Beyond Bullet Points, or maybe not

I’ve been thinking about PowerPoint lately, and about how I might use it productively.

It seems pretty clear that the blizzard-of-bullet-points method is not useful. Who can make sense of such tiny print so quickly? What’s the point of slapping bullet points on a screen?

Why I Hate Most PowerPoint Lectures, by fling93. I have to admit, though, that I feel for this professor. The poor guy put so much work into his slide!
"Why I Hate Most PowerPoint Lectures," by fling93. I have to admit, though, that I feel for this professor. The poor guy put so much work into his slide!

One popular alternative method is the one Cliff Atkinson advocates in the book Beyond Bullet Points. Atkinson has two basic suggestions. First, he argues that a single, dominating image, plus a trigger word or two is the best approach for any single slide. Second, he advocates crafting a presentation as a narrative, with a clear, logical, problem-resolution structure.

Here’s the thing that bothers me about that, though. Well, it’s actually two things. The Atkinson method uses images to suggest abstract concepts and hammer them home. As a pedagogical strategy, that may work, but is it really the message that I, as someone who teaches visual culture, wants to give to my students? In other words, do I want my students to get the impression that images are unmediated stand-ins for ideas?

And while this reservation may sound abstract compared to the realities of the classroom, take a look at some Atkinson-style presentations. To me, they seem glib, as though they’re claiming a seamless mastery over ideas to which no one should responsibly pretend.

The second reservation is the narrative structure that Atkinson recommends. On the one hand, I’m really sympathetic to this, since I’m very attracted to stories and tend to remember things better when they’re presented as narratives. But on the other hand, one really important thing that I want my students to understand is that we tend to organize history (and even our own experience) as a narrative, when really it’s no such thing. It’s much messier and more difficult.

Lately, I tend to use slide presentations as a chance to offer up primary documents, almost as a way of proving that the things I’m describing really happened. But even that gives me pause. Is it wrong to give students the impression that arranging the material of history is as easy as dragging and dropping? Is it wrong to reduce everything to two (virtual) dimensions? Maybe my students, who already see images as clickable, sendable, and malleable, get the idea that history is just as easily shuffled into order.

I don’t really know the answer. Maybe this is one of those cases where you shouldn’t think too much about it, or everything will disintegrate into incoherence.

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