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The Tyranny Of The Overhead

Tomorrow's Research

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In the interesting article below, the author argues that when we

substitute overhead summaries for the reading of papers, something

important is lost in the process and that "we risk promoting only

ideas that can be reduced to the soundbite, the executive summary,

the thirty-second commercial, or the bulleted list on the overhead."

The article is from the April 2000, Teachers College, Columbia

University on-line publication, - The Voice of

Scholarship in Education. It can be found at

[]. Copyright 2000 Teachers College, Columbia

University. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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By: Nadine Dolby


In this commentary, I examine and critique the dominance of

conference presentations that rely on the use of an overhead

projector, instead of reading papers. While useful in certain

situations, overhead projectors compel presenters to reduce often

complex, rich ideas to summaries, bullet points, and the academic

equivalent of soundbites. While overhead projectors are adequate for

presenting research that is structured around traditional social

science practices (hypotheses, data, method, results), their overuse

at a conference that I attended marginalized critical discourse that

depends on engagement with language and ideas. In conclusion, I

suggest that the education profession needs to explore ways to

preserve the importance of the word at a time that it is under

growing threat.

At the end of last year, I presented a paper at an academic

conference held in a major, urban convention venue. In addition to

presenting my paper I attended a number of other sessions and as time

went on, I began to notice something strange about the set-up

provided for the presenters. Normally, one would expect that each

presentation room would have a table in the front for presenters,

often a podium, and an overhead projector off to the side. These

rooms were different. The presenters were provided with no table at

which to sit, no podium on which to rest a paper, no place to set a

glass of water. Instead, starkly placed in the center of the room,

sat an overhead projector and a screen.

Perhaps there were logistical, practical reasons for this choice

related to the general conference structure. In the majority of the

sessions, each presenter was allocated 30 minutes, which included the

question-answer period. No chair introduced the papers, and no

discussant attempted to pull together the threads of disparate talks.

Yet, even this fairly unusual structure does not explain why there

was no (even single) table provided for the presenter, or a podium.

The tyranny of the overhead was complete-it was the only amenity


In and of themselves of course, overhead projectors are rather

innocent and often useful teaching and presentation tools. Yet in the

context of an academic conference, overheads take on a wholly

different meaning. By their nature presentations structured around

overheads must lean towards summaries, bullet points, graphs, charts,

key ideas, and other such truncated written, visual, and verbal

expression. Presentations that are driven by the overhead are

designed to summarize hypotheses, data sets, collection methods,

results, findings and conclusions. What is lost in this paradigm is

the word, the phrase, the sentence: in short, language. When we

substitute overhead summaries for reading papers, something is lost.

The reading and writing of papers in the academy is not a frivolous

by the way exercise--it is not simply a way of communicating

information, of passing on facts from me to you. The act of writing

is in and of itself the creation of ideas, the creation of language.

The power of our ideas is never separate from the way we express

them: how we use language to produce new worlds, even as we recognize

that our language itself is a product of where and how we are


Luckily for me, I had overheads in my bag (what if I hadn't? what to

do with the overhead projector!). The paper that I presented at this

conference included quotes from student interviews and essays, and I

always find that it is helpful for the audience to see not just hear,

those quotes. Yet for a while now I have tried to resist the

temptation to structure my presentation around those very quotes--to

let the quotes drive my talk while the sentences I have carefully

crafted lay idle. I have found this method unsatisfying, feeling that

I lost the essence of my paper. So I tried to read the short paper I

had written (holding it awkwardly) and used the overhead only to

display the quotes. Time ran short though and eventually I resorted

to the summary method: running through the quotes and again

abandoning my paper.

All conferences are not like the one I just attended. For example, at

the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association,

alternative formats are encouraged--though there are few that allow

for a complete reading of an author's paper. Additionally we all know

that listening to papers being read can be excruciatingly dull--many

of us are poor readers and it can also be difficult to follow the

thread of a paper while it is being read. The challenge is not to

abandon the paper but to find ways to make it possible for an

audience to listen and engage with an author's ideas in a way that

retains and prioritizes the importance of language. I think one would

be hard-pressed to find an overhead projector at a Modern Languages

Association conference (or any of the humanities), and there is good

reason for that. Rich, complex ideas cannot be boiled down to bullet

points on an overhead--they are dependent on the selection and use of

language. If we in education abandon the paper (and we have already

in many ways--most presentation slots at education conferences are

too short to read a paper) we risk promoting only ideas that can be

reduced to the soundbite, the executive summary, the thirty-second

commercial, or the bulleted list on the overhead. Through doing so we

marginalize critical discourse that depends on the careful,

deliberate construction of an argument through language. The content

of an overhead-dependent presentation is dictated by the form--thus

particular ways of knowing and communicating are privileged while

others are dismissed.

Toni Morrison (1997) in her essay, "Home" writes about her long

struggle with the last word of Beloved. She finally listens to her

editor's suggestion and changes the word, but is forever unhappy with

that decision. While educational researchers are not, on the whole,

Nobel Prize winning authors, how we choose to convey our ideas has

meaning and impact. Toni Morrison's sustained reflection and

engagement with one word should make us think about the importance of

these choices, and the need to nurture and foster conference spaces

where the word receives the attention and scrutiny that it deserves.

Works Cited

Morrison, T. (1998). "Home." In W. Lubiano (Ed.), The House That Race

Built (pp. 3-12). New York: Vintage Books.