Death By Powerpoint

| June 7, 2010

Today in my summer session geography class, a disaster the size of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico struck our basement classroom-THE PROJECTOR WASN’T WORKING. Paralysis and panic seized the instructor, who had no training on how to teach a class without a PowerPoint presentation (or on how to write on a whiteboard). She called ASU’s tech support who promised to send someone to the classroom right away to help mitigate this epic emergency. While waiting for the cavalry to come and rescue the class from our PowerPoint deprivation, the instructor rambled incoherently on topics ranging from the World Cup to why she likes Al Gore so much. Finally tech support arrived and immediately  pushed one button on the projector which fixed the problem. Tech support than returned to their dungeon fortress to continue playing World of Warcraft and Farmville. The day was saved and learning occurred.

This was a pretty common occurrence during my first semester at ASU. Instructors and professors have become so reliant on PowerPoint to teach a class that when it doesn’t work (which is frequent) they don’t know what to do. I had at least five classes canceled throughout the semester because a projector or computer wasn’t working. My girlfriend told me that it was common when she was at University of Arizona that students would intentionally break the projectors in the hopes that class would be canceled. The problem of over-reliance on PowerPoint presentations is not just confined to academia unfortunately. As many of you know, PowerPoint has infected the US military to the point where almost nothing is done without it. In fact a couple of months ago the New York Times ran article that implied that the overuse of PowerPoint was hindering military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and forced officers to spend hours creating intricate presentations instead of devoting time to actual operational tasks. Some choice quotes from the article:

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.)

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Last year when a military Web site, Company Command, asked an Army platoon leader in Iraq, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, how he spent most of his time, he responded, “Making PowerPoint slides.” When pressed, he said he was serious.

Some of you might find the assertion that PowerPoint is hindering our ability to fight the war on terror absurd, while others probably agree with it one hundred percent. To be honest, had I not experienced the “PowerPoint Uber Alles” culture both in and outside the military first hand, I would have found it ridiculous to blame problems with a war on a computer program. Unfortunately, there is a lot of truth to the statement that “Powerpoint makes us stupid.”

Let me give you an example of “Death by PowerPoint” from my own personal experience (and if you have any good “Death by PowerPoint” Stories, please share them in the comments sections). When I was in Iraq my platoon was tasked to do a joint mission with the Iraqi Army. It was pretty straightfoward: we were supposed to do a two-day mounted patrol in an area of remote desert where there was an oil pipeline and unimproved roads where smugglers were known to be operating. It wasn’t a complicated mission with a lot of moving parts, but there still was a lot of planning that needed to be done. Checkpoints, rally points, and link up points needed to be chosen, the CASEVAC plan established, rehearsals scheduled, etc., etc. My platoon commander got it into his head that he had to make the greatest PowerPoint ever in order to give his patrol order. He literally spent hours making little 7-ton and gun truck icons and animating them, time that instead should been used to plan the patrol. When he gave the actual order to the key leaders, it had a lot of cool clip art and animations, but was missing a lot of important stuff including the CASEVAC plan and what we would do if we had a down vehicle in the middle of the desert. When he had to give the order to the rest of the platoon, the projector broke. He was so upset by this that he literally tried to have the mission canceled because he couldn’t give the order via PowerPoint. Whats worse is he spent six months at The Basic School, three months at Infantry Officers Course, and the entire workup giving orders the old fashion way (with a map and terrain model) without PowerPoint. Yet, he became so dependent on the program that when he couldn’t use it, he felt he couldn’t accomplish the mission.

Fortunately, Allah blessed our AO with a three-day dust storm which scrubbed the mission. But still it was extremely disturbing to me how not only my platoon commander but other officers in the battalion had become dependent on PowerPoint to conduct day-to-day operations in country. While its certainly not the biggest problem facing US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is certainly becoming a distraction for many unit leaders who should be worrying about more pressing matters than what clip art they should use in a particular slide.

Category: Military issues, Pointless blather

Comments (20)

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  1. Scott says:

    A friend of mine got recalled by the Corps to do a year on CAT teams. Early in the workups, they had a couple of boot goldbars trying to give a PP presentation on something innocuous. They had the usual laptop-hooked-to-projector setup, and, as seems to be SOP for PP presentations, it wasn’t working. They spent about 10 minutes in front of a room full of NCOs fumbling with the gear, plugging and unplugging in vain. Finally my friend (a Sgt.) piped up, “Excuse me Sir, I think I can help with that.” He walked up from the back, picked up a dry erase marker from the white board, set it on the table between them and walked back to his seat.

  2. Scott says:

    And of course, who could forget:

    “Powerpoint makes us stupid.”
    -General James Mattis

  3. Virtual Insanity says:

    As an Observer/controller, I used to (and have former acolytes that still do) turn off the technology and announce a failure, to see what they did next. They do this now with the Battle Command Systems, too…can you execute your plan with a map and a radio?

    Interesting thing is, when well-trained guys understand the intent they do pretty well under those conditions. If poor leadership is relying overmuch on technology to shore up their shortcomings, the wheels come off in a dramatic fashion.

    In the early days it was printing every order, then evolved to Harvard Graphics and now PowerPoint.

    I suppose they ran into the same problems when they developed grease markers and acetate.

  4. 2549 says:

    The Navy conducts hara kiri via power point. They’ve got it down to a science. Our Chief would slip in random soft porn photos or snap shots of crew members in compromising positions between innocuous slides on seawater flooding casualties. Followed quickly with him apologizing profusely, not knowing how that happened and vowing to never let that happen again.

    The best college professor I had hand wrote the lecture notes on a steno pad. A camera was above his desk and he’d focus it directly on the steno pad. He’d flip a page to sketch a curve or cartoon to describe what he was talking about then flip back. I took the class online and the video was edited between the overhead camera and the one facing him proper. The impromptu fashion made it enjoyable to actually follow along.

    Other professors would make a video of the power point with them doing a voiceover talking about the material. Even then, the lecture was contemporaneous and flowed.

    Point is Power Point sucks. Regardless, there are those that can pull it off well. And there are those that can’t.

  5. Gary says:

    The truly sad part is that many publishers make the power point slide show and give it to the professor.

  6. Junior AG says:

    The powr poynt goes on the skreen and owr braaiinwaves flaTTline…. Is enywun in the Penta-gone cawmprhending thisss???

  7. JustPlainJason says:

    What ever happened to k.i.s.s.? Power point is good to a point, but when the class, presentation, or whatever becomes less important than the power point something is wrong. It was pretty nice I don’t remember ever seeing a power point in Iraq. Powerpoint can
    be a usefull tool, but it is overused. Like the old saying, “when you have a hammer everything starts looking like a nail.

  8. J.M. says:

    I am currently a student at a Army senior leadership course (the old ANCOC). My class was recently assigned to prepare and brief an IPB on a Afghani town. As an experiment, my group teamed up with another group and we both briefed the same information. The group with the cheesy slides got superior, and the group that didn’t barely got a satisfactory.

  9. Missiletech says:

    Three months ago I had to train a national gaurd unit on the use of a somewhat new system. I usually do 5-10 small hands on courses but was told by the units command to do one large PowerPoint presentation instead. I hate PowerPoint and mostly whiped the PowerPoint training I got from my mind immediatly so it took me about 14 hours to put together the one hour class. Today I returned to check on the unit and found that everyone has spent three months hammering the square peg into the round hole. Luckily there was a command change and they no longr beleive in PP but my 3 day trip just turned into a month long training/repair session.

  10. Zedechek says:

    What kind of hack ass teacher relies solely on powerpoint? Powerpoint is supposed to supplement lecture and class notes, not revolve around it.

    One of my last classes this year was an Anthropology of cultures class. Could have been a really interesting class, but instead was riddled with useless readings (an entire book about the sex habits of Travesti prosititutes in Brazil), and my teacher constantly discussing her life and research (and continually using the term “like” in every sentence like a common sororstitute slam pig). Needless to say she relied heavily on powerpoint to the point where she would just read the slide and move on. Then, she would post that days slides to blackboard later that night. There was really no point in attending class.

  11. Jerry920 says:

    Am I too old, or have just spent too much time in line companies? Whatever happened to the 5 paragraph operations order and hip-pocket training?

  12. Jacobite says:

    Thank you Jerry, glad someone brought that up, I was begining to feel, well, old……

  13. Just A Grunt says:

    Yeah, Yeah. Y’all might be impressed with PowerPoint but how many of you ever had to put presentations together using Harvard Graphics?

  14. Spade says:

    I once spent two hours trying to fix a bullet type (a “-” to another “-“. Not just any kind of – but a slighty longer kind of – then the one here but that I couldn’t just copy/paste for some reason) and it’s location (which didn’t want to move right).

    I did this because I was told to.

  15. PB says:

    I have been on a campaign to rid the world of powerpoint ever since I had a sales rep demand a presentation for a five minute meeting. It would have taken longer to set up the projector.

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