Department of Sociology and Anthropology
To give you a sample of a typical day, on Thursday I participated in a symposium in the morning that had approximately 10 papers (2.5 hours). There was an hour break for lunch, and then I attended a symposium in the afternoon, logging another 2.5 hours of sitting in a darkened room watching presentation after presentation. Presentations vary at the SAA meetings. Some are highly theoretical; others describe the results of recent excavations. Some present the results of sophisticated chemical analyses; others explain sampling strategies or statistical results. Some symposium are scheduled for large ballrooms as the organizers expect a large audience of interested members, others are placed in more modest sized rooms. 95% of presenters use PowerPoint these days.
These meetings can be very draining. By the end of the second day, most of us respond to inquiries about our wellbeing with phrases like “I don’t think I can sit through another paper today.” Bare in mind, this is not because the presentations are bad; indeed they are often quite good. It is simply that the amount of information we attempt to absorb during this four day bacchanalia of archaeology is overwhelming. Most of us are physically and mentally exhausted when we gratefully climb on the plane home.
But sitting in the back of one of those dark rooms one day I let my mind wander to a comparison of attending these sorts of meetings and attending classes at a university. The similarities are considerable and I think illuminating.
Let’s take for example the schedule of a hypothetical, full-time, freshman. She enrolls in five, 3-credit hour classes. This means that she will have 15 hours of class time to attend each week. Typically students will try to arrange their schedule to meet other commitments or interests, but let’s imagine that our student has spread her courses across the full working week. That’s three hours of class time each day.
Now what does our intrepid student’s class time consist of? Well, since she’s a freshman, most of her courses are going to be surveys or introductory courses. Some will be large lecture hall classes with 200 students; others will be smaller, say with 25 classmates. Many of these courses will be heavily lecture-based, with the professor presenting information using PowerPoint slides filled with text and images. Individual classes will range from 50 minutes to 1 hour and 15 minutes long.
So, our hypothetical student is essentially attending an SAA-style symposium each and every week day. If I asked my colleagues here at the meetings if they would like to do that, they’d look at me as if I had had too many over-priced ales at the hotel bar last night (as a matter of fact, I did). Simply put, they would react with horror at the idea. Why? Because, as I mentioned earlier, these meetings are draining. Well, why?
Here’s my point. Despite the fact that we are archaeologists attending symposia on topics of great interest to us, the presentations we attend are not that much different than any lecture. Presentations are filled with ideas and information that we are desperately trying to assimilate and retain at high speed. Most presentations are good, but some are not so good. The presenter rambles, goes over time, uses cruddy slides or tables of data. Some presenters do not articulate an overarching important question that frames their talk. Others talk in monotone. The darkened room is stifling with people and the blur of presentations makes your eyelids heavy.
The same things that make a presentation at a professional meeting a draining experience are the same things that make a lecture at a university draining. We faculty attend these sorts of events for a few days each year; students attend them five days a week for 16 weeks. On the other hand, the things that make for an interesting and engaging symposium apply to university lectures. Good presentations have a well crafted question or goal or theme. This question/goal/theme should be presented in such a way as to draw the listener and make him or her interested in the content of the presentation. Good presentations walk the audience through the material cleanly and clearly. And in the end, good presentations return to the question/goal/theme and tie up loose ends. But overall, a good presentation is engaging, compelling, and entertaining. Yes, I said entertaining.
My brother likes to refer to what I do as “edu-tainment.” I’m not sure I have a good rebuttal for that. On the one hand, I know that when students are engaged and attending to the activities in a class, then they learn better. So if a bit of entertainment does that, who am I to scoff at it. On the other hand, I do know that by brother’s term has a more pejorative connotation. That I’m actually a very low paid entertainer (do stand up comics make more that college professors?) and that perhaps the entertainment aspect of my classes might degrade the actual learning. I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that I appreciated those speakers this week who took the time to develop and engaging and entertaining presentation. Because if you asked me if I wanted to spend 2.5 hours each day attending presentations, I’d ask you if you had too many over-priced ales at the hotel bar last night.