Folks, some time in the last nine years, my learning style has changed. I must confess: if you’re giving a paper without slides (or, at very least, a handout), I will struggle to listen to you for so much as ten minutes straight.
This is a bit of a shock to me, since at the end of my high school career I could take verbatim notes without shorthand for forty-five minutes at a time. As an undergrad I actively disliked lectures which relied heavily on visual material (I’m not and never will be a visual learner) and preferred the sorts of lectures wherein people talked at you for an hour straight. Even then, though, I appreciated overheads for names and dates.
Here are some great points about PowerPoint slides in academic papers:
PowerPoint as Exhibit A
Art historians have figured this one out. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a paper where handouts were passed around with photocopied pictures of features of medieval art and architecture; yet lit and history papers keep passing their primary texts around on hard copy. This inevitably leads to the Not Enough Handouts crisis – which could neatly be avoided putting the primary text up on a screen. Those interested enough to want a copy of their own can write down the name of the text and line refs and look it up later; those who aren’t would probably chuck the handout out anyway.
Me, I use PowerPoint to display the original text, while I read out the translation. It’s a working compromise between the feeling that I ought to display academic rigour and the fact that hardly anyone reads Old French.
PowerPoint as scaffold
Some of the best papers I’ve seen over the years are ones which have only four or five slides, giving a rough scaffold of what’s to be covered. Keep it simple to avoid overloading your audience, sure, but a running guide is incredibly useful to those of us whose minds wander.
I’ve heard people say they feel like the audience pays less attention if there’s a PowerPoint, or we should all be able to pay attention for twenty minutes. I don’t know about the universe at large, but I tell you what I noticed when I got sick last semester. The week that I was a total space cadet, swinging between hyperactive and extra-dopey, I asked students for transcripts of their presentations because I didn’t trust myself to pay proper attention. But the papers where I *did* get a good grasp of what they’d said – those were the papers which had some sort of notes available on the screen. That way, when my mind wandered off with the fairies it wasn’t too hard to scrape it back in the direction of matters Arthurian.
PowerPoint as humourous marginalia
I was once told that I should never put funny asides up on PowerPoint, since the audience would get distracted. Terrible pity, since that ruled out the dot plot of comparative idiocy in Arthurian Romance. Thing is, I’ve always got a good response out of funny slides (that dot plot generated more discussion than my entire paper), and they make the process of
paper-writing that much less horrible for me. And, coming back to that week when I was sick* – I had one student who spoke without a script, and with only the barest PowerPoint slides. I wasn’t able to get a full transcript from him, but his liberal application of humourous ClipArt and Disney figures as commentary on Tristan and Iseult served as… hangers, memory tags which meant his paper stuck much better in my head than anything else anyone said to me that week, in class or out.
So I shall return at once to my policy of illustrating Arthurian papers with BBC Merlin macros.
Not everyone in your audience is a native speaker
Today I went to a session which was held in my second language. It wasn’t on texts with which I’m intimately familiar, so I was expecting to have a hard time of it. The first paper I expect I wouldn’t have made head or tail of regardless, but the second – it sounded really *interesting*! The speaker’s accent was easy enough for me to understand; I picked up enough of what she was describing to know that the stories would probably interest me (one was de Boron’s Merlin, and another involved hijinks with towers and someone refusing to speak to their wife). But without a scaffold up on the screen to tell me useful things like what the name of the text was and when it was written, I spent valuable time that I should’ve been using to decode the argument trying instead to figure out what the title of the text was (it’s hard to tell if a name is a name or just a noun I don’t know yet), when it was written, and how the third title which was mentioned occasionally related to either of the other two.
Slides, with names and dates and maybe key points on them – in the language of the paper, of course – would’ve given me a much-neaded head start around which I could build an actual understanding of what was being argued.
TL;DR, PLS TO BE USING POWERPOINT MORE OFTEN.
* To be honest, my attention span is still not what it used to be – partly I think due to changes in my learning style as I grow older (oh hai, internets, affecting my brains!), and partly because I’m still sick and medication makes me dopey sometimes. So yes, this is an Accessibility Issue, although I understand there are equally good accessibility arguments *against* the use of PowerPoint or any other given visual aid, and it’s not like the presence or absence of PowerPoint determines completely whether I can participate in a session. It’s a factor in how much I can learn from that session, though.