Thoughts with Richard Bleil
The last class I had in my senior year of high school was literature. The teacher was very sweet, and I was taking Trigonometry and Analytical Geometry, math classes with a lot of long and complex mathematical proofs. The classroom had two very long chalkboards next to each other. Because my teacher was so kind, she let me use the chalkboards after class (as long as I erased them before leaving) to do my homework. Like any math or science class, the homework sets always started with straightforward and relatively simple problems, and became increasingly complex and challenging. Towards the end of these sets, I would fill both chalkboards with steps and mathematical manipulations, and as I finally got to the end and knew that it was correct, I would write them down on the paper.
This was how I learned to love chalkboards. I still do. Early in my teaching career, while chalkboards and overhead projectors were still in fairly common use, I was even fortunate enough to teach in a lecture hall with four large chalkboards, two side by side, and each with an interchangeable chalkboard on top.
Eventually, chalkboards yielded to whiteboards. The whiteboards had the advantage of multiple colors (including very poor choices in color such as yellow, which such little contrast from the white of the board that nobody could see if you used them). Unfortunately, the whiteboard markers went dry too quickly (especially if you follow a professor that doesn’t know to keep the damned cap on it when not writing with it, even between sentences), and the whiteboards didn’t erase well leaving ghost marks from previous classes. The overhead projectors gave way to devices that, if I’m recalling correctly, were called “Elmo” that basically had a camera on top of a base that could be lighted to project through a computer onto a screen. Whiteboards eventually were replaced with “Smart Whiteboards”. Today, when I teach, I use a tablet and project the page on a YouTube online video for my students.
At the police department where I was a dean, the detectives used whiteboards for their more complex cases. They would write down the evidence they had, what they still needed to secure the case, who the people involved were and who still needed to be interviewed and so forth. They “saved” their work by removing these whiteboards from the hooks from which they were hung so they could switch out with a whiteboard for the next case. The hooks were hung over a SmartBoard which these brilliant detectives were afraid of. For those who don’t know, the SmartBoard worked just like a whiteboard, with electronic markers that never go dry, and the board could be saved to the computer in the room. This means you could also bring up the old boards at will when you’re ready to revisit a case. And yet, these most intelligent officers in the department were afraid to learn how to use it, and hung stubbornly onto their old-fashioned whiteboards that were more work and easily wiped out if somebody carelessly brushed against them.
As dean, we had a math professor who had to give up her regular classroom because of asbestos. The dean of Liberal Arts kindly made available to her a classroom, and she wanted to look at it. So, the other dean and I watched as she walking into the room, and excitedly exclaimed that it would be great, provided we replaced the white boards with chalk boards, and put up four more chalk boards on the side wall, and two more in the back of the room to accommodate her teaching style.
Never have I walked into a classroom and demanded changes in order to do my job. I would look at the layout and resources available, and adopted. Never have I refused to learn the technology available to do my job, either. And, frankly, I don’t understand this mindset.
But it’s common. At the university where I taught, the administration was trying to move to requiring students to lease computers. They way they did it was underhanded, by telling students that they could opt out of the lease program if it was okay with the faculty, then they forced the faculty to include a paragraph requiring the specific laptops they had to lease. Making the faculty look like the “bad guys” while the administrators could throw up their hands and say, “hey, it’s the faculty, not us” was pretty much one of the sleeziest acts I’d ever seen. Anyway, with five biology faculty, and me being the only chemistry professor, I was the only one that migrated as the administration requested. While I had plans to work with students who did not have tablets (a plan that could never be done since because of the underhanded method to be sure all students had laptops), I alone wrote lab manuals that students could download to their tablets (but not print). I alone created a lab manual and lab report form so students didn’t need paper. I alone created an online procedure for submitting their work. And, frankly, it wasn’t so difficult (yes, quite a bit of work). And, of course, I never was recognized for these efforts.