March of the Overheads

I’m not sure why, but overhead projectors are popping up all over campus lately. Remember them? They are those awkward-looking, squat boxes with the uplifted arm that could either be throwing a baseball or firing a laser beam à la Doctor Who. I think the evil machines in that TV series were called Daleks.


I am not suggesting that overhead projectors are evil. I know they are still used in the biological sciences for slides of tissues and other samples. In fact, I find them nostalgic. I remember many nights not that long ago treating students to transparencies, those sheets of plastic onto which I had photocopied something important by way of illustration. It was usually creative and could include anything from Carl Jung’s analysis of Job to the revised Tridentine liturgy.

However, the fact that they are ubiquitous points to something else.  I am not indicting my university at all, since it is well connected and savvy when it comes to information technology, the cloud, and hybrid forms of teaching. What the overhead represents has less to do with technology and more with our attitude toward change.


Most people claim to be open to technology. After all, we use it all the time. How many of us have smart phones and live our lives through mobile technology? Individually, most of us get the “Internet of Things,” or the interconnectivity among electronics, software, sensors, etc. It’s hard to ignore. My mother, who two months ago didn’t have an email account, is now posting vlogs on YouTube!

The sticking point is on the collective level. We seem perfectly fine with patchwork solutions in the workplace. I was at a company this week whose employees were processing retail transactions on hardware with outdated processors. Meanwhile, more than a few sported Apple watches. On a systemic level, we are much slower to change. This may be for the obvious reason that it takes longer to move an organization than an individual, but I think there is a sociological form of resistance hiding behind that rationale.

At issue is not just change but what it represents. If it were merely a matter of upgrading software or buying new hardware, there would be no problem. But change represents not just how we get and share information. It also involves a new way of thinking about, for instance, customers, students, our families, and ourselves.

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When someone says, “We’ve never done it that way before,” they’re not talking about the apparent reason (e.g., offering customers an email receipt for a purchase instead of paper). What they mean is that such a change will require a new way of thinking about how they relate to customers and the nature of the business. Ultimately, it’s about themselves.

Companies, universities included, remain in older patterns of thinking because those patterns are known. The unknown creates anxiety, even fear. They then construct reasons to remain in the old thinking and call it by many names: tradition, established management theory, proven research.

But what companies are really doing is confusing the means with the end. If the end, as with Starbuck’s, is to provide a cup of coffee to everyone in the world, there are many ways to get there. Some may be more efficient than others, but none is sacrosanct and all must be evaluated against the organization’s mission.

In the end, if we limit ourselves to showing images on an overhead, eventually the only images we will be able to see will come from transparencies. And the culture we create–both organizational and social–will be two dimensional. In that case, it’s the destination, not the journey, that matters.

For the Daleks photo, go to Dalek. Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Check out Laura Fedora and The Gringo. Note to self: never trust anyone who uses the phrase “cautiously optimistic.” 


  1. Your story makes me cringe, Vic. How embarrassing. This is what happens when depts are more concerned with creating mini-me’s than helping budding professors develop into authentic intellectuals. I’ve seen it over and over again. Not to mention the conformity in “critical” thinking…Thanks for the post. I, too, enjoy your blogs.

  2. This reminds me of a candidate for faculty that gave her presentation at the college where I was teaching.

    Astoundingly (to me anyway), she asked for an overhead projector, placed transparencies of entire pages from her thesis on it (in eye-chart challenging typeface), and then proceeded to stand right in front of the machine, thereby blocking the image with her body. If it had no other use, the projector told us what we needed to know about her teaching fundamentals.

    I’ve spent many years working in both industry and academics, and by far the most resistant to technological change is the academy. There’s no big secret for why this is — technology offers collaboration, expansion beyond campus borders, and real opportunities to lower costs while we leverage the best faculty, methods, etc.

    Tenured faculty members denigrating talented adjuncts as “performance artists” is small potatoes — their real fear is that transparent comparisons to best in class will expose their true levels of performance and threaten their job security. Hence, the need to slow down the march of progress.

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