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Tufte on Powerpoint

Edward Tufte’s intelligent diatribe against the liabilities of Powerpoint is a welcome counterpoint to the kneejerk use of an all too familiar presentation format. Most of all, Tufte’s essay reminds us that software is never neutral–it always either subtly or overtly asserts particular practices and even, as this case demonstrates, enforces ways of thinking and processing knowledge. As Tufte points out, however, Powerpoint neutralizes the real knowledge-transmission process to a spoon-fed series of baby-step readings. I particularly appreciate his critique because Powerpoint slide-speak has become an insidious part of our culture. Somehow instantly graphically designing and cutting ideas into tiny pieces to project large to an audience has migrated from corporate to everyday life. I even recently saw an academic talk that overly relied on the PP clip-art and pithy quote lingo Tufte describes! Some of his best jabs: Powerpoint use creates a “…foreshortening of evidence and thought,” “deeply hierarchical single-point structure,” “poverty of content.” He is also quite apt at describing Powerpoint as a reflection of the bureaucracy that encourages its use, as well as the pseudo-scientification of content. Obviously, Tufte has convinced me. I would add that another tragedy of Powerpoint is that the opportunity for rich visualizations is lost in its step-by-step, static frame.

Which of course leads us to the joys of Prezi! (I am glad we read this before the workshop next week. ) I am curious, however, if everyone was convinced by Tufte or whether there are some Powerpoint defenders among us? Has anyone else suffered or celebrated Powerpoint or do you find it indispensible and not as problematic as Tufte claims? Perhaps some creative types have broken through its apparent barriers…

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6 Responses

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  1. Hadassah Damien says

    One interesting/creative use of PPT is for Artistic Performance Art Slideshows! Artists are subverting this medium for sure. I thought of this during our discussion, and an example is made by my friend/collaborator Ariel Speedwagon about dyke drama featuring Kat, Katy, Catherine and Kate [and Ellen], if you want to kill five minutes laughing here it is:

  2. m. akinyele says

    I love, love,love this article. Teachers get so frustrated when their students’ PP presentations do not reflect depth of the content studied. I always believed that PPT was minimizing thought, not expanding it. Since I learned about prezi, I’ve been an advocate of its implementation within schools. It’s quite amazing to watch students present their prezi’s. I know these students wouldn’t be so expressive with the cognitive restrictions inveterate to PPT.

    Thanks Mei-Ling

  3. Christina says

    Something that was most striking to me was his emphasis on how low the resolution is when projecting on to a screen. Not only is there normally so little relevant information on powerpoint slides, but the digital information is also lacking. Living with a photographer I have become pretty aware of the difference in resolution (her negatives are the size of most of my prints). When there is a large print with a low resolution, it doesn’t move you in the same way. This topic also came up when hearing someone talk about seeing the difference between looking at Cindy Sherman’s photos online, and seeing them in person at the moma. Maybe that is why powerpoint is so boring–there is literally not much to look at.

  4. Laura Kane says

    Excellent post! I too agree that PP presentations are quite easy to zone out to… In fact, after reading this article, some elements of my teaching experience have become clearer.

    For the classes in which I’ve been a TA, the primary instructor (whoever it may be) always uses PP presentations in lecture. I never use PP in my discussion sections. I have found that in all classes for which I’ve been a TA thus far, many of my students hav expressed that they understand the content of the course much better after our discussion meeting, and find the primary lectures too confusing or too difficult to follow. I have always assumed this was due to the nature of the course structure: new material is presented in the primary lecture and the discussion sections serve to go over that material after it has been presented. I think, in part, this is still fairly accurate. However, after reading Tufte’s PP analysis, I wouldn’t doubt that the nature in which the material is being presented is also contributing to this disparity.

    Since I’m already familiar with the material being discussed in lecture, it is easy for me to make the connection between points on the slides. I can’t even imagine what it would be like for a student that is being confronted with all of this disjointed information for the first time – they certainly can’t make the appropriate connections between points given how quickly the slides progress.

    To answer the question you posed – I have never used PP or any presentation software in the classroom – I prepare an extensive series of notes for myself, and write on the board what I feel are the moste important points. For the classes in which I am a primary instructor, I really try to create a narrative between all of the points I write on the board (I typically create an argument structure of some sort) and have never felt that I could do this in PP because of how fixed everything is – sometimes I need to add a small point or better connect two ideas AFTER I’ve already started my lecture for the day and my students are looking at me cross-eyed after something I’ve said.

  5. ria banerjee says

    Mei Ling, Amy, and all–I too have found myself completely switching off in classes that use PP, and I’ve always wondered at some of my fellow adjuncts who make PPs for every class and rave about it. Amy, while reading the Tufte I was also thinking about TED presentations, which use projected materials sparingly at most. I happen to think TED presentations are an awesome teaching tool (ignoring for now the politics of the foundation etc.), and I think part of why they’re so good is that they have good speakers and a focussed, non-PP-based environment. This might stem from the fact that they are designed to be filmed and it’s hard to film a projected image well etc., but in any case, I think eloquence and clearness in full sentences always trumps bullet points and truncated “keywords-based” speeches, as Tufte is arguing.

  6. Amy says

    I also really appreciated the matter-of-factness of this article and have also been convinced. I’ve become so incredibly used to PPT that it’s just become this accepted, normative, mode of presentation for me, so it’s really refreshing to read this, and remind myself why I never seem to get as much out of classes that are entirely PPT-based. (That said, I wanted more suggestions on alternative solutions, and look forward to learning more about the potential of Prezi.) I really liked the way he distinguished between audience- and presenter-oriented, and it made me think about TED talks (do they use Prezi?), as they seem to fit more into the audience-oriented realm. So to answer your question Meiling, I’m not sure I can come up with moments where I’ve really celebrated PPT — though in lectures, it sometimes serves as a practical cliff notes-like tool to take notes alongside. As a presenter, I would agree it can help with organization and “presentation jitters,” but it does seem to be more of a crutch than anything. This makes me that much more curious about Prezi. Are there other similar platforms out there that challenge the rigidity of PPT?

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