This is going to be one of those rare, no-link, all personal crap GeneHack updates. I need to rant just a little bit before collapsing into bed.

I’ve mentioned before that I taught a couple of classes in the past month. (Two sessions of the same class, that is.) One of the other instructors had a schedule conflict, so I picked up his two sessions too. A bit of background: this is a graduate level class; it’s part of a part-time masters program offered by Johns Hopkins at a local extension campus. The program is targeted at people with bioscience bachelors degrees who are doing technician work in government or industry; it offers a career development path as an alternative to going back for the more traditional Ph.D. Based on this description, presumably, the people in this class are somewhat more motivated than your average schmoo on the street, or even your average beer-guzzling undergrad.

So, anyway, I gave a lecture last night. I freely admit, it wasn’t my best work. I’ve got any number of reasons excuses: I didn’t have time to make my own overheads, so I was working from someone else’s material; I didn’t really have time to prepare, period; I don’t know this material as well as the other stuff I taught on. Really, though, that’s all bullshit, because it all boils down to me not being as prepared as I could have been, or prepared as I possible should have been. Nevertheless, I think I did an okay job — but it’s impossible for me to actually tell, because I couldn’t get any feedback from the class. There’s nothing quite like asking, “Are there any questions?” and seeing 20 blank, semi-slack-jawed faces staring back up at you.

But I already ranted about that particular problem last week; tonight I’ve got a slightly different bug up my ass. About halfway through the three hour class, I called a fifteen minute break. During the break, I was milling around the class room, giving people the opportunity to buttonhole me, in the hopes that they’d actually ask me a question about the class material. Instead, no fewer than five people (that’s about 20% of the class) asked me if the overheads were available on-line, or if I had a print-out they could have.

I explained to them, over and over, slightly less patient each time, that I really don’t like handing out copies of my overheads, that my experiences as both student and teacher had shown me that handing out lecture notes like that caused students to pay less attention to the lecture, to think about the material less critically, to ask fewer questions of the instructor, and in general to focus on the exact wrong thing: the specific examples in the notes, rather than the general principles that those examples were intended to illustrate. I’ve got other reasons, too — I think people in general pay more attention when they’re taking notes, and I think they’re more likely to ask questions when they hit a concept that they can’t quickly get down on paper. I think the ability to absorb material verbally and record it on paper for later use is a valuable, possibly even an essential skill in science, and it’s something any normal, reasonably well educated person should be able to do. (I realize that this doesn’t apply to people with learning disabilities, and I am willing to make exceptions when warranted — but none of these people were claiming any special problems; they just didn’t like taking notes.)

Finally, one of the students said “I can’t look at the screen and take down notes”, in a semi-whingy manner. Trying to debug the problem, I replied “What — am I talking too fast, or flipping the slides too quickly? Stick your hand up, and ask me to slow down, or go back — I’m more than happy to do that.” “No,” the student said, “I can’t watch the animations and take notes at the same time.”

And then I remembered: in my haste to get the class together, I’d used the PowerPoint presentation of the person who was supposed to speak — a presentation loaded down with various bits of zinging text and dancing graphics. And at that point, I realized yet another aspect of the PowerPoint evil. Not only does that crap piece of malware result in speakers spending more time on useless appearance-based noodling and not enough time on the actual content of what they’re talking about, it encourages the audience to go into TV watching mode, to sit back and enjoy the little bits of pixels that go whizzing about the screen. And they expect, somehow, that while they’re in this mode, that they’re somehow going to be magically Educated, that Knowledge is going to flow into their pointy little heads, and if it doesn’t at the time, well, then they can just go back and look at the hard-copy lecture notes until it does.

I think I’m going to call this the Sesame Street Expectation: the notion that learning things needs to be fun, and not in a “boy that was hard work but I learned a lot” kind of way, but in a “Gee whiz, Bert, that looks pretty complicated” kind of way — that it’s an essentially passive process on the part of the student, and that feedback from the student to the teacher isn’t going to be heard — because one of the first things you learn while watching Sesame Street is that the furry little guys in the box don’t talk back, regardless of how loud you shout at them.

My plan for improving the quality of presentations used to be two-fold: destroy every copy of PowerPoint (and assorted functional clones) in existence, and give offenders remedial “how to give a talk” classes, emphasizing the content-based logical mark-up portions of HTML as a mechanism for making slides. (The hardcore hopeless cases would be forced to learn TeX.) Now, however, I think there needs to be a third step: Big Bird must die.

Suggestions for implementing the program, donations for the cause, nominations for other contributing factors, and hate mail telling me I’m an up tight, elitist, self-righteous prick to jacobs@genehack.org.


(And yes, I did cave; I will be putting the notes (in some form) on-line. Other lecturers in the class had given handouts, and since I failed to emphasize that I wouldn’t be, it didn’t seem all that fair. Of course, now it feels like I’m cheating them, in a “give a fish versus teach to fish” kind of way…but you really can’t win.)

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