An overhead projector in the front window

As I was walking near campus recently, I came across a curious sight: the front window of a home filled with an overhead projector. It was facing inward, not working as an old-fashioned Christmas projector for the yard. I have never seen such a scene.

Why was the projector in the window? My first guess is that the owner is a teacher or educator of some kind. Indeed, it wasn’t too long ago that these devices were used in numerous classrooms at all levels. From my elementary through college years, instructors frequently used them. While they were being phased out while I was in college, some of the older faculty still used them regularly. (Indeed, I recently showed a class a YouTube clip of physicist Geoffrey West making a presentation about cities at the Santa Fe Institute with the help of an overhead projector.) Even early in graduate school, I remember hearing advice that a presenter could have overheads as a backup should a Powerpoint fail to load. But, you would be hard-pressed to find one in a classroom on my campus today (though they and the film projectors only disappeared in the last few years). I have no idea what happened to them.

The overhead projector preceded bulky TVs on the way to the landfill – if you can find people willing to take them – and perhaps they will a return as a retro decorative item…

Moving away from academic journals and toward “Performative Social Science”

Most sociologists aim to publish research in academic journals or books. One sociologist suggests a new venue for sharing research: creating fiction films.

Kip Jones hates PowerPoint presentations. He doesn’t care much for academic journals, either. An American-born sociologist, who teaches in the school of health and social care at Bournemouth University in England, Mr. Jones says that “the shame of research is that you spend a lot of money and the knowledge just disappears — or worse, ends up as an article in a scholarly journal.”

So when he was invited to participate in “The Gay and Pleasant Land” project — an investigation into the lives of older gay men and lesbians living in rural England and Wales — Mr. Jones decided that the best way to present the project’s findings to the public wasn’t by publishing the results or delivering a paper at a scholarly conference, but by making a short fiction film…

That’s what Mr. Jones is counting on. “Most of my own work is around developing a method — what’s known as Performative Social Science. I’ve worked with theater. I’ve worked with dancers,” he said. The idea is to combine serious scholarship and popular culture, using performance-based tools to present research outcomes.

Jones suggests that research is often forgotten and that is why he sought to make a film. This raises some questions:

1. Is a film more “permanent” than a research article or book? Without widespread distribution, I suspect the film is less permanent.

2. Is this really about reaching a bigger audience? Academics sometimes joke about how journal articles might reach a few hundred people in the world who care. A film could reach more people but it would need effective distribution or a number of showings for this to happen. This also requires work and how many academic films are actually able to reach a broad audience?

3. Can a film acceptably convey research results compared to a more data-driven paper? Both data-driven work and films need to tell a story and/or make an argument but they are different venues.

In the end, I don’t think we will have a sudden rush to make such films as opposed to writing more academic work. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more established researchers create films and documentaries to supplement their work. (See Mitchell Duneier’s Sidewalk disc which included a documentary.) Such films could reach a broader and younger audience, i.e., putting it in the Youtube world of today’s college students.

(Another note: can you find many academics who would actually defend the use of Powerpoint? It seems like an odd way to begin the story.)