Category Archives: powerpoint

Student evaluations

I think I’ve mentioned the phenomenon of student evaluations before on this blog. Sometimes, as I’ve explained in the earlier post, I’ve received some very amusing ones. Most have been pretty positive although I have received some critical evaluations. Never anything really soul destroying…yet. Other times, the positive ones balance the negative ones exactly (eg, I get 5 saying “Where were the Powerpoint slides?” and 5 saying “Thank God there were no Powerpoint slides!”) I tend to mentally file those responses under “well, you can’t please ’em all”.

Lately I’ve come across a couple of interesting legal issues regarding student evaluations. Of course, both cases come from the US, the fount of much interesting litigation.

First, there’s the case of a student who, when asked to complete a student evaluation form, wrote offensive comments about a professor’s sexuality and expressed the desire that the professor die of AIDs. Read more about it here at Concurring Opinons and here at Volokh Conspiracy.

The evaluation was said to be confidential. However, the professor in question was very upset by the comments, and went through exam papers to identify the handwriting of the person who had made the comments. The particular student was identified, and officially reprimanded. The student has been asked to write a 1,200-word essay on how his remarks affect the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, to write a letter of apology to the professor (including constructive criticisms of his teaching style), and to discuss with the university training or other programs deemed appropriate.

Hmm. I have to say that I found the student’s comments offensive, and for this reason I decided not to reproduce them on my page. I’m sure that if someone directed racist, sexist or other abuse at me, I would be very, very upset. Particularly if it was something about which I was already sensitive or about which I had already had to face abuse from others previously. I also think the punishment was appropriate, although I do wonder whether it will really change the student’s underlying prejudices.

On the other hand, if it were me, I don’t know that I’d go through all the exam papers and work out who said it. To my mind, the surveys are confidential, and even when people say stupid and offensive things, that is a promise that needs to be kept, except in extreme cases where, for example, a death threat is made. The confidentiality allows students freedom of speech to say whatever they want, even if it is ridiculous or highly critical.

The student did say that he hoped the professor in question would die, but to my mind, it was not a death threat – it was more of a unpleasant and juvenile sneer of the kind that 13 year olds make. The statement made by the student indicates (a) that he is extremely immature and (b) that his opinion is not worth much anyway. I’d probably decide to brush it off as an opinion not even worth worrying about, and hope that as he progressed through university he came to a more open-minded point of view. I might also suspect that he had sexuality issues of his own (as is often the case with young homophobic males)…

However, I’d welcome comments from anyone who feels differently. I suspect some readers who are members of the gay and lesbian community might feel very strongly about this one.

The second case concerns a professor who altered student evaluations to make them more favourable towards him. The professor happened to teach law, and the Supreme Court of Iowa has suspended him from legal practice, with the possibility of reinstatement on conditions. (Hat tip to Stephen Warne for alerting me to this one).

The misconduct occurred as follows. The professor remained in the room when the student surveys were taken, and he and his research assistant also completed surveys which were handed in (favourable, I’m sure). It seems that they amended some of the results.

The professor also gave a speech to the students stressing the importance of good reviews, and said that his problems with the law school had arisen because others were jealous of him. I must say that I have never had the hide to give a speech to students about how important student evaluations are to academic careers. I’d rather people judge me honestly, without having to beg them to be kind.

The professor was suffering from bipolar disorder, and at the time of the offences, he had not taken his medication, which makes his conduct rather more explicable. Ironically, his speciality was mental health law. Still, despite the bipolar disorder, he must have known that what he was doing was wrong.

The consequences have been quite devastating for his career, I am sure – what a silly fellow! – he would have been better to leave the questionnaires untouched and leave his career in one piece.

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Filed under academia, cheating, education, freedom of speech, law, legal education, powerpoint, sexuality, society, tolerance, universities, USA

I’m not the only one with a problem with Powerpoint

You may recall that I had a rant or two about this topic a while back. A gentle reader has pointed out it was a recent topic in Leon Gettler’s blog in The Age.

The good news is that, this year, the other lecturers teaching with me share my antipathy, and indeed before I was even allocated to teach this subject, they had agreed that there shall be no Powerpoint slides. The only sad thing is that I used to enjoy putting my own strange artwork at the start of my powerpoint presentations, for no particular reason other than my own enjoyment. Now I will just have to draw strange pictures on the whiteboard instead. And read out quotations from judgments in silly accents. The things I do to amuse myself.

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More on Powerpoint

It seems I’m not the only one with an axe to grind about Powerpoint presentations. A reader of The Legal Soapbox sent me a link to the following website, where Edward Tufte has undertaken a cognitive study of Powerpoint presentations and their flaws.

I had a look at Mr Tufte’s sample essay, Powerpoint does Rocket Science. It was very interesting, as it traces some of the mistakes NASA made in the 2003 Spaceshuttle Colombia disaster to the use made by spaceshuttle engineers of Powerpoint presentations to present their findings. As his examples show, the executive summary headline in one slide was misleading (suggesting that there was not a problem), but when one worked through the many levels of bullets right down to the final bullet, it seemed that there was a problem. When management was looking through the slide presentation, of course their attention was drawn to the executive summary headline, not the information dangling in the bottom bullet point. The hierarchical nature of the bullets meant that the information presented was fragmented and incoherent (and the important details were in small font at the bottom of the heap).

Of course, Powerpoint is useful in some circumstances. Presently, I use it to put up case citations, sections of legislation, headings for the next section of my lecture and diagrams of factual scenarios (which can be cut and pasted into one’s lecture notes). It saves me writing headings and citations on the board, for which I am eternally grateful.

But the auto-formatting is an absolute pain, and sometimes I find myself having to resist the temptation alter information just so that I can fit it all on one slide. Fortunately, I am very good at getting around auto-formatting (and that horrible little Microsoft paperclip who comes up to “help” you). I find it very irritating also that Powerpoint keeps trying to force you to put a heading on each slide – I either delete that heading box, or I just put “Contracts (…cont)”. If my points under one heading need to spill over onto subsequent slides, so be it, I’m not going to abbreviate them into oblivion.

Of course, I’m not involved in a life-or-death situation like the NASA engineers; that whole scenario horrifies me. Sometimes computers can make communication much better; but sometimes they can stultify it. You’ve got to be careful how you use the tools you’re given.

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Powerpoint

Does anyone else hate the use of Powerpoint for legal presentations? Ok, ok, I can see that if you are an engineer or something, it might be very useful to have a presentation of how machinery works or graphs of things or how a chemical process works (or something like that). But law? It’s just a waste of time. I was a bit taken aback the other day when I was actually requested by the recipients of a presentation to provide Powerpoint slides.

Dumbfounded, I asked why on earth they would want such a thing. They looked at me narrowly and with panic in their eyes. “We won’t know where you’re going with your talk! We need to know what headings we should write,” they said.

“You mean otherwise you might have to listen?” I replied. [Yes, I’m already a grumpy old lawyer.] Tsk, tsk, tsk! Law students these days! I think they wanted slides so that they didn’t have to bother taking notes.

This took me back to the dim dark days when I was an Articled Clerk, and we were required to attend breakfast talks on different topics. I am not a morning person. Not happy to begin with.

So you’d turn up yawning to these presentations, and then someone would put on the projector screen and interminable Powerpoint slides would come up. The person would read out exactly what was on the Powerpoint slide, and then move to the next slide.

What was the point of getting up early to watch someone read out Powerpoint slides when they just could have sent them to me? I used to wonder. Sometimes I would have to attach a bulldog clip to my finger just to keep awake. Once I fell asleep anyway despite the bulldog clip. I made a resolution to never use Powerpoint for any presentation made by me.

I particularly hate Powerpoint presentations which feature dumb clipart like this:

I was astounded at the consternation that my intended lack of Powerpoint seemed to produce. I am ashamed to say that I gave into pressure and provided a Powerpoint accompaniment to my presentation. But I should stress that it was minimal. It just sketched out where I was heading with my talk, set out some of the relevant legislation, and had some of my homemade “diagrams” of factual situations of cases. I still drew the diagrams on the whiteboard anyway. Then scribbled all over them to emphasise my point.

I did not put any nasty clipart in my presentation. One has to have some principles. Instead, I put in random pictures of things: a picture of my baby, a drawing I did of a horse etc.

“Why did you put those pictures in your presentation?” I was asked.

I smiled. “No reason other than that I was bored and I hate the usual pictures that you get in Powerpoint.” I was pleased. At least I had kept their attention! Hopefully there was no need for bulldog clips.

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