Ethnography of Consumption – A Twist

Buying is believing

The spring semester is ending here, and as usual everyone is dragging themselves across the finish line. There is not much left for students to do in my globalization course, but — given the structure of the U.S. higher education system — we still have to meet in the classroom. So, in search of something to fill time, I created an activity based on the last paragraph in my response to Leanne’s scavenger hunt exercise.

I collected some random products from home, all branded: running shoes (Saucony), cell phone charger cord (Samsung), bag of lentils (Jack Rabbit), hand towel (Cannon), and a tote bag to transport everything (London Review of Books). In class I laid all these items on a table and lied about getting them from a friend. I then told students to examine everything and write an answer to “What story is the owner of these things trying to tell others about the kind of person he or she is?” Students had already completed ethnographies of consumption, so they had some understanding of the connection between identity construction and consumption choices.

After five minutes, I grouped students into teams to create presentations, which they delivered during the second half of class. I got to listen to them unknowingly analyze my self-image as practical, value-oriented, and health conscious. (I would have been just as happy with other adjectives.) Once the last team had presented, I revealed that the items were my own by plugging my cell phone into the wall socket with the charger cord.

As a last minute invention, this activity worked fairly well. Students got to practice collaborating, communicating to an audience, and applying concepts. And all I had to do was bring a tote bag to class.

Hey! Be my buddy?

buddyIt’s conference season, and I’m guessing you’ve had the usual moment of sitting down for a panel, only to get one of those presentations that just doesn’t work.

I’m thinking of the “I know you said 15 minutes, but I’m going to talk for 30+”, or the “I’m going to just read the words on my slides”, or even the fabled (but rarely-spotted) “I’m just going to read out my paper, verbatim.”

I’ve been lucky this year and not had anything so egregious, but I’ve talked to plenty of others who did get these. Not even the silver lining that someone had actually written their paper before the conference could make up for it. Continue reading

The First Day of Class: Remix

As classes start up again for the fall semester, this might be a good time to revisit some great ALPS posts on how to approach the first days and weeks of the term.  We recommend:

Start the way you finish–A reminder that active learning–regardless of when you may have scheduled a simulation or other activity–begins on day one.

Picture it! A game for the first year students that teaches students to create and read maps while learning how to get around campus.

Close reading a syllabus–why not quiz your students on the syllabus to incentivize them to read it thoroughly?

Government in our lives--an idea for starting that first class session of American politics.

Today’s lucky winner is… and The other side of presenting–two posts that look at how to approach student presentations, from requiring all students to show up ready to present on the day’s topic to teaching students how to be the audience for a presentation.

And finally, because every class benefits from a bit of lego, take a page from Susherwood’s playbook and think about using lego in your classes.


Happy Fall Semester!

An Audience of None

Empty Conference RoomThis post is about one of two recent experiences that are easily-overlooked signs of the coming apocalypse for traditional higher education. I’ll write about the other experience in a separate post.

Last week a colleague and I participated in a regional conference of a large academic association. On the conference’s first day, my colleague attended a panel for which four of the six presenters named in the program did not show up. In the room were the other two presenters, the panel’s chair/discussant, and an audience of three people.

The next day, at the panel session in which my colleague and I were jointly presenting, again four of the six panelists were no shows. The room was populated by, in addition to the two of us, the other presenter, the panel’s chair/discussant, and an audience of five.

I’ve seen the same pattern at two regional conferences for my colleague’s main disciplinary organization — sessions that consist of a few people listening to themselves talk to a mostly empty room, with little to no actual dissemination of knowledge. The process is a charade — people list conference papers on their curriculum vitae, regardless of whether the papers or the people who promised to write them ever materialize. The money used to pay conference registration fees in effect goes straight from colleges and universities to the academic associations that sponsor the conferences.

I suspect that at some point in the near future cash-strapped non-elite colleges and universities are simply going to stop subsidizing these kinds of events via faculty reimbursement. Email and digital repositories are frequently much more cost effective methods of sharing information.

Defending Powerpoint: The Instructor, Not the Tool, Makes the Lesson

The Guardian’s Andrew Smith recently published a piece in their Technology Blog lamenting the overuse of PowerPoint (PPT) -based lectures in the college classroom, citing as faults both the boredom it causes as well as the critical thinking it supposedly inhibits. I agree that PPT can lead to lectures with such attributes, but as with so many teaching methods, the tool itself should not be blamed for the faults of a lesson.

Powerpoint: the death of critical thinking?

To be as anecdotal as the author, I too have heard terrible, boring lectures grounded in pretty fonts, three or four bullet points, and droning voices that belong in a sleep-aid app. But I’ve also attended PPT lectures that were brilliant and thought provoking, and been put to sleep by a fair share of lectures with no visual aids.

A good lecture has more to do with the skill of the presenter than the tool itself. A dynamic presenter can create an interesting, informative, and provoking lecture using PPT, Prezi, or any other form of presentation software, while the same tool in the hands of a less skilled teacher can of course lead to confusion, boredom, and passivity. The chalk/white board (itself a piece of technology) can be just as misused–Many instructors have limited abilities at what I’ve always called ‘boardcraft’, the art of using the board effectively to clearly communicate with students. A set of prepared notes using the board or no technology at all, can lead to an amazing, provocative lecture–or not. It is the skill and training of the instructor, and how they use their instructional tools, rather than the tools themselves that lead to desirable results in a classroom setting. For example, the ALPS team strongly supports simulations and games as methods of teaching students. The most important part of using a game for learning, though, is the debriefing process that occurs after the activity has ended, which requires the instructor to be able to pull the experiences of the students from them and help them think through how the content lessons are exemplified or challenged by the gameplay.

The teaching tool does not determine the interest level or critical nature of the lesson.

This can be done with prepared PPT slides with provocative questions, or the whiteboard, or online discussion boards, or via old school classroom discussion. The tool is far less important than the instructor’s ability to tie personal experience in the game to the overall lesson.

Another assertion in the article that I find troubling is the implied trade off between using PPT and the board. Yes, PPT is linear in its approach. But there is nothing stopping an instructor from going off-script to follow up on a point made by a student. Depending on the technology set up in your classroom, it can be pretty easy to switch between the two. One of the classrooms I teach in has the projector on a separate wall from the board, so I often use both. In another, the projector blocks the board–but it is the work of a moment to ‘Pic-Mute’ the projector and pull the screen up so I can use the board.

There are other methods of ensuring that PPT does not make your lessons boring and uncritical. Consider avoiding bullet points entirely and instead using images, clips, and questions as the touch points for your lesson, allowing the content for that slide to be more dynamically presented and discussed. Alternatively, you can always include slides at the end that are not necessarily part of the main lesson, but which you can jump to very easily if in the course of the lecture, a relevant point comes up. For example, I will frequently drop polling data in the end of my slides on related topics that students sometimes bring up (say, opinions on various social issues for a lecture on Civil Liberties). This gives me options–I can jump to those slides if they come up, but I’m not required to do so if they do not. Jumping in and out of PPT itself is also very easy, and I will do it readily if I suddenly recall a news clip, video, or primary source that I did not include in the main lecture. No one has to be tied to the pre-prepared slides unless they let themselves be constrained by it.

Clearly, I am a fan of PPT, but like any tool, it has its limitations in the classroom. My philosophy is that we have a toolbox full of methods, of which PPT is one, and we should use the tool that helps us craft the best lesson for a given piece of content. It is our job as instructors to create lessons that are not boring and which provoke critical thinking; the blame for a class that fails to meet that mark falls squarely on us, not on PowerPoint.

Authenticity in Classroom Presentations

Bored AudienceNina’s recent post about students’ tendency to default to infopedia-style presentations reminded me of my own horrible experiences with students incoherently regurgitating information. It occurred to me that many of us — because of the nature of our academic experiences — incorrectly regard writing and presentation design as unrelated processes. They both are forms of communication, so why not apply the principles of one to the other?

I’ve written previously about how a good writing assignment clearly specifies the role of the author, the audience for whom the author is writing, and the format that the author is supposed to follow. We can construct guidelines for student presentations the same way:

  • What role are you performing when giving this presentation? What’s the presentation’s purpose?
  • To whom will you be delivering this presentation?
  • What is the format with which you will deliver the presentation?

If your instructions for presentations allow a class to answer the above questions with “student, other students, data dump,” then that’s what you’re going to get.

I find it easiest to grade format, so I assess that first. Student teams upload files of their presentations before they deliver them, and I grade the files using this rubric:

Presentation Rubric

After my feedback via the rubric, teams have time to improve format if they wish before delivering the presentations in class.

The audience for the presentations is the rest of the class, not me, so I use peer evaluation. Teams compete and whichever team students select as the best earns points. For a sense of how these competitions have evolved over time, check out my posts here, here, here, and here, and there’s also Amanda’s and Simon’s big-picture posts on the subject. Or just click on the Presentations category in the right-hand sidebar column on your screen.

As for role, I’ll be the first to admit that it can be very difficult getting students to step outside of themselves and take on the identities of government officials, corporate executives, or journalists. But providing clear expectations about audience and format goes a long way toward helping students achieve this third goal.

The Other Side of Presenting: Teaching Students to be Good Audience Members

Recently I sat in on a series of presentations given by non-native English speakers in a professional setting. The small audience of about fifteen people consisted of faculty, students, and a few working professionals.   The presenters were for the most part very engaging, speaking on a variety of important international issues, with a focus on the experiences of countries outside the USA. The audience skills of the participants, however, can be described at best as very poor, and at worst as downright embarrassing. Here is a short list of the behaviors the group exhibited that I found to be disrespectful of the speakers and their time:

Feel it all you like, just don’t show it. .gif via Wikipedia Commons
  • Openly engaging with their phone or device and not paying attention
  • Falling asleep
  • Facial expressions exhibiting extreme boredom, often combined with excessive yawning and sighing
  • Interrupting the speaker to ask non-clarifying questions when the speaker asked that such questions be held to the Q&A, and refusing to let the speaker return to their prepared remarks until they had an answer.
  • Asking questions on points that the speaker had just addressed that clearly indicated the questioner had not been paying any attention.
  • Asking questions that were rudely phrased or in some other way directly insulted the speaker. Examples would be asking the speaker in a patronizing tone if they had ever considered x (where x is some very obvious point that any expert on the subject would of course have considered), or indicating that the speaker’s home country could improve on some area if only they emulated the USA.
  • Using complex sentence structure and meandering through a question without forethought when addressing a non-native speaker with limited English skills.
  • Dominating the Q&A without letting other audience members talk or conversely, dead silence when the Q&A began.
  • Interrupting the speaker to add personal thoughts and examples in a way that suggested that they considered themselves an expert on the material and that it was their job to instruct the rest of the group on the topic.

It occurred to me after these sessions that in all of the ongoing discussion of increasing skill-based training in the college classroom, that this crucial skill—how to behave professionally when listening to a presentation—is rarely mentioned, much less taught. And yet, students and working professionals will, on the whole, spend much more of their time listening to presentations than giving them. Oral communication training, therefore, should probably do a better job of taking this into account.

So how might we do this?

First, we have to share the norms of audience membership with our students, who may not have had good models. Simple talking with students about expected behaviors– staying off their phones, paying attention, not monopolizing the Q&A–, helps them learn the norms of professional behavior and can aid them in recognizing where they themselves excel and fall short.

The next step would be through incentivizing norms of good audience citizenship. Part of the course grade can be devoted to ‘professional conduct’, where students earn 100% just for showing up on time, paying attention, obeying classroom norms, etc. For student presentations, part of their grade can be on their participation quality while being in the audience. In that case, they are rewarded for coming prepared, taking notes, and asking relevant, thoughtfully worded questions.

Finally, an active learning exercise would work well for teaching this skill. For example, ask students to produce a summary and good question at the end of a presentation, as doing so will require them to pay close attention. Or make a game show of one of your lectures, where students get to buzz each other if they exhibit ‘bad behaviors’ and award points to each other for ‘good behaviors’. You could pass around index cards with various behaviors on them for students to model, give them five minutes to do so during a short lesson, and then see which behaviors they can identify. Examples could be ‘play on your phone during this lesson’, ‘pretend to fall asleep’ or ‘interrupt the instructor to ask an unrelated question about the syllabus’. This can be done throughout the semester as a way to keep good audience behaviors salient in students’ minds.

The key is simply keeping in mind that our students do not necessarily intrinsically know how to be respectful participants in a presentation. To the extent that we see developing oral communication skills as part of our teaching task (itself a potentially questionable claim), we should consider the importance of training our students to work on this crucial side of the skill as well.