Pecha-kuchas in the writing (and maybe literature) classroom

This fall, in the midst of an ordinary writing-classroom presentation assignment, I gave my students the option of giving pecha-kucha presentations. The presentations were so successful that in my Spring courses, I asked all students to do p-k, and the results were again so excellent, even from some of my weakest students, that I expect I’ll be trying to incorporate a p-k assignment into most of my syllabi in the future.

My p-k assignment was inspired by a Profhacker post by Jason B. Jones, a blog post by Mark Sample, and an example p-k by Daniel Pink, The basic idea of a pecha-kucha is simple. Students make a Powerpoint made up of 20 image-heavy slides that display for 20 seconds each. As the slides display for 6 minutes and 40 seconds, the students make an argument that relates clearly to the visual content of the slides throughout.

If students follow them faithfully, the constraints of p-k solve some common problems I’ve encountered with student presentations:

  • Presentations that are too short that undercut assignment requirements and have too little content
  • Presentations that ramble on far too long, take up too much class time, bore students (and the instructor), and simply rehash an argument over and over
  • Powerpoint slides or videos disconnected from the content of a student’s oral presentation
  • Flashy, empty presentations full of Powerpoint transitions or Prezi whiz-bang zooming animation
  • A series of repetitive images all collected on a single slide
  • Students staring at the screen and reading off it instead of engaging the class
  • Repetitive introductions featuring stock questions (“Have you ever thought about the dangers of smoking?”)
  • Long, boring lists of bullet points (irony noted) that simply repeat visually what a student is saying verbally
  • Students getting bogged down in detail and missing the core components of an argument (which, in my writing classes, is the entire point of the course).

Now, Sample has noted that the 20 x 20 format of a p-k presentation does not ensure that students actually use their slides wisely. (He imposes the additional constraint of the 1/1/5 rule–students must have at least one image per slide, each individual image may be used only once, and each slide can contain 5 words maximum). I haven’t yet felt the need to impose such rules, though, because my students embraced the image-heavy, word-light, argument-heavy spirit of p-k so immediately.

In the Fall, my students produced excellent presentations in my course, themed “Giving and Taking Offense.” Topics included the question of when it’s “too soon” to joke about a tragedy, with special reference to 9/11; a comparison of controversial representations of Mohammad by South Park and Danish cartoonists; and the perceived offensiveness of Greek Life on University campuses. A few of these presentations truly represented the best student work I’ve seen as a teacher, and I was sad that I didn’t have a digital copy of them to show students in the future.  And one of my colleagues noted that it’s hard to find solid examples of student p-ks on the web.

So this semester, I gave students the option of recording their p-ks and giving me permission to post them for a small amount of extra credit, and many obliged. One student recorded a p-k from the fall, on the choices companies face when taking on controversial topics with potential to offend in their advertising:

Most of my students, however, recorded their p-ks from this semester, in which my course theme was “College Culture.” Students took on a wide range of topics, and they again produced a strong batch of presentations, covering topics from University admissions practices, to the dual life of a student athlete, to the consequences of UVA students’ obsession with Thomas Jefferson. One student considered the problem of how art students can learn to depart from the styles of their instructors:

The p-k assignment also encouraged some students to experiment a bit. I appreciated, for example, the way this student took a playful approach that still made a clear argument by arguing for a restaurant as a microcosm of UVA life:

I’m consistently impressed with how well suited pecha-kucha can be to a wide variety of topics, including many which don’t initially seem to lend themselves to visuals. Students find inventive ways to use the visuals to illustrate, exemplify, and amplify their points.

Other presentations for which students supplied recordings addressed the drinking age, the problems of UVA’s honor system and its “single sanction.” Several student presentations addressed hazing and Greek Life, including this one. Students also talked about accuracy of admissions visits, the traditions of “streaking the lawn” and “guys in ties, girls in pearls” at football games. One student’s skeptical assessment of UVA’s Thomas-Jefferson obsession found its answer in another student’s praise of the continuing Jeffersonian legacy, and another student argued that UVA should do more to memorialize the contributions of enslaved people in the University’s past. While not every presentation is mind-blowing all of them are, in their own way, successful.

I’ve been trying to figure out why the student work that emerges from these presentations strikes me as so good. Some part of it may be that the time constraint means students must spend a fair bit of time prepping their presentations, or that the risk of public embarrassment encourages them to excel. As much of the credit, however, is due to the pecha-kucha format, which helps students who think visually express their points visually, segments an argument into 20 straightforward chunks (and thereby encourages clear claims and evidence), and gets students excited about sharing their arguments with classmates. Whatever the reason for my students’ success with these presentations, the success has been widespread enough that I’m hoping to have students do these presentations in semesters ahead.

I haven’t tried it yet, but I also hope to explore how p-k could work in the literature classroom. I suspect, for example, that using pecha-kucha could help students make energetic but thoughtful close-readings of poetry. I think pecha-kucha would be a great way to have students introduce new authors and new concepts at the beginning of class (after I do the same a few times to give them a clear sense of how it works). Translating P-K to the literature classroom might well be a failed experiment, but if my student’s experience with p-k this year is any indication, I doubt it.

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