Rob Jenkins

Associate Professor at Georgia State University Perimeter College

The Teaching Demo: Less Power, More Point

Full vitae power point teaching

I’ve noticed a definite trend whenever I serve on faculty search committees lately: More and more job candidates seem to be relying heavily on PowerPoint during their teaching demonstrations.

Such demos have become a routine part of the faculty-hiring process at many institutions but especially at teaching-focused institutions like my own. Perhaps candidates are turning to PowerPoint because, having been warned beforehand that they will need to show some familiarity and facility with "technology" during their interview, they believe that a PowerPoint presentation is a good way to fulfill that requirement.

I see several problems with that strategy. For one thing, using PowerPoint doesn’t tell us much about your technological savvy. As a nondigital native and alleged neo-Luddite, I assume any application I can use myself — and use reasonably well — can’t be too complicated, much less cutting edge. In addition, too many candidates use PowerPoint in their demos much as they would for a conference presentation — to the point of reading their slides out loud. As all conference-goers know, few things are more boring than that.

Even if it’s not boring, treating the teaching demo like a conference talk violates the cardinal rule of teaching demos: You’re giving a demonstration, not a presentation. Especially at two-year colleges or other teaching-focused institutions, your objective is not to tell us how you teach, but to show us.

As committee members, we (and anyone else in the audience) are looking for a glimpse into what your future classroom might be like if we hired you. If standing at the podium and reading your PowerPoint slides aloud is indicative of how you teach, then as a search-committee member, I’m just not interested in your candidacy. I will vote against you — and, based on our most recent committee’s post-interview discussions, I am not alone in that.

It’s not that I have anything against PowerPoint. When presenting at a conference, conducting a workshop, or giving a visiting lecture, I often use it as a kind of visual outline — to remind myself what I intend to talk about and which points I need to cover. I’ve even been known to throw in a little clip art, or a pithy quote or cartoon.

I don’t use PowerPoint in my classroom, for reasons I explained in a blog post in 2013. In short, I like the spontaneity of writing notes in class on a whiteboard. But I have no quarrel with those who prefer to prepare their notes ahead of time on PowerPoint. I can see how it might offer significant advantages in, say, a large lecture hall with 200 students.

Even if, in your actual classroom, you do use PowerPoint extensively, I recommend that you not rely on it too heavily during a teaching demo — and certainly not exclusively. After all, there are far more impressive ways than that to show your potential future colleagues that you know how to use technology to enhance your teaching.

For that matter, reading PowerPoint slides aloud is not really teaching, in the modern sense. It takes us back to the proverbial "sage on the stage," monotonously reading dog-eared, yellowed notes to the class from behind a wooden lectern. The only difference is that, with PowerPoint, modern audiences can read those "notes" for themselves.

I’m not going out on a limb here when I say that most search-committee members would much rather see you interact with your "students." By all means, put something up on the screen, but then use that visual aid as an aid, not a crutch — as a way to spark interest, not stifle it. Show us a photo, drawing, or cartoon that illustrates a point you’re trying to make. Pull up a current newspaper headline, an opinion essay, or a video. And then come around in front of the lectern and engage us in a discussion about what we are seeing.

Don’t hesitate, by the way, to use the whiteboard in conjunction with the PowerPoint screen. In one of the best teaching demos I’ve seen, the candidate spoke briefly about the nature of descriptive language before showing us two paragraphs from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. She then invited us to identify descriptive words and phrases from the excerpt while she wrote down our responses on the whiteboard — and periodically stopped to talk about them.

As she moved from board to lectern to the front of the room, and back, that candidate seemed to have a great deal of energy, which became infectious. Her teaching demo did not feel canned, as PowerPoint presentations often do, with predetermined "key ideas." Instead, we as "students" felt like we were contributing to an evolving discussion.

At the same time, be sure not to rely on the whiteboard exclusively, either. In our last hiring cycle, the committee was in complete agreement that the worst teaching demo we saw came from a candidate who informed us, up front, that he was "an old-fashioned guy" who wasn’t "really into technology." He then spent his entire 20 minutes painstakingly writing on the board information that could easily have been captured in a single PowerPoint slide.

What faculty members serving on hiring committees want most from a candidate giving a teaching demo is a little variety — not just because it speaks to teaching ability but because we’re bored. (I’m only half kidding.) Yes, by all means, show us you know how to use technology. PowerPoint is fine, if that’s what you’ve got. But show us, too, that you know how to give a (brief) lecture, engage us in discussion, and lead a short activity.

If all you’re going to do is read from a canned presentation — well, please spare us the tedium and just email us your slides. We can read them ourselves.

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