Monday, July 3, 2017

Interpretive Potential

Tufte discusses the use of Powerpoint in education, corporations and government bureaucracies, making the claim that it favors format over content, commercializes learning, and harms visual reasoning.  He also makes the argument that if the content and quality of the presentation is lacking, then no themes, colors, or images are going to change that fact. He states,“Audience boredom is usually a content failure, not a decoration failure.” While I do agree that, of course, content and quality should be the main focus of the presentation, I also feel that people generally gravitate toward things that are pleasing to their vision. That is why we have the phrase don’t judge a book by its cover, something I find myself quite often doing. I think Powerpoint could be useful in certain settings where both the content and layout is fully developed. However, I have yet to be successful with this in my own classroom. I used Powerpoint in my classroom once last year for a project on the Holocaust. Students had to research an assigned topic and create a presentation where they provided information on the topic as well as used visuals. This year was the first year I had done it and I already know I won’t be doing it again next year. I noticed that students like working with Powerpoint so they obsess over the images, colors, and transitions for the presentation, spending little time focusing on the actual content. When it came time to present the information, it resulted in a boring reading of the information on the slides.

Another idea that I found interesting from his article was when Tufte brings up the use of visuals in Powerpoints and how the data is ultimately useless when it is not side by side, able to be compared. In Tufte’s words, they are filled with “the encoded legends, the meaningless color, the logo-type branding. They are uncomparative, indifferent to content and evidence, and so data-starved as to be almost pointless.” When reading this, I couldn’t help but think what Drucker would have to say about this. Without a doubt, she would agree with the Tufte’s dislike of the linear format of the presentation.

In her chapter, Drucker focuses on interpretive activity, discussing how “innovations in graphic conventions have arisen to support the scholarly activity” but also points out that little has been done when it comes to “imaginative writing practices (182).” Despite this fact, she does believe that the few examples that have arisen indicate that there is much possibility there. She also points out that there have been some great examples of artists and writers that have used visual and spatial writing but that these examples failed to reshape writing conventions that have been in place for far too long. While we use schematic and visual approaches to outline and prepare, the actual composition is generally still linear and traditional. Because of this, we are not giving the composition its full interpretive potential. When thinking about interpretive acts when composition is not done in the traditional sense, Drucker states, “Where and when interpretive acts takes place in the click trail and movement through and across different modalities of display is a pressing question when screen spaces, computational capacities, and constellationary argument and a diagrammatic approach to composition also include the synthesis of many voices, authors, contributions with and without attribution (185).” When so many other factors are put into place, the amount of interpretation that can be done greatly increases. In fact, the amount of interpretive lines that can be drawn are ultimately limitless. In this sense, reading cannot be viewed as just “an act of recovering truth” (191).

After reading both texts, I was left with the following questions:
-Do you think that Drucker would agree with Tufte that Powerpoint is evil?
-How do you feel about the use of Powerpoint in the classroom?
-Do you have any success stories with Powerpoint?
-Is there a way to use Powerpoint to create the kind of nonlinear, collaborative, and visual composition that Drucker talks about?
-Which do you think is true when Drucker asks, “Will we think differently because of the ways interpretation takes shape across networked contingencies. Or are these material conditions producing us as new subjects of a distributed imagination” (191)?


  1. PowerPoint, to me, is an essential classroom tool. I don’t use it in the sense that I turn off the lights and lecture for 50 minutes, bouncing from slide to slide with a monotone voice, but I do use it. Generally in my classroom, I will put the agenda and opener on the screen (on a slide) to start the lesson off. Then, the next slide is informational; this is either a definition of a literary term we will be working on (foreshadowing, symbolism, etc.) or information about an author or work we are about to read. I leave these slides up for the whole class as a way for students to return back to it throughout the lesson to re-read or reassess the information.

    I know that not everyone enjoys PowerPoint when used in a lecture-based class (although I do…), but I find that the information sticks more with students through PowerPoint than if I were to just stand in front of them and rattle off the information myself. The slide offers a central point for their focus. Whether they are listening to me explain the points on the slides or just staring at the screen, there’s more of a chance that they will remember the pictures or bullet points on the screen than what I am saying.

    Creating a nonlinear form of PowerPoint sounds more difficult than it really is. There are ways to embed a sort of hyperlink in the PowerPoint so that the teacher or students could choose the next slide based on which link they click. This is great in class simulations, where the students can read the slide and then, as a class, decide which way to turn. For instance, if we were studying the Peloponnesian War and pretending the classroom were a city-state in Greece deciding which side to join, we would read through the information and decide by clicking a hyperlink and continuing the simulation in that way: each decision changes the course of the PowerPoint.

    1. Brandon, I totally agree with you when you say that Powerpoint helps students learn and retain the information better. Most students need those visuals and written words with the lecture to really grasp difficult concepts.

      Also, thank you for that example of nonlinear use of Powerpoint. That sounds like a really engaging activity.

  2. Thanks for bringing Tufte and Drucker together here, Jillian. They approach data visualizations similarly, and I do they think agree about such bad uses of "linear" and "uncomparative" visual presentations. Like Brandon, I use PowerPoint and find it useful for presentations. For a long time I thought Tufte was overstating his point. I changed my mind a couple years ago when I had a conversation with a professor of nursing who kept asking me about how I use PowerPoint. When I told her that I don't use it that often, she looked at me dumbfounded and asked me, "Then what do you do in class"? I realized at that moment that for some teachers that PowerPoint and pedagogy were essentially the same thing. This is terrifying and I worry that it plays into the anti-Freireian, information based mindset of the banking model of education. This, I believe, we have to fight with all we've got.

  3. Jillian,

    I mainly use PowerPoint for larger grammar or writing lessons, and mostly so I can print out the slides for students to keep and refer to later. Occasionally I will create, or have the students create, PowerPoints with background information for a text, and then I will post some of the slides in an area of the room so students can refer to them. ELLs require visuals to understand auditory information, and PowerPoint is really helpful for this. I agree with Brandon that it helps to have something to look at during a lecture, and this is also true for me as a student. I wish the PowerPoint/Smartboard combo was available when I was in high school because I had trouble following (and staying awake) during long history lectures, and visuals would have been particularly helpful.

    I do think that PowerPoint largely oversimplifies information. Drucker states, “Distant readings and views of large data make it difficult to follow threaded conversations at different degrees of granularity, so all displays have to be points of entry, interfaces into content” (187). PowerPoint provides students with an entry point into content, but is not able to capture multiple perspectives and complex meaning. A format that is limited to 10-20 words per slide is not going to be able to accurately represent a complex content. For instance, a PowerPoint on an author’s work will not contain as much meaning as a text or lecture on the author. Tufte believes that PowerPoint turns content into a sales pitch, but I think that doesn’t give teachers enough credit. As Brandon mentioned, PowerPoint has the ability to create multiple paths. In addition, slides can display thought-provoking prompts, instructions for an activity, and students can write on them using the Smartboard. In short, there are options to interact with PowerPoint so it doesn’t need to just be used to deposit information into the students’ brains. Drucker predicts that “navigation and argument will merge” (188). Perhaps if users making navigational changes to Powerpoint so it contains more interaction, the format will be better able to produce arguments that seem less like sales pitches.

    1. Erin,

      I also feel that Tufte does not give enough credit to teachers when he talks about content being turned into sales pitches. I have done, seen, and heard of wonderful things that teachers do with Powerpoint and Smartboard software to make it extremely engaging for students.

  4. I hardly use PowerPoint in my teaching. Several years ago when I had a job where I was doing frequent presentations, I found PowerPoint a useful tool for organizing and presenting my thinking. The organization paid for me to have a coach to help me develop presentations, and I learned some best practices from that experience. However, I don't approach my teaching the way I approach presentations. I do mini-lessons here and there but the majority of my teaching involves discussion, small group work, activities, etc... and I don't find PowerPoint necessary for the minimal lecturing I do. I also really like to mix up my approach to teaching and would be worried if my students got into a rhythm of expecting/dreading a PowerPoint everyday. I, too, have a negative gut reaction to equating PowerPoint with pedagogy -- which I don't think anyone here is doing. Perhaps I take that fear to the extreme, and I could think about productive (and non-linear) ways to incorporate PowerPoint.

    On occasion, I do have students develop PowerPoints. In a recent assignment where students were required to do presentations, I made the visual component optional (and PowerPoint was just one of many options) because like Jillian, I've found when it's required, students tend to focus their energy on the bells and whistles rather than the content of the presentation. When it's optional, I've found for the most part that students have successfully used it to structure their thinking without it resulting in students abandoning a focus on content. There have been exceptions though.

    I agree that Drucker and Tufte have a similar approach to thinking about non-linear ways of organizing visuals. I have included hyperlinks in PowerPoint presentations as Brandon suggested, but not extensively enough that the experience feels less linear. I like Erin's idea of incorporating Smartboard technology into the PowerPoint to make it more interactive. Something to try!

    1. Shana,

      Powerpoint is a great way to learn organization when it comes to presenting information. I also feel that in a class that centers around discussion like yours does, the use of Powerpoint is unnecessary, especially since you're right that students usually do dread it.

  5. Tufte finishes his critique of powerpoint with the claim, “rather than supplementing a presentation, it has become a substitute for it.” While I have indeed witnessed powerpoint being used poorly, I agree with Brandon when he claims that it can be helpful as a central point of focus. As we have discovered, students have begun to interact more heavily with visuals in the 21st century, and the powerpoint can sometimes serve as a powerful alternative medium for relaying information (compared to a standard lecture). For example, when I tried to teach my seventh graders about interpretation through fictional description, I used powerpoint to define specific words (such as “interpretation”), and as I mediated a conversation about the word, I left it on the screen as a key focus point. I then introduced a slide which included specific passages from previous stories we had read. As the students read the passage on the slide, I performed the actions of the characters in the front of them. Through this combination of learning channels, my students could more easily make inferences regarding the character’s emotional state within that passage. It isn’t necessarily the powerpoint itself that matters, of course, but the way in which we engage students, and powerpoint allows us to incorporate many different learning tools through one single source. The same could be done with a smartboard (as Erin said) or the use of many other individual tools.

    It becomes much more difficult, however, when we’re trying to teach students how to incorporate powerpoint just as effectively. I would likely only assign powerpoint for group/jigsaw activities, and this would be at points when I need students to consider information but it isn’t necessarily vital at the given moment. In that case, say if i wanted to introduce 5 vocabulary words to the class, I may have each group portray this word on the powerpoint through various forms (image, video, text…), and then have them present this to the class.

    As Drucker states, interpretation is “n-dimensional,” “an infinite number of interpretative lines can be extended as lines of inquiry, reference, contestation, debate.” (188) When we are introducing many communicative mediums, and including different learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile, etc), there is more room for discovery and consideration to the content at hand. Drucker claims that we are “learning to read and think and write along rays, arrays, subdivisions, and patterns of thought.” (189) I think that the powerpoint CAN serve to guide us toward specific patterns and subdivisions, and when this is done correctly, it can definitely assist in the learning process. However, these patterns are indeed fixed and stable, and so this becomes problematic when we’re seeking for classwide, open-ended exploration. As long as power points serve as conversation STARTERS, I think that they can be very helpful.

    1. Amanda,

      I really like the point you make about how Powerpoint is a useful tool when used correctly and that our primary concern as educators is to engage the students with the content. Powerpoint in that sense is merely the medium in which we choose to engage.

  6. In this response, I am going to answer Jillian’s question in regard to whether powerpoint presentation is an important and necessary classroom tool or not.

    In Tufte’s article he argues that, “Slideware [ie: Microsoft’s Powerpoint] may help speakers outline their talks, but convenience for the speaker can be punishing to both content and audience. The standard PowerPoint presentation elevates format over content, betraying an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch” (Tufte, paragraph 2). In Annotation Studio, I responded to this claim with the following statement: “After completing a brief walk through of my presentation last class, I completely agree with this statement. I believe that the medium of Powerpoint presentation had inadvertently pushed the conversation that I wanted to have towards a sales pitch. Perhaps if I had used fewer visuals, and relied less on the notes on the slides, I could have used the Powerpoint presentation instead of allowing it to use me.” However, after I read through the complete article, I realized that although my presentation might not have been as strong as i wanted it to be in that moment, it was still the perfect medium for expressing my views. In other words, we, as educators, should not be so quick to dismiss tools and we should, instead, push ourselves to master these tools so that they can help improve our classroom.

    Throughout this past school year, I used a powerpoint presentation in the beginning of each class in order to accomplish a lot of tasks with the use of visual cues. For example, as students found their way towards their seats within the first ten minutes of the class, I would have the screen reading, “Independent Reading until 1015.” With this slide in the front of the room, in bright colors, and clear to read lettering, students knew what to expect from me, and what I was expecting of them. After independent reading time, I would use the slides to review the date, student shoutouts, motto for the week (which would spark conversation, and remind students what they are in school to do), impending assignment due dates, objectives for the day, etc. I would spend about five minutes going through these slides with the students, and together we would develop a strong understanding of what they needed to do, what we would learn, and any other supports they felt that they might need in order to be successful over the next few classes. In the instances described, (which did take some time for me to master), I was able to use the Powerpoint presentation tool within my classroom in a manner that promoted learning, clarity, presentation of information, and benefited the overall classroom community. I was using the tool, and it was not using me. However, I do want it to be noted that I began implementing the presentations in the beginning of class after I had already developed a strong classroom routine of which I infused in the new medium. As a result, I believe that technology is not necessary, but it can be a helpful tool once the teacher has mastered aspects of teaching in the classroom that are necessary; ie: lesson plans, pacing, etc.

    1. Jamilla,

      First off, I just want to say that I don't think your presentation felt like a sales pitch in the slightest! The visuals you used helped to drive home the points that you were making while you were speaking. They helped to give more power to your already powerful words.

      I have also used Powerpoint and other slideware to get students' attention at the beginning of class in order to get them started on a task. I find it to be super helpful to get them settled while I am still monitoring the halls or taking attendance. Students also generally like the routine of it.

  7. I don’t really view PowerPoint as at odds with the sort of visual compositions Drucker describes, though I do agree Drucke would probably share Tufte’s critique of the tool. PowerPoint, like any sort of presentation or composition software, inherently constricts nature of a digital screen, which “has no limits to its horizontal or vertical dimensions” (Drucker 187).It’s reducing an infinite number of spaces to a finite one by constraining what can go on the screen, and the limitations it imposes are not neutral. PowerPoint, for example, privileges bullet points, while Word promotes paragraphs and pages. But you COULD write a story in PowerPoint, as Jennifer Egan did in Visit from the Goon Squad, and you could make a presentation using Word. There is a lot of freedom and versatility with what the tools can achieve, but we need to make our students aware of the assumptions inherent in the tool’s interface and capabilities so that they realize they do not have to give in to those assumptions. A PowerPoint can easily integrate “Topic maps, circular displays of text/trees, word clouds, mind maps,” hyperlinks, videos, images, audio clips…it seems tough to blame uninspired usage of the tool entirely on the tool itself (Drucker 185).

    As we discussed with the readings from a class or two ago, we choose the suitable tool at the moment of need, and I actually see some benefit to having tools like PowerPoint available if we’re going to assess them on public speaking and lecture-style performances (which I think we should; many of them will go on to need those skills in college/their careers). We need to make sure we provide explicit instruction and modeling for HOW to integrate content from slides into a presentation, but by sharing effective models (, we might be able to mitigate some of the damage that the software’s design can inflict. The alternative would be to teach presentation without PowerPoint, and I’d be curious to discuss what that might like and in what contexts it might be appropriate to do so.

  8. Tim,

    I really like that you point out that even though certain tools are designed and generally used in certain ways and for certain purposes doesn't necessarily mean we have to use them in those ways. I think it's important that we as teachers remember this and also that we educate students on this notion.

  9. I have had a lot of experience with PowerPoint. The military loves using these for "periods of instruction" and the people attending them label it "death by PowerPoint". These periods of instruction were usually based around personal development. A topic we all know and love. But on the other hand when learning a new weapon, or strategic movement; a power point was priceless. Every bullet point of info passed down were nuggets of knowledge to pay close attention to.

    I find myself assigning "study guide" like texts. What they are,is basically bullet points of high value or interest worth exploring. A class assisted by PowerPoint can work in the same way. As a reference for students as well as the teacher. For instance a long paragraph or quote worth looking into can be given its own slide, or a hypertext for a video. PowerPoints can work like highlights in a movie.

    Attention is finite, and I am not playing hide and go seek with the information. They will hopefully use to explore.

  10. Jill,
    When it comes to PowerPoint, I think it can be a very useful tool, but it has to be just that, a tool. Tufte mentioned that the military uses PowerPoint and I have first hand experience with it. I've sat through hundreds of PowerPoint presentations on all types of subjects ranging from military history to how not to sexual assault a shipmate. We called it, "Death by PowerPoint" because it felt like a slow withering away of life for the hour(s) that it lasted. Out of the hundreds of those lectures, I recall just a handful of times that I enjoyed the presentation and that all came down to the presenter. Even though (s)he would still have a clicker and go through slides, the delivery was essential to keeping me engaged. Also, using crowd participation was rare, but effective. It can be a good time but it has to have the element of show biz in it.
    I can imagine a classroom having the same issue. If a teacher just clicks through slides and reads off of it, the students feel like, "Why did I have to come to class to sit through something I could have read on my own time." I've heard this statement many times. This tells me that students aren't against PowerPoint slides, but they are against PowerPoint slides as THE SHOW. This is where our field comes in. We are constantly taught how to know the audience and find the best ways to engage with them. For our class, we know that humorous video clips or images goes a long way. Those little tweaks make a big difference.
    I wish that marketing didn't have to be a part of education, but it unfortunately is a part of everything. We all have to not only be good at whatever skill we hone, but also good at being a sales person too because let's face it, given the choice, people would only focus on the things that are relevant to their own lives and not care about what is important to the presenter's. It is the presenter's job to make the audience care, and PowerPoint is just one option out of many that could work if done right.

  11. Thanks for your insights on PowerPoint and our readings for today, Jillian! I have relied on PowerPoint in the past in Korea to teach my students, and I found it to be the perfect tool for the type of teaching I was doing. My classroom was very bare bones. We didn't have a Smart Board or anything, just a chalkboard and a large TV screen. The best way to present information to them was through PowerPoint. These kids were learning English and needed visuals and simple bullet points, so PowerPoint was really effective for posting instructions to activities, presenting vocabulary and creating games.

    I think that PowerPoint is a really under appreciated tool. It can be incredibly dynamic and you can do amazing things with it. Like Brandon, I've made nonlinear PowerPoints, kind of like a choose your own adventure story. In my case, the students were fully immersed in East Germany, and had to make choices to avoid being caught by the Stasi. In Korea, teachers shared wonderful PowerPoint game templates (Connect 4, Battleship, etc.) that others could edit to fit in with their content. My kids loved these engaging, competitive games, and I could not have provided those without PowerPoint. My absolute favorite was a Carmen Sandiego game I made from scratch; I was able to incorporate pictures of world landmarks and (K)pop culture references to bring the game to life. With a little imagination and collaboration, PowerPoint can transform lessons.

    I do, however, agree with some of Tufte's points. I have seen so many people rely too heavily on PowerPoint for their presentations. Slideshows should really be a supplement to your presentation, for visuals and bullet points. I have seen teachers and presenters read off their slides word for word. Other times, the slideshow does all the work for the students or audience: they are passive viewers of the information and don't really interact with it. One of my teachers combated this by printing out packets with smaller versions of the slides for us to write on, with blank spaces that we had to fill in as he went through the PowerPoint.

  12. The above discussion echoes a position that we as a class have been establishing slowly over the course of the seminar: in addition to traditional compositional concerns such as genre and audience, we must also now attend to what technological platform[s] we employ to mediate a text. Drucker seems to favor hypermediacy, ergo many platforms and modes, by which our experience with a text is mediated and remediated. I suspect that she favors hypermediacy over immediacy, because of the latters logic of erasing the act of mediation, hence occluding the constructedness of of perception. As she says, “multiple imaging modes . . . make it more difficult to imagine reading as an act of recovering truth, and render the interprative act itself more visible” (Drucker 191). By foregrounding, the act of interpreation, one exposes “ontologies as ideologies” (Drucker 191). Hypermediacy also squares up nicely with her desire for collaborative authorial undertakings – which itself squares up nicely with the idea of negotiated meaning emerging from interpretations. This all speaks to the shift in contemporary composition theory towards metacognition, and a reflexive consideration of why we as authors make the choices we do, or conversely why others acting in the capacity of author make certain choices. Metacognition and attention to the act of interpretation creates a habit of mind which might be applied to sociogenesis more generally, i.e. if one can take into account the very constructedness of culture, they understand that they can make interventions to correct it where they deem necessary. There is an emmancipatory subtext to much of Drucker’s position perhaps. As others have noted, powerpoint seems to be a useful tool for classroom management, or assitance in lecturing. Tim rightly pointed out that it is simply one of many platforms with a set of affordances which lead to it being employed in a particular capacity. However, this employment is dictated by the purpose of the project, and not the other way around. It is worth pausing and considering the evolution of the codex book in the 12th-15th centuries, and how the external demand of the emerging user groups dictated the way in which it evolved. I wonder if powerpoint or other platforms and technologies will evolve to suit the demands of a corporate culture, thus corporatizing the cultures which employ it, or if we can make some sort of intervention to stave this off. Just some thoughts. Some very messy thoughts.


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