Monday, September 8, 2008

Sometimes it's good to be the department Luddite...

I have a confession to make. I teach on a chalkboard. With chalk. You know, that white stuff that gets all over your hands and clothes (and fizzes with HCl, though I don't do that in most lectures). I'm gradually building a set of powerpoints, especially for images that I can't draw by hand (photos, maps, cross-sections...). But for the most part, I like chalk.

I like to write student responses on the board during discussion. I like building sketches little by little, explaining things as I go. I like the way chalk forces me to talk more slowly. (One of my students asked me if I grew up Out East. It wasn't my accent - I just talked too fast to be from around here.) Even when I use powerpoint, I find myself drawing on the chalkboard. (Last week I had a beautiful picture that illustrated the places where water is found, and I ended up drawing a lame-looking duplicate on the chalkboard, so I could add labels, and so that I could model Really Bad Drawing for students and show them that they, too, could draw pathetic cartoons in their notes to help them understand and remember the discussion.)

So I was mostly amused when something broke in the campus network today. No faculty could get onto the network. No e-mail, no file servers, no course management pages. Hard drives if the computer was already running. The web, if the computer was already running. But the computers in the classrooms? Nope.

I actually had a powerpoint ready for class, though I intended to spend more time having my intro students compare and contrast some samples. But when I couldn't get onto the network, I just reverted to my old Luddite ways. Chalk, ball-and-stick models of mineral structures, boxes of rocks, and group brainstorming.

I hope the systems comes back, though. I'm having my intro class create their own glossary (because the textbook doesn't have one), and I'm curious whether it has helped them read the book more carefully. (And I'm curious what they say about my new Google Earth exercise, too.)

But if it doesn't come back... well, I've got chalk.

(And someday I'm going to learn how to use a sliderule, because some of my older colleagues claim it is a great way to think about orders of magnitude.)


Anonymous said...

Keep the chalk. I cannot tell you how many horrible powerpoint lectures I have sat through. Chalk is great for diagrams and note organization. PPP generally contain way too much information and are extremely difficult to take notes during.

helena.heliotrope said...

Geology is a science of old things.
Chalk is pretty old school.
It seems fitting.
And bad ass.

Powerpoint presentations also appeal to the whole ADD/television mindset, where everything must be fast and easy. Science isn't really like that.

Anonymous said...

I miss the demise of chalk here (Health and Safety probably knowing this country). Dry-wipe markers are just not the same.

I still use chalk in the field where you can highlight things on an exposure knowing that your markings will be gone by the next rainfall.

What I try to do now in structural lectures is use powerpoint as much as I can just for field photos and, with a touch screen notebook, sketch on the slide (much as I'd do with chalk on an exposure).

Lost Geologist said...

I have to admit I always was and am one of the students who rather have a good powerpoint presentation or analog form of class notes given to me. I have a horrible handwriting and my skill at makes sketches I can recognise is disastreous. I would print them all out on my computer (usually they were converted by my profs to PDFs) and take them with me to class. There I would add anything the lecturer spontaneously decided to draw on the blackboard.

Penguindreams said...

If a technology lets me do something good and new, that's fine. If it prevents me from doing things older methods used to permit, though, shame on the new technology.

Like you, something I do in my lectures is make 'live' drawings. It is important to the explanation that the whole thing doesn't appear at once. It isn't entirely impossible to do this with powerpoint; a friend does it. But he spends a lot of time preparing that sequential slide. Far more than drawing it on a board would take. And the animation/sequence itself doesn't come out graphically any better than the board drawing.

Plus, as I ask my students to diagram things on the exams and homeworks, seeing my 'artwork' does much to reassure them about whether they can draw well enough. (My drawing is such that my sister noted that when playing Pictionary, my 'bride' and 'rhinoceros' looked pretty much the same. They did. But the drawing sequence had my partner guess the right thing each time.)

I can use a sliderule, and sometimes do. Figure I'm about the youngest in the US who can. (My daughter never took it up.) The magnitudes, it helps some with. In the sense that if you don't track them yourself, you have no idea of the answer. But one can actually do that with calculators too (sometimes I'm stuck with one that doesn't do exponents in a convenient way). What has struck me as uniquely useful on the slide rule is that it gives strong visual support for how 'about' arithmetic works. 1.1113 is 'about' 1.111 (and you'll be hard pressed to get that on a slide rule), so operations involving the latter give about the same answer as ones for the former. Conversely, if you really wanted high precision in the pre-calculator days, you did it by hand. Slide rules were the quick and dirty route, not the precise route.

Elli said...

I end up with a combination of PowerPoint and drawing & writing on the board. Does is take longer to prep? The first time, definitely yes. But there are pictures & diagrams I don't expect the students to be able to draw, so its an easy way to differentiate between what they have to reproduce (anything drawn / written on the chalkboard) and things they just have to be able to see (ppt).

The second reason for PowerPoint is actually a question of continuity: I teach back to back sections of the exact same intro class MWF. The PowerPoint slides make sure that I actually cover approximately the same material with both classes. I'm less likely to skip a diagram / topic if its up on the screen.

I will admit, though, that the projector became temperamental last week, so I just turned around and drew everything on the board. But I had my ppt slides printed out as a handouts page with 6 slides per page in front of me, so it was a direct reminder of what needed to be covered.

Mike Clinch said...

I was the graduate department Luddite in the mid-1980's as well - or only sort of. The college was just becoming computerized, with a network installed, IBM ATs with dual 5 1/4 floppies and a 40 meg hard disk for each professor, and TWO of those machines in a computer lab for the grad students. Everyone went to writing their papers on the computer in Word for DOS. Of course, with 30 grad students and two computers, the line to type the papers was often long, and the grad students quickly came up with the rule "Thou Shalt Not Compose on the Computer". Everyone was writing out their papers longhand on yellow legal pads, and then typing them into the computer.

I was writing my dissertation at the time. I was doing pebble counts, washing the muck off the pebbles, sorting them with wet hands, and reducing the data to percentages with a slide rule, because my wet hands wouldn't short out an expensive calculator. So most of my colleagues thought i was a Luddite already.

Instead of fighting the crowd at the computer, I brought in a typewriter, and a ream or two of corrasable bond typing paper. I could stop in the middle of a sentence, look up a reference, erase and go back, and occasionally even cut and paste with scissors and Elmer's glue.

My first draft was ugly, but readable. As my advisor sent me back a chapter at a time, I marched into the computer lab, and entered the second draft into the computer.

My colleagues asked me why I was finally using a computer. I replied that they wrote out their papers in longhand, and then typed them to be on their first draft. I had done just as much work, and was now on my second.

Only then did they realize they had been had.