teaching without a safety net

A public speaking coach once told me to dispense with visual aids. They are a crutch. They are distracting. They disrupt the flow of your talk. For a while, I was able to follow his advice. Then, with the era of power points, I stopped. My students resented lectures without power points. I brought power points into class. I got worse as a speaker.

Recently, I have tried to implement the advice and reduce distracting visual aids. What I learned is that students wanted notes and summaries. The power point presentation fulfilled that function. They printed power point slides out and wrote on them. But they didn’t seem to want or need visuals during class. They were still perfectly capable of following lectures.

My current mode of operation is that I provide outlines/notes/power point slides but the class itself is just me talking and directing class discussion without notes. Occasionally, I’ll pick up the paper to make sure I hit major points. Otherwise, it is a wild free-soc improv jam session. And it works. I can monitor class, have off the cuff discussions, and drum up the audience. Since the class has a loose structure, people are more relaxed and we can speed up or slow down as needed.

But there is a deeper lesson, aside from just being more relaxed. By forcing myself to essentially memorize all these readings and then explain, from scratch, how they are connected, I can actually see the connections more clearly. For example, I teach social theory for upper division students from Lemert’s text. The book is one of those anthologies that mixes actual sociology with a bunch of “hip” readings from the humanities that touch on social behavior. So for a lot of the readings on race and gender, I always thought they were disconnected. But by re-explicating, I realized that there are lots of common themes. One is that a lot of the “humanities” style readings are actually about claiming intellectual space for women and minority intellectuals and using that position to generate social change. Though it is not mentioned in the critical essays in the readings, it comes out when you have do in-class close readings. Franz Fanon raises the issue, Patricia Collins nails it, and then Gayatri Spivak mucks it up again. I don’t think I’d be able to see that chain of thought had I just relied on the power points I wrote three years ago. It only comes out when you read, in class, passages and directly compare them.

This is the lesson I have for you. If possible, “go free” but not wild. Loosen up, read closely, have fun. And see the connections.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

November 11, 2015 at 12:01 am

7 Responses

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  1. How has your prep time changed? I’d guess that having the crutch of old slides means that you don’t have to refamiliarize yourself with everything to the same depth each year.

    Liked by 1 person

    Bradley Spahn

    November 11, 2015 at 4:33 am

  2. Give them the outline/notes/power point slides after you are finished. If they read it first, they will likely start tuning you out. This happens when people use power point too. They put up a slide and just repeat everything in the slide, which takes an extremely long time compared to the time it takes for me to read the slide. Now, if they just say what’s on the slides for the whole speech, I will feel cheated- there’s stuff not easily transmitted via text, which is why we have lectures in the first place. But if they use slides in this way, and then do say (or do) something that isn’t in the slides, then it is likely to be missed.


    August Hurtel

    November 11, 2015 at 3:02 pm

  3. @Bradley: The first time I lecture “without the net,” I have very big prep time. I have to learn the readings in detail and write out the topics in detail. After that, prep time is low. As all I have to do is refresh my memory. Writing things out in detail the first time makes you retain a lot.

    @August: You think they would tune out, but they don’t if you look at them directly and lecture. Also, I used a “call card” system. Students write down their names on cards and I randomly call. Keeps them awake!



    November 12, 2015 at 12:31 am

  4. It would be interesting to do it both ways and then test somehow. A quiz full of questions not in the notes, which would create a lot of sulky students, but yield interesting data. I think I was still a student when I figured this out, so I stopped reading the notes myself. I had an economics professor who handed out power point slides and used power point in a dark classroom. He had a very mild voice and most people fell asleep. He would make very interesting observations that were not on the slides at all.


    August Hurtel

    November 12, 2015 at 3:42 pm

  5. This is Fabio’s most right post ever.

    My general tendency over the past few years has been to use fewer and fewer written notes. I gave up on them entirely this year. For really technical things, I might bring a bare bones outline of the concept or theory, but I find I rarely even look at that. The largest course I’ve done this with is a sixty-five enrolment, but it is the best way to get a moderate sized (still too large) “lecture” course to be much more interesting. Because I also teach in the Legal Studies department, I cover things we wouldn’t ordinarily see in Sociology. For instance, yesterday my third years did the first half of Agamben’s Homo Sacer. Sixty some students. Pace and content of the class was lead by the students and overseen by me, where I provided background, clarified points, and so on. It was almost a seminar. The only “visuals” I’ve used this semester was the frontispiece to Hobbes’s Leviathan and a typed out copy of Weber’s definition of the state from “Politics as a Vocation.”

    I have a brand new course I’ve never taught next semester at the second year level (again, Legal Studies) on persons, property, and contracts. The enrolment is over ninety. I’m just going to go for it.


    Craig McFarlane

    November 14, 2015 at 2:28 pm

  6. I agree with Fabio that not working from Power Points. My colleagues look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them that I don’t use it in class. One thing that I *do* when I lecture, however, is to use the whiteboard/blackboard to write out concepts. The reason that I do this is because it helps me keep the pacing that would be appropriate for students taking notes. I tend not to like note sheets because students taking their own notes (just as Fabio suggests for himself), help people retain the information more. Before exams, I will give concept sheets with terms on it that they should know and be able to define; but for classes, I don’t provide written notes.

    Liked by 1 person


    November 15, 2015 at 11:44 am

  7. I have moved away from PP slides. I hadn’t thought of giving students an outline though. That does make sense.

    I also have students do a presentation and I tell them only to have a visual aid if it is something they will actually discuss and interact with, like a figure or a table of data. They seem baffled at first, but then we discuss bad PP they have seen and the light bulb goes off.



    November 16, 2015 at 9:01 pm

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