Monday, November 19, 2007

Brisbane distractions

Back from Brisbane on Saturday night, after attending the symposium of the Australian Humanities Academy. Brisbane was gorgeous, though I took my customary approach to a conference — fly in at the last minute and leave early — so I didn't see that much of the city. Why do I do it this way? To fend off that awful feeling on the first day away, of wondering why in the world one would want to leave one's home, and hang around airports and burn up greenhouse gases, and sleep in a hotel. So I try and minimise the pain by not really committing to the city. Paul and I never seem to manage to go on such trips together, so that's another reason not to hang around.

I did manage to get in a couple of walks, though, along the boardwalk along Southbank. Restaurants, cafes, a Nepalese pagoda, and the little sandy beach built into the riverbank (where I swam, 11 years ago), though it was closed for renovation, with all the sand piled up under tarpaulins, while they sealed the base. It was mild for Brisbane, I think; a balmy 26, which made sitting outside in the evening extremely pleasant. The first evening saw me and two companions sharing a bowl of succulent mussels in a rich tomato and chili broth, sopped up with an excellent sourdough.

The theme of the conference was the nature of e-research in the humanities. There were some terrific papers showcasing wonderful projects and resources; and also some reflections on the nature of this work, too, so it wasn't just "show-and-tell".

One remark struck me, though, when a prominent Vice-Chancellor commented that the era of the lecture was dead; that students simply wouldn't tolerate being lectured to in the old way. I guess that's true, that our attention span has been horribly reduced. My companion at the conference dinner on the second night told me how Pascale had anticipated the "distractions", like email, that break up our concentration span into bits and pieces. But it was odd to speculate on the irony that the symposium was presented in a conventional lecture theatre, that had been adapted to take powerpoint, etc. So when speakers presented their sites and applications, they were in darkness at the side of the stage, while the screen was lit up. Most of these applications were text-intensive, too, so if you were sitting up the back, it was pretty hard to see what was on the screen, much of the time. Nor were the speakers miked up, so that when they were answering questions, you couldn't always hear very well. No wonder some of the academicians were seen nodding off. And in truth, it is hard to concentrate for a day of such presentations. It might have been an idea for the conference to be held in a lab, where we could have interacted with these resources ourselves.

In fact, the organisers had made several laptops available, and I got used to seeing people surfing around sites that were being discussed in front of them. Some were also checking their email, too... But if that's the best way of presenting this material, either to a conference, or to a class, then it's no wonder that the connection between audience and presenter is diluted. I'm not a luddite in such things: I do use powerpoint when I teach, for example, and I have offered minimal online sites for larger subjects; but I do also love the human connection it's possible to make in a lecture, and the way that quite unexpectedly, sometimes, the group goes completely quiet and you realise that something has struck them, collectively, and you had no way of anticipating what it would be. The symposium wasn't really concerned with teaching, though.

Oddly, it's the idea of the "distraction" that has stayed with me. I'm determined to try and exert some discipline over my own. I wonder if reading Pascale would help. Or is that just another distraction?

10 comments:

David Thornby said...

I've lived in and around Brisbane for, er, more years than I care to think about now. It does have a bit of a personality crisis -- attempting to be both itself and Sydney, with a bit of Perth thrown in I think. (It doesn't seem much interested in being Melbourne, which is a shame, or Adelaide.) Nevertheless, like all the Australian capitals it's profoundly inoffensive these days, global-comparison speaking. Glad you enjoyed it.

Re: distractions; I expect there is some up-to-the-minute theory that says we're meant to embrace distraction and plan to make use of it in teaching or presenting, or just getting work done for that matter. Though I'm blowed if I know what it is.

Stephanie Trigg said...

"profoundly inoffensive" is very good! Yes, it's the downside of having public places that are safe and user- and family-friendly, perhaps. I didn't quite get the sense, in Brisbane, of the private wealth of Perth - but I'm sure I was in the wrong places for that.

On distraction: I'm trying not to beat myself up about this too much, but it just seems quite a long time since I worked on just one thing...

meli said...

The best lectures I've ever heard were by Philip Waldron at the University of Adelaide. He lectured on modernism and Romanticism, and sadly I missed his Renaissance subject. We hung on his every word. We were sad when the hour was over. The most multimedia he ever got were little chalk drawings on the blackboard - Keat's nightingale springs to mind. And Bloom's soap. I think the drawings were to help us visualise the texts. Whatever it was, they've stayed with me.

WhatLadder said...

I have to admit that I am absolutely dismayed that you have fallen victim to PowerPoint, Stephanie - I remember you as being an excellent lecturer who didn't need visual aids because you had a very clear way of laying out the structure of your arguments in verbal cues.
Now I'm going to have to go and find those articles on why PowerPoint is evil, and send them to you.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Oh, Meli, that takes me back! I remember to this day, and I'm not saying how long ago it was, a first-year lecture Phil gave on symbolism in TS Eliot in general and 'Burnt Norton' (is that the Quartet with the bird in it, as in 'Look, said the bird', etc?) in particular: "A lot of critics have asked what this bird is. Well, it's a bird, basically."

meli said...

How wonderful! It's quite okay for birds to be birds, methinks.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Hi Whatladder. Yes, I *do* use powerpoint, though much less slavishly than I used to do. I love it for talking about bits of the text: so I make it work against its own preferences, to encourage close reading. It's brilliant for prosody, and talking about metre, etc. I also find it makes for not a bad lecture if I prepare slides, and slides alone; so that the lecture is structured, and I just talk to what's on the screen. A good half of my PP slides, then, are just typed up bits of the text I'm going to talk about. I do know what you mean about its evils, but I find it encourages me to make the extra effort to find illustrations and pictures, which are good for medieval studies. It also stops me rambling. Once I got more confident to speak from a few notes, rather than a script, I did develop a tendency to ramble, something that was instantly and mercilessly picked up in the student feedback.

By the same token, I will sometimes switch it off and make sure they just have to listen. And will always build in at least one lecture without it.

Anyway, not perfect. But in our weird system, our lectures often have to fill in a 90-minute class (to more than 100 students), and that really *is* hard to do without mixing it up a bit.

Kathleen said...

Stephanie, I would love to pop in on one of your lectures to see how you use Powerpoint for talking about prosody, metre, etc. - I've never got past using it for images (for which I love it) and foreign phrases. Your technique sounds like a great use of what can be such a clunky program!

It's interesting - I did an educational qualification last year, on being a university educator. The research they made us read talked very much about the Death of Powerpoint. When I mentioned that at another workplace, one of my colleagues was horrified by the thought of having to give up the program.

But I dunno...like the rest of you, the lectures/lecturers I particularly remember (Nerida Newbigin, in USyd's Italian Studies, and Rob Jackson, in USyd's English Department) kept us (me?) hanging on every word.

So I suppose charisma is charisma, whether or not it's accompanied by Powerpoint, a computer, a questionnaire, or even a spelling bee...

dogpossum said...

I use Keynote (the apple version of powerpoint) and I love it. I figure, teaching media, that it helps to actually show examples of the media you're discussing.

This past semester I was working with first years in a 1.5 hour lecture, which was too long for all of us (we only had 1.5 hour tutes, which was too short!), so the slides helped break up the time. I integrate AV and sound files into the slides (as well as using dot points, quotes I'm referencing and nice pictures), and I've found them really fun to put together (lots of work, but ultimately satisfying as a teaching tool).

I get all my clips from youtube or the internet, and I put the links in the lecture notes (we're required to make notes available, which I don't approve of). I've also had quite a few students who need to have full notes provided (health issues, language issues, learning issues), and I've just made the slides into a pdf document, with the notes attached and urls for the clips included. The students have really appreciated them, and those students getting the full notes are actually the keenest to come to the lectures. One of them said it was because "I'd miss out on the other stuff - your examples", which was the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me.

But I like Keynote. I enjoy making the presentations (aspiring cinema/TV maker?). I love using the clips and audio files and pictures. I feel like I come a bit closer to addressing different learning styles and students' different learning needs. I especially like making silly jokes using images + the things I'm saying. And the students like it as well...

Doing a lecture on the media in war time I found this set up amazingly useful - I could show the posters and cartoons from WWI. I played some audio file speeches from WWI. I showed some archival footage of people enlisting and of Franz Ferdinand just before he was killed. With WWII I showed some amazing propaganda films, some paintings by soldiers, some great posters, played some propaganda jazz. With the Vietnam war I showed some films made during the war, some photos taken in-country and some anti-war protest footage I found in a library website. With the Gulf War I showed footage taken from the cockpits of planes bombing cities, CNN broadcasts, some of the TV coverage of the trade centre bombings, to talk about how the media was used to justify the American invasion in the middle east. And I showed some fab ABC doco footage. And with the bit on the current involvement in the middle east, I showed a combination of doco footage, Howard's 'gap year' recruitment ad from youtube, posters and pictures.

The students really enjoyed it, I really enjoyed it. We all learnt a lot. It was an incredibly media-heavy lecture, but I also talked a lot and the students asked lots of questions. It felt very interactive and was great fun to teach. As an example of how useful pictures can be, when I started discussing WWII, I had a slide with the basic dates and a photo of an Aboriginal soldier in slouch hat (I wanted to present a different image of the 'digger'). Even before I finished introducing that section I had half a dozen students shouting out questions about aboriginal soldiers, citizenship and so on. It was really really thrilling to have students pre-empting my points and thinking ahead.

I found all the media on the internet, from the ABC's site, to library film archives, to websites about the war (www.firstworldwar.com). And I could include urls so students could follow up interesting stuff -and they did!


The very best moment, though, was the last one where I talked about culture jamming and showed some nice little films and photos of graffiti. I got to the first tute after the lecture to find all the class already assembled and having hacked into the classroom computer projector thing, looking at the websites and images/films I'd been discussing. They apologised for busting into the computer and started to shut down. I was all "No! Keep going!": it was a really satisfying, lovely moment.

I think powerpoints rock. But if it's just slide after slide of dot points - boring. But it is a fabulous tool for presenting multi-media, for putting the actual text up on a large screen (whether we're talking poetry or anti-immigration speeches) and for breaking up long lectures. It's a nice tool for managing a combination of media.

I was also passing on lectures for someone to present at an evening class, and she really liked having the presentation (including my notes) in one package, which she could then work from, adjusting to suit her style and smaller group.



At the end of the day, though, if your lectures aren't well structured, your powerpoints won't be either.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Hi Kathleen and Dogpossum,

Sorry it's taken me so long to reply. I love Dogpossum's response: I'm going to keep it and refer back to it when I start to put my lectures on contemporary medievalism together for first semester. I agree that PP is a brilliant medium for multi-media presentations, even simple visual and textual media. And it sounds as if your students are totally switched on to you, and your subject; what fun!

On your last remark... by the same token, a poor powerpoint can be the kiss of death to a struggling lecturer, too, can't it?