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Looney-lefty lecturer bans Powerpoints

December 17, 2011

I’m one of those Lefty lecturers that Tories mistakenly believe universities are full of. They worry, quite unnecessarily, that impressionable young minds are being indoctrinated and students turned into communist automatons by legions of well-organised card-carrying tutors. The idea is laughable. Don’t get me wrong, there is a genuine threat to free-thinking on campus but it comes not from lecturers. It is to be found in the apparently benign form of new digital ‘teaching aids’ – things like Powerpoint and Blackboard.

There seems to be a notion in the upper echelons of universities that students, quite literally, don’t know what to think unless it is delivered with copious bullet-points on Powerpoint slides and extensive lecture notes published on-line through Blackboard or WebCT.

Since the idea of reading books became unfashionable, complex ideas like pseudo-individualisation, commodity fetishism and ideology must be defined in handy, McNugget-sized bullet-points. Foundational concepts in an academic discipline that have been debated through the pages of of hundreds (nay thousands) of books and journals, need to be reduced to one poorly constructed sentence on a slide, projected onto a lecture room wall, copied down and learned by rote. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. In many respects its an entirely adequate and necessary first step for students on the road to learning and understanding. The problem is it is too often the only and last step.

One thing I’ve always been keen to combat in the seminar room is dictionary-type definitions of concepts. Dictionaries by their nature strive to be definitive, which is fine, sometimes, but in higher education we are seeking to assess academic ability and that requires students to engage with the scholarly literature in a field, to assess it for themselves, draw conclusions and reach a considered position. The mere reproduction of dictionary definitions or bullet-points is inimical to this ambition.

In the past, when I used lecture notes and visual aids with bullet-points, most student essays were mere reproductions of the information I’d disseminated. It was as if I held the definitive answer to everything. I confess, that while I do a bloody good impersonation of him, alas, I am not God Almighty. So a couple of years ago I knocked the bullet-points, hand-outs and lecture notes on the head and told students that lectures would be illustrative but that their leaning depended largely on their own independent efforts. The results were interesting. Some students read nothing and failed or did badly: no great surprise there. But on the other hand, there was a marked improvement (I felt) in the quality of most students’ work because freed from their dependency on ‘teaching aids’ they had actually gone and read the appropriate scholarship and as a consequence their understanding of the subject grew and their knowledge had greater depth.

I may be a pinko-faggot but I’ve always assumed my job is to encourage independent adult learners – free-thinking grown-ups. I make no bones about my politics and in my lectures I present arguments based on my research and reading within the field but I make clear to students that I don’t necessarily want them to think what I think. I want them to think for themselves and that is why I insist that the lecture is a starting point from which they should begin to explore and research the area for themselves. I offer an indicative reading list but I encourage and reward reading beyond set texts. And ultimately I am not averse to ideas that contradict or challenge my own. As I impress upon students, I am interested in assessing their academic abilities, not their ability to reproduce faithfully what I said in the lecture.

This means that some of the best student work I’ve marked has flown in the face of my own conclusions, and some of it has forced me to rethink my position, which in turn impacts upon how I teach the subject in the future. I don’t think students quite appreciate that at university they are part of a community of scholars and their contribution is important and valuable.

One of the best dissertations I’ve ever read argued that advertisements are an art form: in fact the very pinnacle of capitalist art. I found this politically challenging but it was well research, the analysis was very sharp and it was cogently argued. It was undeniably first class work, no matter how provocative I found it.

I suspect that this sort of intellectual generosity and openness is one of the reasons why the Left has never seized the commanding heights of the UK economy, let alone the campus. But that’s a discussion for another day. The point I’m making here is that the independence of thought illustrated by the dissertation on advertising is all too rare among undergraduates who prefer to be ‘spoon-feed’ information. This is killing education and I suspect it is something which starts long before students reach university.

The Economist argued recently that as Northern Ireland attempts to attract foreign investment it relies heavily on one perceived strength: education. However, while the region has exceptional GCSE and A Level results this is not a sign that Northern Ireland is teeming with intelligent, ‘independent thinkers’. It seems it might have more to do with pupils being trained in passing exams. Naturally, The Economist’s principle concern is that a mere training in the art of passing exams does nothing to encourage entrepreneurship and as a consequence, it says, it is little wonder 30% of Northern Ireland’s workforce ‘toil’ in the public sector, compared with 20% in the rest of the UK.

Someone needs to give The Economist a history lesson because I doubt that Northern Ireland’s infamous ‘workhouse economy’ can be explained as an effect of its education system’s shortcomings. And yet, I share some of The Economist’s concerns about a form of ‘education’ that is instrumental.

Of course, Powerpoint, Blackboard or WebCT are not really responsible for the demise of independent learning and thinking. But their peculiar use as substitutes for in-depth reading, research and thinking is a symptom of a much deeper problem.

The mission of any educational institution is not primarily to retain and progress students to graduation, nor to compete in schools’ league tables. It is to encourage, facilitate and produce academically able, independent thinkers. Student progression and topping league tables are just by-products of that goal.

The addict-like dependency of students upon ‘teaching aids’ is a signal that we’re falling far short of education’s mission. So if education frees itself from the debilitating audit culture I’ll start using bullet-points and disseminating lecture notes again. In that context, they might have a useful role to play.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2011 11:07 am

    Just thought you ought to know:

    “The wedding was probably the first in the city to be held as a kind of TED conference. After the ceremony, in which chants were chanted and vows, written by the couple’s friends, were exchanged, guests sat down to a series of talks, with PowerPoint presentations, on subjects of interest to the couple — ecological efficiency, neuroscience, holistic healing. Those who did not care to listen wandered about eating dumplings and popcorn, which made up the entire nuptial meal”.

  2. Rab permalink*
    December 19, 2011 7:50 pm

    Bloody hell. I wonder was the honeymoon as ‘spartan’.

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