Daniel Dennett’s seven tools for thinking

Daniel Dennett is one of the leading philosophers of our generation. Here he offers seven tools for thinking.
One that I thought especially good advice for young scholars was first offered by Anatol Rappaport: how to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said). Following Rapoport’s rules is always, for me, something of a struggle…

Simple schematic for a good talk

My colleague John King sent me the diagram below. It is an easy-to-remember schematic for how to organize a talk. Start with some context (we often say “the motivation”), drilling down until you get to your specific problem, then describe in detail your contribution in solving this problem. Finish by heading back up to the surface: return to the context, reminding your audience of the connection between your problem and the broader context, this time adding the implications of what you have discovered for the broader context. This would naturally lead into a description of your ongoing research programme on this topic, if you have one. (I advocate *against* a “future work” slide unless you are actually committed too, and probably already engaged in, the future work.)

I like this, but, at least for a seminar talk (50-80 minutes rather than the 12-18 typical at many conferences), I would precede the big donut with a smaller semi-donut, which is the left half of the big donut in miniature. That is, spend the first minute (and maybe one slide) quickly setting the scene (the context), then briefly but clearly introduce the problem you tackle, state your results (without demonstrating or supporting them, then sum up your contribution. After that brief intro, get with the more detailed context – contribution – context program.
This is very similar to the classic storytelling exposition I’ve elsewhere advocated. As in a typical (not post-modern) novel or movie, immediately set the scene, identify the protagonist and the conflict he or she faces. In stories the resolution (results) often aren’t broadcast up front (though they may be foreshadowed), to build suspense. Sometimes that kind of suspense-building works in a scholarly talk, but often giving a sneak peak at the results is helpful / necessary in motivating the audience to be interested in what comes.

Communicating, not presenting

I gave a “skills workshop” today to our students. I was asked to give a session on presentations. I told them the assignment had it wrong. We need to learn to become better communicators, and stop worry so much about presenting.
The take-home points were two: To communicate better, focus on story telling, and on story perceiving (or the application of standard human cognitive principles the way in which you tell the story). The focus on applying cognitive principles to design is fairly conventional these days, but I think the value of using a story telling approach is overlooked. I don’t mean litter a presentation with personal anecdotes, but to consciously develop and design the entire presentation as a single story, following classic story structure and tropes.
I prepared a handout summarizing the points I made during the session, and adding some additional tips, citations to further reading, and an example of how I develop my stories (before I even open my slide software), following the method described by Cliff Atkinson. (Having a take-away handout is one strong recommendation for an effective presentation.)
I’m also putting up my slides, though the way I use slides to illustrate my talks, the slides are useless without the speaker notes, and even then they are not very effective as a PDF file. They do demonstrate my commitment to using media to illustrate and emphasize and stimulate, rather than as set of on-screen lecture notes. (I only checked the screen momentarily during the talk, to verify synchronization.)
(My bad: The images are all either Creative Commons licensed photos from Flickr, or shots found via Google Images on the open web, but I was behind in my preparation and I neglected to write down sources. Usually I try to be better about giving attribution.)

“Don’t, please, please, for God’s sake, don’t.”

Deirdre McCloskey is an economic historian and rhetoritician at the University of Illinois – Chicago. She has written extensively on the rhetoric of economics and social sciences. One of her gems is a short (of course!) book called Economical Writing (2nd ed., 2000). There are a number of helpful books that guide and advise scholars on writing; this is my favorite.
One of Deirdre’s lessons I’ve embraced almost as much as William Strunk’s “Form the possessive singular of nouns with ‘s” is her condemnation of the “table of contents paragraph” (known by others as the “roadmap” paragraph):

Still another peice of boilerplate, and one which kills the momentum of most papers in economics on the second page, is the table-of-contents paragraph: “The outline of this papers is as follows” Don’t, please, please, for God’s sake, don’t. Nine out of ten readers skip to the substance, if they can find it. The few who pause on the paragraph are wasting their time. They can’t understand the paragraph until, like they author, they have read the paper, at which point they don’t need it. Usually the table-of-contents paragraph has been written with no particular audience in mind, least of all the audience of first-time readers of the paper. Even when done well it lacks a purpose. You will practically never see it in good writing, unless inserted by an editor who doesn’t know good writing. Weak writers defend it as a “roadmap.” They got the idea from Miss Jones: “Tell the reader what you’re going to say. Say it. Say that you’ve said it.” It’s exceptionally bad advice, and the person who made up this memorable phrasing of it is burning right now in Hell.” (p. 37)

Effective bulletpoint presentations

I’m generally pretty critical of the traditional bulletpoint style for a presentation. But most people, of course, use them anyway. They might as well do it well.
Here is a presentation by former SI communications manager, Frank DeSanto, that he did for our summer undergraduate research program (REU) last year. He makes a number of good suggestions.

My use of slides in teaching

Over the past two years I have drastically changed the way that I use slides while teaching. (Some students still see some “old style” slides because I haven’t finished replacing all of my teaching materials — it takes a lot of work!) I have noticed that in course evaluation comments many students appreciate my presentation style, but some criticize it. One of the criticisms I’ve seen a few times is that my slides are not very helpful *after* class.
I think, from the comments, that the students want me to provide them with a lecture outline that they can use as a set of pre-written notes to study. That sounds nice, and might be a good idea sometimes, though I worry that providing everything (the readings, the lecture, the lecture notes, the sample problems and sample exams with solutions) pre-written is not good for learning: where is the *active* learning that research has shown to be essential? In any case, I don’t feel an obligation to provide lecture outlines and notes that I have written (though some student comments suggest that they think they are entitled to this).

Norman teapot: afforandanceThe obligation I do feel is to teach effectively, so that students learn successfully. And I have been convinced that the very standard approach to classroom slideware is ineffective. The standard approach, of course, is to provide a detailed set of bullet points: essentially, a lecture outline with notes. Many faculty more-or-less use the slides as their script, if not quite reading from them nonetheless going through each bullet as displayed. Gosh, as students sometimes say on a related topic: “I read the reading assignment in the textbook — why just repeat it in class?”

The problem is deeper. First, putting a detailed outline and notes on the screen, and then talking through them creates a cognitive overload that decreases learning. Second, it promotes passive learning, which is less effective than active learning.
In my new presentation style I have worked hard (and believe me, it takes a lot longer to develop one of my new presentations than to prepare a standard bullet point outline presentation: I basically have to do the former first, to figure out what I want to say, then start from scratch to prepare the accompanying illustrations) to support learning by using multimedia material to complement the spoken words. I present material to illuminate, provide associative material, or provoke.

Leverage with incentives Some concepts are better understood (at least by some learners) visually, so I illuminate with a graph or a figure or an animation. Other times, I provide material — often with cultural references (though I perhaps overdo this, since many of my students are foreign and may miss some of the cultural references) — that I hope will trigger associative links, prompting students to more active processing and elaboration of the material. Yet other times I try to provoke them (with humor — often self-deprecating since that’s usually less likely to offend *others* — sarcasm, surprising mental leaps or associations), again to get them to think differently and more deeply (or simply to wake up :).

I use a mixture of visual and auditory material. Get the good stuff in The visual includes photographs, words (but rarely more than one sentence per slide, and often just one word or phrase to EMPHASIZE a point, not repeat verbatim what I’m saying), paintings, graphs and figures, etc. I occasionally include a video clip, but I’ve not developed good skills at finding video illustrations appropriate to my lectures. Pity: dynamic visuals usually attract attention better than static. I do make use of color, contrast, size and other variations to increase the impact of my visuals. For auditory material I often use clips of popular music (sometimes classical or jazz), but have also created a few auditory demos.
These presentations do not make for good outline/lecture note handouts! I agree with the students on that. But I think they make the lectures themselves much more effective. I also provide the students with readings, sometimes supplemented with pre-lecture “reading guides”. I put some lecture notes in the “presenter notes” section of my slide files, and then publish collapsed versions of the slides with the notes to provide partial lecture outlines.
Yes, I could do even more class preparation than I already do, creating in addition a lecture outline / notes document to handout (or post after class). But I don’t want to do that instead of my more kinetic, dramatic, and complementary visual presentations. I think the loss in cognitively active learning in the lecture would be a much greater loss. So, I put the priority on trying to give effective lectures, rather than bad lectures accompanied by slide outlines to review after class.
And finally, I really do believe that students learn better if they take some lecture notes, take notes on the readings, and then after class, use those (and the slides, such as they are, and the audio or video recordings of lecture that I usually make available for my large lecture classes) to make one’s own annotated outline. The activities of reviewing, distilling, organizing and summarizing are precisely the sort of learning activities we know are most effective.
I don’t mean to claim that I have any special genius at lecturing in large classes, or that my way is necessarily best. I think (and my course evaluation scores over the years support this) that I am a better than average classroom teacher, but that there is substantial room for improvement. That’s why I keep reading the research on teaching, and keep working to improve my pedagogical methods over time. I’ve put a lot of hours into analyzing, critiquing, and ultimately completely changing my visual presentation aids the past two years, and I’ll keep putting time into improving my lecture skills.

Time to write

Over the years, I have frequently seen advice from professional writers that to get writing done, it is best to:

  • set aside some time to write every day, and
  • force yourself to write something during that time.

One recent example was advice my colleague Yan Chen shared from a workshop she attended given by Jayne London, an “academic coach” who advises faculty members on writing. London advised that “Writing in short, regular sessions, e.g., 30-60 minutes every work day,leads to higher productivity than binge writing. Even ten minute sessions are better than binge writing.”
Another academic coach, Mary McKinney, recommends:

The Tolerable Ten
If you’ve been putting something off, it helps to start small. Begin working for just ten minutes on the daunting tasks of your life.
Almost any task, no matter how unpleasant, or anxiety provoking, can be tolerated for a short amount of time.
When you are having difficulty sitting down to work, set yourself the small but significant goal of working for just ten minutes on the project. After you’ve fulfilled that promise to yourself, you are free to either continue working or to stop.

For more of Mary’s thoughts, see “Overcoming Procrastination”.
Yet another coach, who focuses on advising college students, is Cal Newport, who writes the “Study Hacks” blog. In a 15 October 2007 article, he extracted writing advice from interviews (by others) of ten successful non-fiction writers.

  • 9 out of 10 write in the morning, 4 in the afternoon, 3 at night. Only one reported writing all three times.
  • Most set a specific starting time, and for most it is 8.30 am or earlier.