This is the time of year when our department begins to interview faculty candidates. Every week we see one or two bright young things (relatively speaking — they are usually in their late-20s or even mid- 30s) who want to join the academic rat race. They spend a day or two talking to faculty members for half an hour each, they have lunch with the chair, they go to dinner with the few people whose waistlines and stomachs can stand yet another dinner at some downtown restaurant and they give a talk late in the afternoon in a darkened room where everyone from grad students to senior faculty can fall asleep together. From this process, we pick the best and the brightest to educate the youth of America.
It's clear that most of these worthy people have had a lot of advice on how to give a formal academic presentation. Their PowerPoint slides are beautifully organized, the background designs are works of art, bullet points fly in from all directions, the animations jump and spin and the sequence follows an immutable formula: the problem, the prior work, the contributions of the thesis, the future work, the acknowledgments. It's incredibly soporific, and I confess without much embarrassment that I often doze off.
But when I wake up, I wonder — these fine young people have been taught how to give a great job talk, but what have they been taught about giving two or three lectures every week to real students? What do they know about the reality of being a professor? If they had gone to Prof. School, what might they have learned?
One thing they should have learned already is that PowerPoint is a two-edged sword. In the right hands, it can be persuasive and effective, but in the wrong hands (that is, almost everyone who uses it), it provides form without content, five minutes worth of talking points to spread over an hour. If we could somehow convert PowerPoint slides into pills, insomnia, like smallpox, would be eradicated from the earth.
The big problem with PowerPoint is that it almost mandates tightly scripted presentations that are little more than a reading of the slides. Whether one reads the text verbatim or paraphrases it in real time, the effect is the same: The listeners know exactly what's coming up, they can read it faster than you can, and they tune out, perhaps not to return until several slides later. Nor is there room for spontaneity or changes of plan. Some of the very best moments in my classes have come when the lecture veers completely off what I had planned — someone asks a question from left field, or a demo goes awry, or a chance visit to a web page leads to something unpredicted but instructive. (Naturally, some of the very worst moments have arisen in much the same way, but we'll save those for another column.)
In practice, one learns the tricks of any trade through hard experience. One thing our young aspirants will have to learn quickly: Never ever say anything in the last 10 minutes of a class that even hints that the ordeal might be over. Don't say "Next time...," even if all you had in mind was, "Next time the Red Sox win the Series..." Suffering students hear only the promise of release, and they start to load notebooks and cellphones and iPods and laptops into their backpacks; one can hardly hear the "..." over the din.
It's even worse to run over time, of course — most people can only endure so much anyway, and they get justifiably restless when the allotted time is up. They have other classes and important obligations like lunch or practice, and it's unfair to make them late. But what if there's some topic that you just have to cover so the course doesn't fall hopelessly behind the syllabus? The natural tendency is to realize, about five minutes from the end, that there's still 15 minutes of material, and this requires speaking at three times the normal speed to fit it all in. Naturally, no one is paying attention, so no one will understand or even remember what you said, and you'll just have to do it again next time anyway.
Would we do better if there were formal courses? My wife, who used to be a sixth grade teacher, got her first position on an emergency basis, replacing on short notice an incumbent who had become ill. She was forced, after the fact, to take education courses, not because she was a poor teacher (quite the contrary), but rather to ratify her otherwise irregular position. To this day, she swears that the only thing she remembers is that women were not supposed to wear red dresses, lest they inflame the students (in sixth grade, mind you). I don't even have the advantage of an education course. Like my colleagues, I've learned only through-on-the job training. So I know enough not to wear a red dress, and, finally, I only say "finally" when it's really over. Brian Kernighan is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and is a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Reader Comments (0)
No comments yet. Be the first to post your opinion on this article.