Technology and the Professoriate

Brian Weatherson argues that certain technical skills should be a requirement for graduate students and incoming professors. Among these is “How to use Powerpoint in lectures.” His blogmate Kieran Healy responds in the comments section, “How about, How not to use Powerpoint in lectures?” A discussion ensues.

I used PowerPoint for one academic year and gave up on it, ultimately returning to the chalk board. In addition to the points raised in the Crooked Timber discussion (basically, that it forces conformity to the limitations of the techology, dumbing down the presentation) PowerPoint has the additional disadvantage of taking flexibility away from the professor. Students get trained to take down only what’s on the slide and, in the case that Q&A on a previous point covered something later in the presentation and/or the instructor gets pressed for time, it’s almost impossible to skip ahead because IT’S THERE ON THE SLIDE–IT MUST BE IMPORTANT!

As to the requirement that professors/grad students have all these technical skills, it seems to me that this is more proof that we should return to the concept of division of labor along lines of specialization. We’ve fired all the secretaries and now turned professionals into clerks. Not only does that remove low-level jobs but it degrades the higher level ones. In essence, we’re paying professional salaries for part-time clerks. Not only is that a direct waste of resources but it also introduces inefficiencies. Whereas a secretary would use the copy machine, for example, constantly and thus gain an intimate familiarity with its operation, others in the office use it only occasionally and have to figure it out as they go. It’s not unusual in my office to have people making $75,000 or more a year wasting half an hour trying to figure how to clear a paper jam.

I managed to acquire all the skills Brian suggests while I was teaching. I had a huge website with all my course materials, taught myself PowerPoint, etc. But the countless hours I spent doing these tasks might have been more profitably spent reading journal articles and doing scholarly research. Time spent being a graphic artist, webmaster, and clerk-typist was time not spent being a college professor.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.