Saturday, January 14, 2006

Tools of the trade

For a bit last summer, I taught a "class" in a theater space, and I missed my usual tools of the trade. I was reminded of an old Tom Lehrer bit where he talks about working a room without a board.

Like Lehrer, I need a board of some sort. I prefer blackboards, but NWU is turning more and more to whiteboards as we install more computer teaching "stations" in classes. Evidently chalk dust causes problems for computers. I also end up pretty much covered with chalk dust so I look the fool in ubiquitous black teaching clothing.

But I still prefer chalk to those stupid whiteboard pens. The ones in my rooms always seem to go dry at bad times, so I've now gotten in the habit of bringing my own pens from my department to my classes. (I've had to liberate chalk from other rooms before, but there aren't enough rooms with whiteboards to make them easy to borrow without a multi-room search.)

Then there's the problem of erasure, or lack of erasure. I feel like Derrida some days; the whole board is a palimpsest of someone else's notes. (I only wish I had Derrida's brains; though since he's dead now that might not actually be such a grand idea.)

I'm also fidgety. With chalk, it doesn't show so much, but with those pens, I'm constantly clicking the tops on and off, on and off, on and off. Or I put the top in my pocket so that I won't fidget with it, or on some table or surface, and then I can't find it and have to walk around holding an open pen. And me walking around with an open pen means that I'll inevitably write on myself by accident. (I also write on myself with chalk, but it's not as obvious because I'm pretty much covered with chalk dust after a typical class.)

The pens also smell, which makes me wonder if I can get high from them. Worth a try, perhaps, on the occasional day when my teaching hits a nadir. (Yeah, you'll be seeing me on the Darwin awards for that one: NWU Prof loses mind to pen sniffing.) And there's the problem that they smell so bad that they'd have to be really potent stuff, because they don't stay near my face long.

The other tool I find absolutely vital is a big dictionary on a rolling stand; we use it a lot. I like rolling the dictionary around so different students get to look up words. I also tend to read definitions while students are taking quizzes or tests, or just doing a writing exercise. (Yes, I know, if I were good at pedagogy, I'd freewrite along with them. I'm not, and I don't.)

I'm undecided about some tools of the trade: I'm uneven in using computers when they're in the class. Sometimes, they're incredibly useful because you can show a whole classful of people how to access a search engine and use it, or put up a short video, or whatever. But when I see someone teach with powerpoint type stuff, I just cringe. Flying Spaghetti Monster preserve me from such teaching. (Okay, I have seen some art type folks use powerpoint well to display pieces of art. Mostly, though, powerpoint doesn't float my boat.)

I've started using an electronic "blackboard" program available here at NWU. It's got a lot more features than I use: quizzes, gradebook, and so forth. I tend to use it in two ways: I have my graduate class post papers, and require all members of the class to read each others' work weekly. (The class is mostly organized as a writing workshop, so this is appropriate and works very well.) I also tend to make some articles or documents available in one section. Unfortunately, students don't look at these when they REALLY should. So maybe I'd be better off giving out handouts in class, or emailing reminders, or something. (Not that students actually look at handouts, either. And then, why waste the trees?)

I've tried with no success at all to facilitate discussion for various classes on the forums section of the program. I know people who've been or claimed to have been quite successful, but I've had absolutely no luck. I read a couple different internet forums on occasion, and I have to admit that they rarely provide good discussions as such. At their best, they provide a good place for specific questions to get specific, even well-thought-out answers. But rarely do different posters really respond to each other; instead, it's more like a bad class discussion, with each person adding a bit without any sense of conversation, listening, or response.

I'd LOVE someone to give me really good help at making those forums more helpful for students!

And there's one new teaching technology I absolutely refuse to use: NWU is exploring a "clicker" option; the idea is that you can instantly give your students a true/false type quiz to make sure they understand what's being said. I just can't get my brain around the idea that anything in literature worth asking can be asked as a true/false question.

I gather, though, that the some administrators think we NEED this new technology badly. Alas, they seem to think this primarily because they want to increase our class sizes, and recognize that reading essays and stuff makes a huge class unwieldy. So their solution is to push us to use true/false clicky quizzes in massive lecture classes rather than ask students to write and actually read and respond to what they write.

Just because a technology's available, doesn't mean we HAVE to embrace it!

What a luddite am I!


  1. Wow, really? I'm desperate for whiteboards in my classroom! I love them!

  2. I've never used a whiteboard, though I believe I have one in at least one of my classrooms this term. But I loooove your account of writing on yourself, figeting, etc.--I do the same damn thing.

  3. smart boards can be kind of fun -- you can write on the computer screen and then electronically color, highlight, move the words around that your students are seeing.

    but I'm more interested in the discussion board aspect since I'm trying to figure out how to facilitate a better discussion for my online class. Other than offering a rubric that encourages more solid contributions (longer, more connections, furthering the questions), I'm not sure how it's going to work.

    The best discussion board in any of my classes was one that worked independently in last semester's comp class. They had a project to do (an online syllabus portfolio) that was 90% done on their own time. That discussion board was lively: they asked each other technical questions, they used it for peer reviews, they eventually really got to know each other. I didn't see any question that they needed me for (I waited on the technical answers figuring someone would answer if I gave him/her a chance).

    ah, yes. I'm thinking about these things too.

  4. Ianqui, I'm getting used to Whiteboards. They're easier than they were at first. Somehow, though, the "ink" seems less subtle?

    LaL, Yep, I tend to run on lots of adrenalin in front of a class. I really dread catching my students mocking/imitating me someday.

    Timna, Your project assignment sounds really interesting. Care to share more info, maybe on your blog (which I read and link to, and others should to) or I'd be happy to have your responses here.