Do your worst (presentation)

Check out the ridiculously awful graph below. Bravo, Helena, it offends all kinds of sensibilities:

This sort of thing gets filtered out of conference posters and talks, but it would have been right at home in a presentation I made freshman year. Actually, I wish I’d thought of it back then because the assignment was to make the Worst Presentation Ever. And then never do it again. ‘Go nuts now with animation and colors and get it out of your system early’, the prof would say, making an apt metaphor for college at the same time.

To keep us focused on the visual rather than content side, we had 5 minutes to present on “where we saw ourselves in ten years”. And boy did I have visions. Not so much for my future self – my predictions were limited to things like “graduated” and “alive” – but I had visions of pain for my soon-to-be audience of classmates.

Drawing upon years of running a terrible website through GeoCities, I had vast collections of ridiculous images and GIFs. Oh, the GIFs! Not like the awesome nature GIFs of today, but more like grainy, neon, seizure-inducing background GIFs. I threw in everything I could think of: Those backgrounds, every “intro” animation Powerpoint offered, a duck that chococat_duck_yellowslowly floated across the screen in the background, a fake “conclusions” slide three slides in, thirty acknowledgements, a sound bite from Monty Python (that didn’t work)…Basically, I had a lot of fun with the project.

Making such a ridiculous presentation paid off in several ways. For one, it was my first ever PowerPoint presentation, where I learned how fast I can talk (wicked fast, it turns out). Another student demonstrated the importance of contrast when he used black text on a dark blue background. Most importantly was that, over the next four years, nobody made an awful presentation with anywhere near the level of atrocities that mine had unleashed. To a lesser extent, the project also forced us to explore the nooks and crannies of PowerPoint, which for better or worse is the universal science conference platform. We had to build on the default backgrounds, templates, colors and organization styles to make it our own. We learned it takes a lot of time and effort to make a presentation look great (or terrible), and even more time to make it sound great. And by the end of the project we were able to see – rather than just being told – how unnecessary and distracting were the whiz-bang extras of PowerPoint.

The presentation was one of several projects in the course, where we also read and discussed chapters from John McPhee’s The Control of Nature, collected volcanic ash to look for zircons, and did a couple other things I’ve forgotten. Mainly though, the course gave the freshmen geology majors (all six of us) a chance to interact with one another and the prof on a semi-formal basis. I hope other colleges offer similar courses to students, and would almost rank it with other “dream courses” if it wasn’t already offered.

Course description, from here:
GSCI 191: Intro to Geology at Geneseo
An introductory course for first year students who are considering a career in the Geological Sciences. Weekly meetings will focus on career opportunities, pertinent academic information, campus and department resources, and study skills and time utilization. This course also intends to promote a close working relationship between students and faculty. Cannot be counted toward the Geological Sciences major. Graded on an S/U basis. Credits: 1

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