The Cave Man and the Man Cave

My 12th-graders have just finished their Theory of Knowledge Presentations: ten-minute talks in which they explore knowledge issues implicit in a real-life situation they have chosen to examine.  The good news was that this year’s students took the assignment more seriously than last year’s students did, and on the whole they therefore did very well.

Only a foolish teacher would place the bad news rhetorically as if it somehow balanced the good in such a success, and so I won’t say, “The bad news is….” I am happy with the results but feel a touch of (seemingly) cave-mannish regret.

That retrograde regret is for the loss of live human beings at the front and center of public speaking by students. I have written elsewhere about the potentially deleterious cognitive effects of PowerPoint as she is spoke, detailed with devastating thoroughness by Edward Tufte[1]. The sidelining of the human is no less to be regretted.

And it is a literal sidelining, as anyone can see who looks on the darkened scene at the front of the Lecture Theatre during presentation time. In the center glows a projected pie chart (“The one thing worse than a pie chart is lots of them”—Tufte) or a baffling “graphic.” At the side, in the dark, with one half of his face aglow in the chart’s reflected glory, a student chatters away. Did I say “one half of his face”? His whole face is aglow if he falls into one of PowerPoint’s common traps and faces the screen to read his lines, rather than the audience to deliver them—but we can still see only the half of his face that faces the audience!

Many of my students have an appealing or even charismatic platform presence, but much or most of that is undercut when they choose to throw away their advantages and play second-fiddle to a projection. And what a projection! The satirical type of the awful throwaway starts with Lincoln’s magnificent anaphora in the Gettysburg Address that “We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” The music of it is irresistible, as is its buildup to the climax that the “honored dead” have consecrated it. All this depends for its effect on being a part of a delivered speech by a capable speaker. Consider by contrast how  the “same(!)” material might be handled in a typical PowerPoint slide. The list of bullet points is the sorriest possible parallel construction, and it sacrifices the possibilities of live rhetoric and human interaction for a dearly bought concision. It would do so even if turned into “the dreaded build sequence” with spins and pans and close-ups.

One of my students explored this unfortunate graphic terrain in his presentation. He is good humored, personable, and well liked by his classmates; and he has a solid platform presence. In the rush to PowerPoint he threw away all these advantages, standing to the side in semidarkness to read off slides of maroon lettering on a black background.  The thought briefly occurred to me that I had made my way into a man cave. It lacked Naugahyde furniture with nail-head trim, but the feeling of claustrophobia among badly lit masses was just right. I will offer him a private word with some advice. It would be a shame if after twenty years of unchanged speaking habits he were to end up recording presentations for an on-line “school[2].”


[1] The Tufte piece argues that PowerPoint is not just a tool, a thesis developed in thirty-two pages of text and illustration. I shared the booklet with a colleague who came back to me hot under the collar, saying, “PowerPoint is just a tool!”

[2] This is not an idle nightmare. Lots of “audio-visual materials” of appalling paint-peeling dullness are now sold to schools for presentation to miserable captive audiences, whose only escape is sleep or daydreams. Why should the nightmare change just because more such things are now being produced?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.