Archive for powerpoint

What’s the point of conferences?

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 19, 2014 by telescoper

Well, here I am back in the office making a start on my extensive to-do list. Writing it, I mean. Not actually doing any of it.

It was nice to get away for a couple of weeks, to meet up with some old friends I haven’t seen for a while and also to catch up on some of the developments in my own field and other related areas. We do have pretty good seminar series here at Sussex which should in principle allow me to keep up to date with developments in my own research area, but unfortunately the timing of these events often clashes with other meetings  that I’m obliged to attend as Head of School. Escaping to a conference is a way of focussing on research for a while without interruption. At least that’s the idea.

While at the meeting, however, I was struck by a couple of things. First was that during the morning plenary lectures given by invited speakers almost everyone in the audience was spending much more time working on their laptops than listening to the talk.  This has been pretty standard at every meeting I’ve been to for the last several years. Now that everyone uses powerpoint (or equivalent) for such presentations nobody in the audience feels the need to take notes so to occupy themselves they spend the time answering emails or pottering about on Facebook. That behaviour does not depend on the quality of the talk, either. Since nobody seems to listen very much the question naturally arises as to whether the presentations have any intrinsic value at all. It often seems to me that the conference talk has turned into a kind of ritual that persists despite nobody really knowing what it’s for or how it originated. An hour is too long to talk if you really want people to listen, but we go on doing it.

The part of a conference session that’s more interesting is the discussion after each talk. Sometimes there’s a genuine discussion from which you learn something quite significant or get an idea for a new study.  There’s often also a considerable amount of posturing, preening and point-scoring which is less agreeable but in its own way I suppose fairly interesting.

At the meeting I was attending the afternoons were devoted to discussion sessions for which we split into groups. I was allocated to “Gravitation and Cosmology”; others were on “Cosmic Rays”, “Neutrino Physics and Astrophysics”, and so on. The group I was, of about 25 people, was a nice size for discussion. These sessions were generally planned around short “informal” presentations intended to stimulate discussion, but generally these presentations were about the same length as the plenary talks and also given in Powerpoint. There was discussion, but the format turned out to be less different from the morning sessions than I’d hoped for. I’m even more convinced than ever that Powerpoint presentations used in this way stifle rather than stimulate discussion and debate. The pre-prepared presentation is often used as a crutch by a speaker reluctant to adopt a more improvisatory approach that would probably be less polished but arguably more likely to generate new thoughts.

I don’t know whether the rise of Powerpoint is itself to blame for our collective unwillingness inability to find other ways of talking about science, but I’d love to try organizing a workshop or conference along lines radically different from the usual “I talk, you listen” format in which the presenter is active and the audience passive for far too long.

All this convinced me that the answer to the question “What is the point of conferences?” has very little to do with the formal  programme and more with the informal parts, especially the conversations over coffee and at dinner. Perhaps I should try arranging a conference that has nothing but dinner and coffee breaks on the schedule?

Student Comments

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on July 14, 2012 by telescoper

I sneaked into the department this morning to pick up some things from the office and leave some other things that I’ve finished with. I went quite early, to avoid the Saturday crowds there and back.

One of the things I found in my pigeonhole was a packet of student questionnaires about the third-year module Nuclear and Particle Physics for which I was responsible. It seems like a decade since I finished teaching it and marked the exams, but it can only be a couple of months. I was dreading reading the responses this time because I know I struggled a bit with this module, partly because it’s the first time I taught the Nuclear Physics part and partly for other reasons I won’t go into.

In fact the students were very kind and gave me quite good reviews; the only score that let me down really was that they thought the material was rather difficult. I’m not really surprised by that, because I think it is. However, as I’ve said before, I don’t think it’s a physics lecturer’s job to pretend that the subject  is easy; it is  a lecturer’s job to try to convince students that they can do things that are difficult. I don’t mean making  things difficult just for the sake of it, but trying to get the message across that a brain is made for thinking with and figuring difficult things out can be intensely rewarding.

The main criticism that students wrote in the space provided for their own comments was that they didn’t like the fact that I used powerpoint for some lectures. Actually, I don’t like using powerpoint for lectures either, but unfortunately I had no choice on some occasions. First I had a rather large class (85 students) and one of the rooms I had to use had a very small whiteboard; I was worried about its visibility from the back and the need to keep cleaning it every five minutes. Also in that room the projector screen covers the same area as the whiteboard, so it’s a pain to keep changing between powerpoint and whiteboard. Anyway, it’s a fair criticism. I’ll try to work out a better way of doing it next year.

To be perfectly honest I don’t like whiteboards much either. Call me old-fashioned, but  chalkboards are much better. Received wisdom, however, is that we have to have whiteboards, with all the ludicrous cost and environmental unfriendliness of the accompanying dry-wipe marker pens. But I digress.

Anyway, next Wednesday afternoon will see our graduation ceremony. Graduation day always reminds me of something somebody told me years ago when I attended my first one, at Queen Mary (and Westfield College, as it was then).  The essence of the comment was that what you have to remember as a lecturer is that when the students do well it’s their achievement; but when they don’t it’s your fault. Life’s like that, it’s never as symmetrical as particle physics.

Many of the students who took  Nuclear and Particle Physics will be graduating on Wednesday. I’m distraught that I won’t be able to go myself; this will be the first ceremony I’ve missed since I moved here five years ago.  If any of the graduating Physics class from Cardiff University happens to read this, I really hope you have a great day on Wednesday. I wish I could be there to shake your hand and wish you a very fond goodbye, but sadly that’s just not possible on this occasion.