20 February 2012

The Zen of Presentations, Part 50: “I hate this topic”

It’s easy to give a talk about your own research. Your own story. Your own project.

What about those times when you have to give a presentation on a topic that... frankly... doesn’t wind your crank? As an instructor, I often have to give presentations on topics that I don’t care about. When I first started here, I had to teach general biology, which included a bunch of material that, to be honest, I had never learned before. The old joke is that in your first semester teaching a class, all you have to be is one lesson ahead of the students.

The path of least resistance is to aim for factual competence. If you’re coming into a subject cold, your first concern is to say things that are correct so you won’t look like an idiot. But “just the facts” doesn’t makes for a compelling presentation. Anyone who wants facts can Google answers faster than you can present them.

Sometimes, people presenting on something they didn’t choose will undercut their own material. They’ll indicate, sometimes explicitly, sometimes through hints, that they don’t like the topic.

Having disdain for your subject is lethal to a presentation. If you signal that this is not important to you, you are signalling that it’s not important to the audience. Which makes it a great big waste of time for all concerned.

Not everyone has the same interests, though. Some people may get something out of it that you don’t. If you respect your audience, at least pretend to have a good time while you’re up there!

But it’s even better if you can go a step beyond getting the facts right and putting on the fake service industry smile.

I once heard an interview with an educator who talked about this problem. He argued that an instructor had to find some sort of personal connection with the material.

The question came up: How do you find a personal connection with, say, the Pythagorean theorem? Trigonometry can be an abstract, bloodless subject.

His answer was to talk about how the ancients calculated the size of the earth. In the city of Syrene, there was a well that the sun shone down directly at noon on a particular day of the year. On the same day in the city of Alexandria, the sun didn’t shine directly overhead. A post would cast a short shadow.

From those two pieces of information, the mathematician Eratosthenes calculated the size of the Earth...


...And came very close to the right answer.

The person being interviewed found this fascinating, and that was his personal connection to this particular bit of geometry. And you can see why: it’s a great story.

“And if you don’t find that personal connection?” asked the interviewer.

“Boredom. Endless boredom.”

I faced a similar problem teaching aerobic respiration, which is soul destroying in the wrong hands. I needed a hook that made presenting it interesting to me. What I eventually hit on was to use a block of chocolate, with six pieces. I tell the students each piece of chocolate represents one carbon atom in a glucose molecule. As we go through the process of turning a sugar molecule into ATP, I break the chocolate down and give each piece (representing carbon in the exhaled carbon dioxide) to a student.

To be honest, I don’t know if having the chocolate model helps the students learn at all. But that wasn’t the point: I do it for me. Because I needed a way to engage with cellular respiration and have fun with it. Because if I’m not engaged, why should I be surprised if my students are not engaged?

There should always be a way to connect with the material. An eloquent person should find no subject sterile.

1 comment:

Rick Salinas said...

Ossified teaching methods seem evident everywhere I turn. This model of active apprenticeship is both, advantageous and appreciated by the enrollee. Though torturesome to teach something other than your specialization; I'm sure.