August 6, 2004

Powerpoint, Presentations and Persuasion

In the two years, I’ve attended a number of talks, workshops and conferences where scientists or “hard” social scientists were the dominant presence. Up to that point, I’d always had a kind of envy for what I assumed were the advantages of a conference format where PowerPoint and poster sessions ruled the day. I thought that such a format would allow presenters to get to the good stuff quickly and efficiently, to integrate visual material into presentations easily, and to open up the general conversation and mutual learning processes.

Another beautiful hypothesis slain by an ugly fact.

I knew about some of the common criticisms about PowerPoint, and I’ve recently been enlightened further by some guidance from Eric Behrens. Seeing it used intensively, I give a lot of credit to those criticisms, and feel much less envy for meetings dominated by its use. The one thing that I still really like about PowerPoint and software like it is the ability to integrate visual information into a presentation—a skilled user can make images, films, graphs and so on be a part of an argument or presentation, rather than an illustrative sideline to it. In particular, it doesn’t seem to me to be any better at engendering discussion or conversation between a presenter and an audience—which seems to me ought to be one of the major points to have a conference rather than to simply post fifty presentations on a web site and let people consume them remotely.

It’s not like I prefer the norm at a humanities or social science conference any better. Technology rarely enters in any form: papers get read, generally woodenly, by their authors. Few authors bother to write a paper that is meant to be read, instead taking a draft of a journal article or chapter and skipping passages as they go, usually being forced to hurry more and more near the end. Most of the time, there’s as little conversation about the presentation as I’ve seen at science meetings.

It finally did occur to me that even if PowerPoint didn’t have some of the conceptual problems that it does, it would still be a problem for most humanities and social science presentations.

I was recently reading an interesting essay “What Is Originality in the Humanities and Social Sciences?” in the April 2004 issue of the American Sociological Review, by Michelle Lamont, Joshua Guetzkow and Gregoire Mallard that brought this home to me. (Not available online). The article crossed my desk because I was one of the informants interviewed for it, due to my work with the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies.

The researchers were looking at how academics involved in judging competitive research grants defined and operationalized “excellence”. Among the things they found was that humanists (including most historians) tended to regard the originality of a proposal as a moral attribute that couldn’t be easily distinguished from the character of the author of the proposal, that originality wasn’t a property that could be neutrally disaggregated from the rhetoric and structure of the proposal itself. The “harder” social scientists, in contrast, tended to be have a wider set of metrics for understanding originality that included this kind of intertwining of an author and an idea, but which also potentially appreciated an original approach or hypothesis on its own merits.

That struck me as more or less true, and more or less a reasonable description of some of the ways I’ve operated myself as a judge of proposals. It’s rare that I read a proposal by a historian where some hypothesis or evidentiary finding simply stands on its own, valuable by itself. It’s always tied into the craftwork of the author, the ways in which they write and think, the form their arguments take, the integrity of their use of material. I can think of many historical monographs where two authors are making a similar “finding” but where one monograph seems absolutely original to me because it’s written compellingly and confidently and the other seems dull and tedious to me because it’s imitative, derivative and evasive, because the author doesn’t seem to understand why what they’re saying is potentially interesting.

Take this passage from an essay called “’Voyage Through the Multiverse’: Contested Canadian Identities”, recently quoted by John Holbo over at his blog:

"Here, I want to look at the ways in which Canadian rap and dub poetry make and reconfigure the boundaries of Canada and Canadianness - those contested spaces that often lose their intelligibility outside of state managerial apparatus. But I am interested in how both dub poetry and rap music are often positioned as not constituting "Canadianness" given how rap and dub poetry disrupt and contest the category "Canadian." I am also interested in how state administrative practices aid in positioning blackness as both part of and outside of the state's various forms of management and containment. Blackness is then understood as having a diploctical relation to nation in its resistance and complicity; and its performances are also regarded as something otherwise.”

Like John, I wince while reading it. So imagine instead that this passage said something like this instead:

“Canadians know that they live in a multicultural society, but also are conventionally portrayed as The Great White North, a country of Caucasian Mounties and beer-drinkers. Many outsiders—and perhaps some Canadians—might regard “Canadian rap” as a humorous oxymoron. The point is not to protest angrily that there is too Canadian rap, and then demand that it be taken seriously and incorporated wholesomely within an official multiculturalism. Because Canadian rap is itself not entirely sure that it is or wants to be Canadian, or in what ways, and neither is the civil society or state to which it relates. It is a good example of the characteristic ambiguities of much global popular culture: of the nation and outside of it, posed as resistance but also as eager for incorporation and acceptance.”

Same argument, same “finding”, as I see it. But I know which of the two I’d be attracted to if I were handing out the money, and it’s not just because the second passage is my own paraphrase. In either case, the argument isn’t a particularly scintillating one, and the finding is pretty intuitive, but I get no sense of command or mastery over the project from the first passage, no sense that the author really knows or is making sense of what he studies.

I recall very intensely being a part of an interdisciplinary center very early in my career where there was a person who habitually waited until the question/comment time was almost over so that he could make the last remarks. (I’m notorious for being the opposite: I’m like Hermione in Harry Potter or Horshack on Welcome Back, Kotter the moment a talk is over, I go "Ooo! Ooo! Over here! Me! I have a question".) This guy would get the last remark and it would be so long and arcane and overtheoritized that no one could say anything else, both because time was up and because nobody got it anyway. Then one day Mr. Last Question slipped up and said something early, and we all pounced on it and interpreted it and translated it, and we basically got it down to: “I liked the paper, and I think some people are being too critical of it.” In its first incarnation, the comment had been more like (I’ve always remembered this unusually clearly): “I want to affirm the gestural field being initiated in the discursive economy of the paper, the refusal of incorporative strategies, the reconfiguration of tropes, the simultaneous translation and retranslation of language that it proposes to undertake…” and so on.

The thing of it is, when we got the commenter down to agreeing that his comment amounted to, “I liked the paper and some people are being too critical of it”, I think he was surprised to discover that that’s what he had said. It was a rather innocent thing, and made me like Mr. Last Question much more than I had before. He hadn’t known: he was mastered by academic language rather than the master of it.

I still dream of conference formats that no one uses at major professional meetings. I’d rather that most formal presentations of scholarly work—whether the writing of a humanist or the findings of a scientist—be delievered in ways intended to involve audiences, that make productive use of the face-to-face meeting of scholars. I’d rather there be more small workshops and roundtable sessions scheduled at large meetings. I’d rather that all scholars at conferences are required to give presentations that are meant to be heard, and meant to be responded to.

I don’t have PowerPoint envy any longer, though. The PowerPoint thing is never going to work for humanities scholars. We don’t have highly concretized knowledge that we can deliver in bullet points to an audience where the novelty or contribution of our work is going to be retained at all in that compressed form. Scientists and maybe some hard social scientists really can say, “Ok, we found out something that we didn’t know before, and here’s the facts, in the most efficient form we can deliver them to you”. Humanists almost never can do the same.