Graduate Students and Technology

by Brian on April 19, 2004

The hackneyed story about technology is that the young are always faster to pick it up than us old folk. So you’d expect in an academic department the graduate students would be the ones leading the way, and the professoriate would be constantly learning tricks from them. And while that’s true sometimes (I had to recruit Paul Neufeld of “ephilosopher”: fame to get started on Movable Type) my impression based on anecdotes as casual observation is that really doesn’t seem to be the general run of things. And certainly there’s lots of things about grad students could learn about technology from computer specialists. This suggests a professional question. How much technical knowledge/ability should we _require_ our graduate students to have.

Here’s some suggestions for skills graduate students should have.

* How to use Powerpoint in lectures
* How to manage a large course website, including interactive features
* How to setup maintain a large database for administrative tasks

And by ‘skills’ here I don’t mean the basic ability to do these things without looking really stupid, but the ability to efficiently integrate them into your daily routine when they are needed. Future faculty who can do these things will be better academics. At the very least they will be better teachers and better at running things like job searches and graduate admissions, and of course they can do much more than that. If the academic job search market were efficient, these skills would be rewarded. Even in the real world, departments would be doing the profession a service by turning out colleagues-to-be with these technical skills.

On one of these points I think there is a clear economic benefit to the students from acquiring technical skills. I think a well-maintained webpage, with your best work prominently displayed, is very helpful in a job search. And a fully functioning course site looks very impressive to those looking to evaluate your teaching ability. This isn’t going to override the crucial things like being able to write and teach well, but it certainly helps distribute the evidence that you can write and teach well. I think all grad students, should have web pages and departments should do what they can to provide these pages for just this reason.

I wonder which of these skills (or similar skills) will be viewed as being as basic as typing in a decade or two? I don’t know how long ago it was that one wouldn’t have been surprised to find that the new academic you hired couldn’t type. But whichever skills they are, I’m sure that soon some skills that we now view as esoteric will be basically expected of new hires.

Philosophers have a particular reason to be interested in these questions. Some of us write about artificial intelligence, and many others cover it in their teaching. And a good working knowledge of what computers can and can do, preferably gained ‘first-hand’ while hacking around with some code, will be helpful to either role. Many philosophy departments dropped their language requirements over the last decade or so – maybe it’s time to reinstate something similar.

(Much thanks to “David Velleman”: for suggesting practically all the ideas in this post.)



Kieran Healy 04.19.04 at 11:48 am

_Here’s some suggestions for skills graduate students should have._

_How to use Powerpoint in lectures_

How about, How _not_ to use Powerpoint in lectures?


Cathal Copeland 04.19.04 at 12:24 pm

Kieran Healy writes:

“How about, How NOT to use Powerpoint in lectures?”

Spot on! Powerpoint is an insult to the brain.

As Clive Thompson wrote in an article entitled “PowerPoint makes you dumb” (NYT, December 4, 2003):

“This year, Edward Tufte — the famous theorist of information presentation — made precisely that argument in a blistering screed called The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. In his slim 28-page pamphlet, Tufte claimed that Microsoft’s ubiquitous software forces people to mutilate data beyond comprehension. For example, the low resolution of a PowerPoint slide means that it usually contains only about 40 words, or barely eight seconds of reading. PowerPoint also encourages users to rely on bulleted lists, a ”faux analytical” technique, Tufte wrote, that dodges the speaker’s responsibility to tie his information together. And perhaps worst of all is how PowerPoint renders charts. Charts in newspapers like The Wall Street Journal contain up to 120 elements on average, allowing readers to compare large groupings of data. But, as Tufte found, PowerPoint users typically produce charts with only 12 elements. Ultimately, Tufte concluded, PowerPoint is infused with ”an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.”

For PowerPoint fans, please note:

[Slide 1]

PowerPoint — the downsides

– damages IQ
– fucks up long-term memory
– pisses off moral philosophers

[Slide 2]

– shortage of subordinate clauses
– leaves out verbs and even pronouns

etc etc.

[Slide 25]

Have a nice day.
Read a book instead


jeremy hunsinger 04.19.04 at 1:26 pm

powerpoint isn’t designed to teach, it is designed to convey authority, order, and narrowly conceived presentation design. that is actually perfect for the ‘factory’ model of higher education though, where while we might be teaching students certain things, as a subtext we are teaching them to sit in their seats and accept what what the wise women/men say.

but i do think there are technology skills that any graduate student needs to know such as ‘how to read the software manual’, ‘using and interpreting the software’s built in help system’, and other forms of technological literacy. those are the top of my list, from there, they can expand within their own creative mode to learn databases and websites, etc.


George Williams 04.19.04 at 1:44 pm

These are good suggestions for requiring grad students to develop technical skills, though the Powerpoint objections are well taken. Why not teach them Powerpoint, but expose them to the critical debate regarding its use as a pedagogical tool?

Then show them other tools for presentations. Check out Counterpoint, a free “zooming presentation tool” that

provides the capability to create multiple scripted paths through your spatial slide arrangements. Presentations created in CounterPoint are also interactive, so you can deviate from a scripted path at presentation-time based on audience feedback, time constraints, or other factors.


Adam Kotsko 04.19.04 at 2:24 pm

My best explanation for why younger people might be less likely to involve technology is that young people’s immersion of technology gives them a better idea of the applicability and utility of such technology. For instance, we are much more likely to have sat through an unnecessary and brain-draining powerpoint presentation, which inevitably led people to wait impatiently for the next slide in order to write down what it said, while ignoring what the prof was actually saying. We are also much more likely to have wasted entire class periods fiddling with technology “housecleaning questions” or getting technology demonstrations such as how to use Word’s “collaboration features,” which can easily be duplicated by printing the damn thing off and writing on it by hand.

In short, we know that real education generally did not take place while we were fiddling with technology, and we’re nostalgic for some previous era when people actually read books, actually thought about their ideas for a long time before writing them down, actually listened to each other, and actually, you know, learned stuff instead of just spinning their wheels for four years because the work force doesn’t have room for them yet.

I’m reading Derrida a lot lately, so I know such nostalgia is naive and probably immoral, but still — give me a notebook, a pen, and a good lecture any time.

The database for grading information is a good idea, though.


eszter 04.19.04 at 2:28 pm

Kieran didn’t say “Not to use Power Point”, he said “How not to use Power Point” and there is a difference. (K – maybe I’m misreading your point here, of course.) I think there are definitely good uses for Power Point, as lons as one uses it critically. This goes for other teaching tools as well. One can use a blackboard in a really horrible way or one can use it very effectively. It’s not the technology, but the way it is implemented that matters.


Brian Weatherson 04.19.04 at 2:30 pm

Coincidentally enough, I’d originally written down as another bullet point “Knowing when not to use Powerpoint in lectures”, but I deleted it for being not funny enough or something. It wasn’t the most elegant expression ever, but I’d intended the point about having more than minimal skills to include something about knowing when to use Powerpoint, and when it doesn’t work.

I know some people think Powerpoint is the work of the devil, but the same goes for all technological tools. Using Pagemaker to write a two line memo is a pretty bad use of resources too, and not something that people who know what they’re doing would do. Now when Powerpoint is misused the results are worse, but I think the principle is the same.


mccoll 04.19.04 at 4:36 pm

I’m not that fond of PowerPoint myself, but I think Brian’s larger point is a good idea. To expand slightly, though, I would suggest that grad students would benefit from learning about design principles for teaching. This seems to speak to a lot of practical issues of good technology use. Most of the concerns commenters have raised so far could be addressed by simple, good design knowledge (e.g., effective PowerPoint slides, impressive course sites, even good blackboard use). If I know how to construct a visually useful set of slides, I can do it without the reductive interference of PowerPoint, for example.


AR 04.19.04 at 7:09 pm

The best use of powerpoint I’ve ever seen (as a law student) was in a jurisprudence class. The professor placed long excerpts on the screen, then parsed the text on subsequent slides by highlighting parts. From this, he formulated arguments. It was the equivalent of reading aloud, then writing arguments on a chalkboard. No dumbing down, and it made the moves both easy to follow and easy to critique (e.g., to recognize equivocations and whatnot).


Adam 04.19.04 at 7:56 pm

I don’t have much to add on the Powerpoint discussion –I have overheads (some of which I make with Powerpoint) which I also post on my class websites for the students to print out if they want corresponding handouts.

I agree with Brian’s other suggestions, but want to emphasize the importance of being able to design course websites.

My students really seem to appreciate having course materials (i.e., syllabus, essay topics, etc) online. It also saves me the trouble of making them all copies, and much headache when they lose things or don’t show up for weeks at a time.

I’m also experimenting with two other tech things: I’ve held a few virtual office hours via IM on the weekend before an exam –they were much better attended than actual office hours probably would’ve been.

Also, and not for my students, I keep a blog tracking developments in pain science for philosophers. A few people have found it useful and I’ve made contact with several philosophers (so far just grad students and junior faculty) who I wouldn’t otherwise have met. Blogging is thus another skill I’d commend to grads (though I’m preaching to the choir here).


chun the unavoidable 04.19.04 at 8:10 pm

If you don’t know how to use emacs, you’re a poseur and quite probably a fool.


mallarme 04.20.04 at 3:55 am

No way! emacs is for script kiddies. vi is what real gurus use.


Andrew 04.20.04 at 8:04 pm

Ok, ok, powerpoint makes you dumb. Jeez, you people ever read something poorly written with MS Word? That thing will let any idiot string together a sentence!

Seriously though, perhaps the suggestion should simply be “learn to give presentations well.” That means not just reading a paper to an audience, and not just lecturing to undergrads. It means learning something about how to carry yourself in front of a group, how to use visual (or audio or statistical data or whatever) materials to support an argument. And it means learning how to respond to an audience, how to change the pace of a presentation, or how to react to audience feedback appropriately.

Powerpoint is actually a decent way to slap together a few full-screen visual aids (i.e. photographs) and play around with the structure of the presentation up to the last minute.


Adam Kotsko 04.21.04 at 4:53 am

I use vi to do all my writing (directly in postscript) and browse the web via telnet — I can parse HTML mentally. I plan to put these skills on my CV.


Carrie 04.21.04 at 6:52 pm

The biggest disadvantage of Powerpoint is that you need to turn the lights down to see the screen clearly. As deliverer of the session you can’t see who is falling asleep very clearly and as student you can fall asleep all too easily. praps we shld b ncouraging yung academix 2b proficient @ txt. that wld save on fotocopying.

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