A matter of utmost urgency

A while back, Shimer was planning to refurbish its classrooms, and they asked the faculty whether they preferred chalkboards or dry-erase boards. I put in an impassioned plea to retain chalkboards, though I was sadly overruled in the end.

In my view, chalkboards are the more robust technology, precisely because of their simplicity. Indeed, it is unclear to me what practical advantage dry-erase boards could possibly have. Markers dry out remarkably quickly, and it’s all too easy to confuse a dry-erase marker with another kind, potentially permanently damaging the board. You need specialty chemicals to clean it, and using water can damage it and make it more difficult to clean in the future.

Obviously chalk boards require maintenance as well, but virtually every dry-erase board I have ever used, other than ones that were literally brand-new, has been in terrible condition. I’ve routinely been in classrooms with no markers or dead ones, whereas I’ve almost never been in a classroom that was completely out of chalk.

I understand the seduction of a new technology, but we as educators have decades of experience with the pitfalls of dry-erase boards. Why do we put up with it? Why don’t we agitate for a return to the old familiar regime of chalkboards, which has served us so well for centuries?

The only explanation I can think of is that businesses prefer dry-erase boards, and universities are imitating corporate fashions. Further, I speculate that businesses initially preferred dry-erase boards precisely because they didn’t have the baggage of academia. So basically, we’re imitating the shitty technology of people who hate us, and we aren’t even doing a good job of it.

14 thoughts on “A matter of utmost urgency

  1. I have a class in the philosophy department where they still have chalkboards and they’re marvelous. Meanwhile in the religion department we are beset on all sides with dry erase boards in the sorry state you describe here. I wholeheartedly agree with you, we definitely need to lobby for a return to chalkboards.

  2. I am so completely on the other side here. Chalkboards make dust that gets into my lungs and makes me feel sneezy and wheezy and ill. And then it gets all over my clothes.

  3. My point was precisely that they are no longer a new technology, hence we should know to reject and revile them. People could be forgiven for trying them out when they were new. Break the chains of Big Marker!

  4. Two comments:

    First—and I must say I am excited to be the one bringing you this news—permanent marker on whiteboard can be removed by … omg wait for it … drawing over it with dry-erase marker, and then erasing. #blessed

    Second, one of the reasons schools have moved to whiteboards is that chalk dust is terrible for electronics, and classrooms are increasingly being outfit with computers and the like. There’s no question that whiteboards are also a fashion, but I think it’s a step too far to elide their adoption with corporatism. They’re more like the granite countertops of the classroom.

  5. You just a less polar solvent than water- IPA, nail polish remover, the aforementioned solvent holding the ink in a dry erase marker.

  6. I took a calculus course from a teacher I hated, but I will give him this. His graphs on the whiteboards were beautifully done and benefited from the contrast of different colors, which were much more vivid than would be possible with chalk.

  7. I despise chalkboards. It makes my fingers feel dusty, and I hate the gritty texture of both writing and erasing.

    All the problems with whiteboards you point out could be substantially amplified and I would still choose whiteboards in a heartbeat.

  8. I used to share your opinion, and I was sad I started teaching in whiteboard rooms. But I am now a total convert: writing on whiteboards is easier and clearer, it is cleaner, it is quieter, and I like being able to use multiple, bright colors easily. In all, it is a considerably better experience for everyone. (Also, I am excited to learn the trick about removing permanent marker.)

  9. A dirty board, whether dry erase or chalk, is a sign of active teaching, engagement with learning through displaying, a palimpsest reminding us of the historical acts teaching comprises. A clean board is a boring board, a board showing no life of the mind left over, nothing worth materially representing or remembering, only that clean slate onto which the latest tidbit will be written, seen, and forgotten as soon as it encapsulates as one filled oval an optical scanning computer records as correct regardless whatever prompted the student’s darkening the page.

    Fill up the board. Think through the board. Leave the board as messy as your desk, as your world, your mind. If classrooms are so clean, how will our dirty and gathering, hoarding minds ever feel at home, at work, at the task of hard thinking in their presence?

    Maybe it’s a math department thing?

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