The Personalist Project

My teaching style is somewhat old school.  I lecture.  I do this on the theory that I know more than my students and they come to me in order to learn. (Indeed, that’s what they pay for.) And by learn, I do not just mean about “process” and "how" to communicate.  I mean learning about reality, about what to communicate: content, substance.  I believe that I was exceedingly fortunate (blessed) as both an undergraduate and a graduate student to have a number of wonderful and wise professors who introduced me to the great tradition (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Pascal, etc.) as well as to certain modern thinkers—and critics of modernity—who showed how that great tradition can be re-opened to students today (John Henry Newman, Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Karol Wojtyla, Josef Pieper, Gabriel Marcel, Martin Buber, etc.).  So I assign 6-8 books per course utilizing authors like the above, but I also feel that I have a serious responsibility to pass along what I have distilled from these treasure troves.  So, I lecture.  

Now I am not opposed to questions and discussion.  I am ready to stop at any time for comments and challenges from the students.  The classes are better when questions are regularly brought forward.  I encourage this.  One way of encouraging it is a fundamental rule: never embarrass a student for speaking up.  If the question is a little weak (or weird), or if I have just covered it in the lecture and the student wasn’t paying attention, nonetheless it is better to rephrase it positively for the student. Then they all get the message that questions are safe to ask.  Still, fundamentally, I lecture.  The students are responsible for paying attention, taking notes, comprehension, studying, etc. (I know I’m painting a pretty idealistic picture here.  I help them out with study guides.) 

But sometimes I get to feeling a little behind the times because of my teaching style.  Shouldn’t I be making better use of modern technology?  Shouldn’t I vary things by using multi-media?  Wouldn’t this keep the students more awake and interested?  I do illustrate philosophical points intermittently with music or film clips, but shouldn’t I go much farther and do so with regularity?  For example, I know that in our education department (and other departments), multi-media is all the rage.  We are gradually putting in media centers in all our classrooms at Franciscan University.  Every undergraduate seems to know how to use PowerPoint with alacrity.  Indeed, kids in junior high and high school are brought up on it.  Me? I’ve never tried it. Not interested.  But does this mean I am not good enough as teacher?  Do I not care enough about my students to learn the new ways of reaching them?  Etc., etc., etc.  

You can get yourself into a complex about such things—perhaps especially older teachers settled in their ways.  Yet what is new is not necessarily better.  I remember knowing first hand of an experienced professor (getting very high teaching effectiveness evaluations), who went to get himself “re-educated” into the latest techniques of presentation and effectiveness in his field. After that summer, his evaluations plummeted, his class sizes started to go down, complaints started to appear, etc.  He never really recovered until the day he retired.  Thus, change and "updating" are not always good.

So, what about PowerPoint?  Should I throw myself into it?  Or stick with the old tried and true ways? 

It was in this questioning mindset that I read with interest an article by Peter Bregman (“Strategic Advisor to CEO’s and their Leadership Teams”), originally published in the Harvard Business Review, and now at, entitled The No. 1 Killer of Meetings—And What You Can Do About It.  After seven years of  experimentation, study, and feedback, he concludes the following.

Over time, I identified a single factor that makes the biggest difference between a great meeting and a poor one: PowerPoint. The best meetings don't go near it.

PowerPoint presentations inevitably end up as monologues. They focus on answers, and everyone faces the screen. But meetings should be conversations. They should focus on questions, not answers, and people should face each other. I know it sounds crazy, but I've found that even the hum of the projector discourages dialogue.

People tune out because nothing is required of them.  Or they poke holes because, if they don’t tune out, it’s the most interesting thing to do….

There is, of course, a lot more that goes into a successful meeting. But following the "no PowerPoint rule" has the greatest impact….  Instead of having executives prepare clear, well-thought-out (and boring) PowerPoint presentations…try having them lead informal discussions…, using flip charts [blackboards?] to collect important points, draw conclusions, and agree on action plans with owners and timelines. [my brackets]

I think I’ll stick with lectures, perhaps with even greater encouragement of questions and discussion, i.e., the Socratic method.  Furthermore, in dealing with young students rather than experienced executives, I think it is legitimate to focus somewhat more on moving people toward answers, not just questions--but with no inferiority complexes about PowerPoint, multi-media, etc.!  Even in a lecture, it’s face-to-face contact between me and the students—a bit more “personalistic” than all of us looking at a screen.  Just my opinion.

Comments (6)

Rhett Segall

#1, Jun 24, 2012 10:15am

Michael, this correlates exactly with my experience as a teacher (moral theology, 11th grade) and in listening to presentations. I went to an excellent power point presentation by John F Haught (God After Darwin;,stripbooks,374 -charts, delightful illustration, photos, etc;) But afterwards I asked myself why I felt a certain emptiness about the experience. I realized it was  because for 99% of the presentation I was focused on the screen and not on John. All the nuances of body language and voice between the speaker and the audience were lost.

I think too pp can alleviate the teacher from the hard work of preparation.

Your comments fit in perfectly with the discussions of the reading circle on the impersonalization brought about by the social media which elimates the risk factor of face to face communication.

On the other hand, no doubt that with the invention of the printing press there was a corresponding diminuation of sharing stories orally and a complaint that people now go go and hide in books.

As always a wise integration and balance is called for.

Thanks for sharing!

Peter Brown

#2, Jun 24, 2012 3:57pm

One size doesn't fit all.  If PowerPoint doesn't suit who you are as a person in the classroom, don't feel guilty about not using it.

There's certainly no shortage of people who use PowerPoint badly, as a quick YouTube search can attest.  Rhett Segal's point about PowerPoint's ability to distract from personal connection is both valid and commonly overlooked.

On the other hand, though, I've seen some folks who can't seem to project that personal connection, for whom PowerPoint works quite well.  I've seen others who are such powerful personalities that PowerPoint doesn't seem to get in their way particularly.

In short, the choice is personal :-).  (It also depends, of course, on the audience, the subject matter, the venue, and so on.)

Devra Torres

#3, Jun 24, 2012 9:39pm

My sister's son, in high school, reports that PowerPoint is to them exactly what filmstrips were to my generation: when the projector goes on, that's the students' cue to fade out.

I guess students need to be taught to do PowerPoint themselves, in case they need it at work, but they don't need to be taught by means of it.  

There are so few places left where people look at each other instead of at a screen.  I think the classroom should be one of them.

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Jun 25, 2012 8:17am

It drove me nuts when our parish school started boasting that all its classrooms now feature "smart boards."  (It was part of a campaign to drive up enrollment.)  I saw it as worse than a waste of money.  They're s a terrible distraction.  The teachers get preoccupied trying to get the thing to work properly, and the kids, used to faster and more sophisticated technology at home, totally tune out.   

I also took it as evidence that the school has a badly defective philosophy of education.

So basically, I agree with you, Michael.  

But I did once see a stunningly effective use of Power Point.  It was Air Force General Mark Welsh giving a lecture to a class of cadets.  He's a remarkably engaging speaker, whose use of Power Point (or whatever it was) made the lecture still more engaging, moving, deeply personal and highly inspiring.  Do watch it through to the end, if you can spare an hour.  It keeps getting better and better.  And it gives one hope that the antagonism we all experience between the person and technology isn't absolute.  It CAN and sometimes DOES serve properly personal ends.

Michael Healy

#5, Jun 25, 2012 8:27am

I'm sure Peter and Katie (with the example of Gen. Welsh) are right that these new technologies can be done extremely well and effectively.  I'm glad to hear it.  But I don't think I'll ever get there and I do think much of the emphasis on smart technology, computers (or Ipads) for every student, etc., is money not well spent by school districts and universities.

Tim Cronin

#6, Jun 25, 2012 4:27pm

The kids are not there to be entertained. Neil Postman wrote a lot about this subject.

I think dialougue makes sense since we are made in God's image who is Dia-Logos.

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