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Of White Boards and PowerPoints

This semester I have two sections of the same composition course that meet back-to-back in the same room—a room with old white boards that don’t erase very well. The other day I was writing on the board during the second of the two when a student noticed that I was tracing over the still-visible outlines of what I had written for the earlier class, and that it was basically the same thing.

“Why did you bother erasing?” he asked. “Why didn’t you just leave it up there so you don’t have to write it all over again?”

Why, indeed? For that matter, why don’t I just put everything I would typically write on the board into a PowerPoint slide show, as so many of my colleagues have done? Then I’d never have to write it at all.

The answer, I think, is that first of all I like writing on the white board, instead of sitting behind a computer and scrolling through slides. Writing on the board is, if not interactive, at least active, something that gets me up and moving around. I tend to think better when I’m moving around. (I wrote most of this blog post in my head while taking a five-mile walk this afternoon.)

Moreover, even if I’ve written the same stuff on the board two other times that day, in two other classes, as far as the students are concerned I’m writing it just for them (unless they can still see the ghostly remains of last period’s scribbles).

Finally, and most important, I’m not really writing the same stuff. It may be more or less the same, but it’s not exactly the same. Every class period is different, and every group of students is different. I love to let them brainstorm out loud about papers we’re working on while I write down their ideas on the board, and even though two classes may come up with some of the same ideas, they also hit upon different ones. For that matter, I sometimes see things differently, too, from one period to the next, as I’m stimulated by their suggestions.

Trying to capture all that in a PowerPoint presentation would destroy the spontaneity that I believe is a big part of the writing process, especially at the early stages. That’s something I’m definitely attempting to model for them as I write on the board.

I am not, despite what you may have heard, a technophobe. I do use the data projector and pull-down screen pretty regularly to go over readings with students or show them examples of good and bad sentences or whatever. I sometimes even compose on the screen for them, walking them through it, so they can get a better feel for the drafting process. I can do that much more easily (and legibly) via computer than writing by hand. For those reasons and more, I love having a data projector in the room.

But for me, it won’t ever fully replace the white board—especially if we’re able to find the money to actually replace some of our white boards.

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