From Slides to Slides: Thoughts on Teaching with Images

I recently read an obituary of Dennis Austin, the inventor of PowerPoint. I must admit, that although I’ve used PowerPoint for years, I never thought about it having an inventor. If I’d thought about it at all, I probably would have assumed that it was developed by a team at Microsoft. Wrong on both counts—it was just two guys, Dennis Austin and his colleague Robert Gaskins, who created what was originally called “Presenter” in 1987 while working at a company called Forethought (which was then bought by Microsoft later that year). The first Windows version was released in 1990.

My learning about the origins of PowerPoint was timely, because my recent retirement and the resulting need to empty my office of 35 years of accumulated books, files, and other teaching materials has occasioned me to look back on my career. One of the items I found tucked away on an upper shelf was an empty Kodak slide carousel, which got me thinking about my experiences with visual materials in the classroom, both as student and teacher, in the days BP (Before PowerPoint). Of course, my art history professor at Santa Clara University, Brigid Barton, used slides every day. Her classroom was equipped with not one but two slide projectors, so she could display two images side-by-side for comparison. She was an expert at both filling her carousels and at knowing when to advance each projector so that the correct images were displayed.

Kodak Slide Carousel

I also remember her telling us that her husband had visited her classes one day and noticed that the students near him had their heads down, writing in their notebooks only the “vital statistics” of the artworks (artist, title, medium, date) and nothing about what Dr Barton was saying about the significance of the image, which they weren’t looking at. As soon as she learned this, she started handing out a numbered slide list at the beginning of each class, allowing for more effective note-taking and, more importantly, more effective looking.

Whereas slideshows were expected in art history classes—“art in the dark,” as they’re known to students—they were much less common in my other classes. The exception was a Cornell University graduate school history course on Ancient Greece taught by Barry Strauss, for which I was a TA. Like Professor Barton, Professor Strauss used slides in virtually every class. But unlike in art history, where the artworks are the main course content and the entire class period consists of looking at and talking about the slides, Professor Strauss might have just a few slides in his carousel that he would use to help elucidate the topic of the day (one of my jobs as TA was to advance the slides on his command).

The one that sticks out in my memory was in a lecture on fifth-century Athenian democracy. The Athenians had a practice whereby they could vote into a ten-year exile someone they feared might become a tyrant. The ballots for this election were broken pieces of pottery, on which the voters would scratch the name of the person they wished to exile. The ancient Greek word for a broken piece of pottery was ostrakon (plural ostraka), from which we get the words “ostracize” and “ostracism.” Archaeologists have found many of these ostraka with names of prominent Athenian politicians scratched into them. The day Professor Strauss lectured on the workings of Athenian democracy, he showed a picture of these ostraka, which made the concept both clear and memorable.

A collection of ostraka

When I started teaching my own classes while still in grad. school, I took Professors Barton and Strauss as two of my role models, wishing to use images as effectively as they did. Accordingly, I made an effort to build up my own personal slide collection. In 1984, I took a summer course in medieval religious history held in Assisi, Italy; there, I bought slides of the frescoes in the basilica of San Francesco, attributed to Giotto, that I planned to use when teaching the life of St. Francis (fortunately, the lira was weak against the dollar that summer). A couple of years later, my husband and I honeymooned in England, and I used slide film to capture images in Colchester, Lincoln, and York that I would be able to use in a course on Medieval Cities that I was scheduled to teach that fall.

Fresco from the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, attributed to Giotto. In this scene, Francis has rejected his father’s property (including his clothes) and is embraced by the Bishop of Assisi.

But once I began teaching full-time at Mount St. Mary’s University, I was hindered in my desire to enhance my courses with images by a limited slide library at my new institution. I was often reduced to expedients like holding a book open to the relevant color plate, and then passing it around the room. This lack of access to images became critical in 2000 when we implemented a new core curriculum that included a required interdisciplinary humanities course, titled “Origins of the West,” to be taught by faculty in history, literature, and the arts and incorporating content from all those disciplines. Now we not only needed a greater selection of slides of art and architecture; we needed them in multiple copies for multiple instructors.

Fortunately, I had just taken a technology workshop in which I made my first PowerPoint, on the Parthenon. I realized that this new technology would let me do everything I needed. I could take all the images I wanted from the internet (no need to buy slides); put two images next to each other on the same slide (no need for two projectors); and include identifying information directly on the slide (no need for a separate slide list). And when it was done I could share it with my colleagues (no need for multiple slide sets).

The Parthenon

My first presentation was on the Parthenon; I was still using a much-revised version of it when I retired. I subsequently made hundreds more—the computer folder where I save them currently contains 1638 files (although some of these are probably duplicate versions of the same presentation, or files students sent to me to accompany their class presentations). Among these 1638 PowerPoints are one on Athenian ostracism with pictures of ostraka; one on the Life of St Francis using jpgs of the Giotto frescoes instead of the physical slides I bought back in 1984; and one on medieval cities that includes a scan of one of the photos I took on my honeymoon.

Roman gateway in Lincoln, known as the oldest gate in Britain still used by traffic. Photo taken by me on my honeymoon in 1986.

I know that PowerPoint has the reputation of being deadly dull (just google “PowerPoint cartoons” for plenty of satirical takes on this reputation). But I assure you, mine are brilliant. I used to do an activity when I taught our first-year seminar in which I directed students first to make a bad PowerPoint and then to present it badly. They had lots of fun with this assignment—illegible fonts! too-small type! insufficient color contrast! distracting animations! reading bullet points verbatim with your back to the audience! Hopefully, it taught them, and reminded me, what not to do.

Apart from these design considerations, however, the most important rule is not to think, “I need to make a PowerPoint; what should I put in it?” but rather, “I want to present some material that is best understood visually; how can PowerPoint help me do that?” So thank you, Dennis Austin, for making it possible for me to do that.