Just teach: a furious op-ed written in the middle of class

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This week, a professor who will go unnamed made me extremely frustrated with their ineffective use of Microsoft PowerPoint. Later that week, I attended my weekly professional development seminar where we learned about the assertion-evidence format for slideshows, a concept so intuitive the lesson was borderline infantilizing (assertion-evidence literally means you just put a sentence above an image). It's downright puzzling to me that adults with Ph.D.s and with years of industry experience still sometimes fail the basic practice of explanation.

I'd like to quickly construct a strawman to make it clear I'm nothing like this hypothetical person. This strawman is a student who seems to always have teachers that are terrible, stupid, and/or mean. Much like someone who says all their exes (or former friends, or former roommates) are psycho, somebody with this kind of universal vitriol for their teachers makes a listener wonder if perhaps they are, in fact, the cause of their own problems. To be clear, I'm different.

At this school, I've had the privilege to take classes with wonderful teachers, skilled lecturers, and generous TAs. However, I've also had a lot of teachers who, despite their intelligence and kindness, are simply not skilled at explaining new concepts. Anecdotally, I'm not alone in this observation — I know many a pupil within and without my major who seem equally confused during lectures, often for reasons that seem extremely fixable.

The core of this issue is an unclear hierarchy of information during lecture, and more often than not this is because of the misuse of PowerPoints.

When I am presented with a poorly-designed, excessively dense slide that a professor writes on (usually in some aesthetically degenerate bright-red OneNote pen), I have no way of knowing what is important to copy. Note taking is really difficult because you have to listen, write, and synthesize information all while keeping pace and making a well-organized resource for your future self. Some of the common slideshow practices that I see, though, make it extremely hard to follow. Not to be conceited, but my notes are banging because I've spent the better part of three years learning how to take them. When my notes are bad, I am not inclined to believe it's my fault.

When I see a slide packed with content, I can't tell if that complex derivation (hopefully written in LaTeX, although I have suffered through slideshows that have math in standard text boxes) is something I need to copy line-by-line, or if it's just a concept I should be aware of; I have no idea with what level of detail I need to reproduce that diagram; I have no idea if that definition is something I should copy word-for-word. Infuriatingly, the only way I know whether or not this information is necessary to copy is whether the professor gives me enough time to copy it, something I only find out two to 10 minutes later.

Some professors will foresee this complaint and tell us, "Let me know if I'm going too fast!" Not only does this rarely happen in practice, but in principle, I'm mad at you for putting the onus on me to tell you how to teach. You should be perceptive of your students' learning speed, and you should design your lectures with pacing in mind. Sure, there should be communication both ways during a lecture, but when you're constantly saying "is everyone with me?" to a silent audience, something is wrong.

And don't give me some horse hockey about looking at the slides after the fact. When I need your PowerPoint (or any other material on Canvas) open to do my homework, it makes me want to throw a brick at your car. If you aren't able to communicate everything within the 50 to 80 minutes of classroom time the school has allocated you, you have to really rethink your lecturing style. Point blank period, I actually think you're bad at your job. Canvas didn't exist 20 years ago, and they somehow figured out how to teach back then.

My next gripe is more personal, but I get truly feral when a professor's teaching style implicitly assumes you have an e-writer. I've had professors who encourage people to have the lecture slides open on their laptop, or who will mark up an example problem they clearly copy-pasted from a textbook (giving mere nanoseconds for us pencil and paper-cels to copy it ourselves), or who use structured notes that give an advantage to the iPad kids who can download them.

Almost all of the best lecturers I've had did something in common — they WROTE everything I need to write. Not only does this slow down the lecture to a pace one can take notes at, it makes the professor present the information chronologically. Chalkboard, whiteboard, or iPad, I don't care as long as you write the things we need to write. The professor is more thoughtful, concise, and often they structure the information how we should structure it in our own notes. It's also okay if your own notes lag a minute or two behind the professor's, unlike a PowerPoint where the uncaring, callous advance of the slides forces you to stay as close to the present as possible.

This is not to say it's a perfect style. These types of lectures can still be tiresome, fast, and/or unhelpful. Inversely, slideshows can be well-paced, minimal, and easy to take notes from. The PowerPoint/written note division does not delineate good and bad lectures, but it's pretty damn correlated in my experience. The delineator of good and bad teaching is a clear hierarchy of information and good pacing.

One of the best lecturers I ever had was a chalkboard enthusiast, but really what made them great was their ability to organize and contextualize new concepts. One of their catchphrases was "under the hood," which they used to describe a concept you don't necessarily have to fully understand, but you ought to know that it exists. They always recapped and condensed the previous lecture, they delineated proofs from results, their headers were useful and meaningful, and their writing was organized. This person was also a Ph.D. student, meaning they were objectively one of the least experienced teachers I've ever taken a class from, and it really solidified in my mind that there's no excuse for my other professors to not have adopted these same practices.

I am not anti-PowerPoint, just like I'm not anti-e-reader. I also don't speak for everybody, and perhaps I'm more like my strawman than I'd like to admit. I do think these technologies can be incorporated into the classroom in very effective ways. I just think that there is sometimes a tremendous over-reliance on technology, and as a result a lack of thought and effort put into lectures. Your lesson plan should not be hamstrung by a broken HDMI adaptor. Pick up a damn piece of chalk and write down what you want me to learn, because sometimes it feels like there's a serious deficiency of teaching in my education.