lecture hall) at your students to see their gaze fixated either on their laptops, mobile devices or the screen behind you instead of listening intently as you explain to them what it is your talking on. I find this latter point most concerning especially when you’re trying to teach complicated concepts or methodologies. You can’t fit the entirety of Simmel’s theorisation of the impersonal nature of money for instance in one slide. Sometimes, you need your students to pay attention to what you say, engage with you verbally and non-verbally so that you can explain these things in detail. At times, and I have found this quite liberating, I have had to turn off the PowerPoint momentarily so that the students will focus on me and not on the non-humans who do not expound.
I’m no Luddite though and I can see some of the major advantages that our digital age has brought to the classroom. It allows us to colour our intellectual discussions with pictures, clips and even sounds that harden conceptual frameworks and sharpen the critical edge that we hope to encourage in our students. However, is the digital presentation effective for academic presentations (ie – Conferences/seminars?). In the same post from Carrigan he quotes Steve Fuller who writes;
Reading the talk, at best, is good karaoke. To me it always suggests that the academic hasn’t mastered his/her material sufficiently to navigate without training wheels. Ditto for powerpoint presentations, unless one really needs to point to something for added epistemic power. A good academic talk should be more like a jazz improvisation – i.e. the speaker provides some novel riffs on themes familiar from his/her texts that allow the audience to join in, sometimes contributing some novelty of their own.
Recently at the Australian Sociological Association’s 50th anniversary conference I became for the first time the untrained and nervous ‘Karaoke’ singer in two papers that I presented (one co-authored). In each instance, I took a paper that was pre-prepared and simply read this to the audience. I felt strangely and perhaps surprisingly, like I was actually engaging in a proper intellectual discussion. It’s true that presentations that are innovative and exciting and entertaining produce interest and catches the ‘eye’ of the audience (charismatic intervention ala Weber?) but I worry that the reading of one’s paper is somehow becoming devalued in the market place of conference talks, perhaps also reflective of a broader shift in society towards the exciting. It seems to me that Fuller assumes that reading one’s paper isn’t engaging at all. Rather I would contend the opposite and nothing frustrates me more than seeing someone finish a presentation after 15minutes of talking and I still have not heard the ‘meat’ to their argumentative skeleton. What I would argue, instead of trying to be the flashy entertainer (Robert Van Krieken’s academic celebrification perhaps), is that we take better care in preparing conference papers so that they are at an appropriate high level of detail and complexity so that the audience can absorb the words as they are read and discuss with confidence later. Of course, this isn’t overly charismatic (nor should it be), but it does offer something that I think academic conferences should be about – the well-considered development of ideas and critical engagement with theoretical, empirical and methodological assumptions and results. While I’m not necessarily opposed to the ‘flashy’ presentations, or the powerpoint ones either, I’m not certain we ought to devalue in anyway those who carefully prepare word for word their papers for consumption at conference. Of course, as a side note, disseminating knowledge in the public forums deserves alternative practices. But for my mind, hearing a well prepared and thoughtful paper from the sheet to the audience is manna from sociological heaven.