By Emily Harris
The blackboards of William Smith Hall have graced classrooms with their presence since before any current Washington College students were born. A project to replace the blackboards with whiteboards was planned over the summer, yet it sparked controversy when it was recently put into action.
When asked how the decision was made, Provost and Dean Emily Chamlee-Wright said, “The humanities division chair solicited feedback from the faculty within that division.”
Since all three divisions including humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences share the classrooms in Smith, each division is usually consulted, and potential changes and improvements to classrooms are suggested. Other examples of improvements that could be made through this process are purchasing new chairs or other equipment for classrooms that do not fall within the needs of a specific department or division.
Members of the faculty outside of the humanities division voiced their concerns about the project and asked that it be delayed. “The request [to replace the blackboards] was approved, but without consultation with faculty from the other two divisions. It was an honest oversight, I think,” said Associate Professor of Economics Dr. Andrew Helms. “Mr. Raudenbush and Dean Chamlee-Wright kindly agreed to postpone the removal of the other Smith classrooms’ blackboards until the decision could be reevaluated.”
While suggestions were solicited from all three of the divisions, the decision to introduce whiteboards throughout Smith was not a campus-wide consensus. Now that the issue has been reopened, members of the faculty and campus community have the opportunity to discuss.
“I think as a faculty we just in general agreed it was an honest mistake, and outside of Smith 222 none of the other chalkboards were actually ripped out,” said Chair of the Economics Department Dr. Brian Scott. “So it wasn’t that big of a deal after we all kind of understood what was going on.”
“Recognizing the lack of consensus on this change, I have decided to keep the blackboards in Smith. Given concerns from faculty in the social sciences, no other blackboards will be removed,” said Chamlee-Wright.
The objections to whiteboards range from personal preference to potential environmental concerns. “Your hands get a little inky which can of course wash off, but in general I don’t like the smell,” said Dr. Scott. He also feels that chalkboards are more appropriate for the aesthetic of the building. “You have this nice heavy wood work, it just feels like I should have chalkboards.”
“My personal preferences and pedagogical practices strongly favor chalk-work,” said Dr. Helms. “It’s the perfect medium for a heavily graphical discipline like economics.”
Associate Professor of History Dr. Clayton Black pointed out that blackboards are somewhat more sustainable than the alternative. “If we’re concerned about environmental causes, a stick of chalk costs a lot less to make, to transport, it dissolves…everything about it is sort of ‘green’ in that sense,” he said.
During the last renovation of Smith Hall in the late 1990s, Dr. Black recalls the preservation of the blackboards being a high priority. He said, “This was this sort of historic relic that even though we’ve changed a lot of the inside of the building, there were going to be some things that remain the same and one of those was the slate chalkboards.”
The faculty may have had an immediate response to the change in Smith 222, but so far most students have not shared their sentiments. When asked by their professors, some preferred the contrast of the whiteboards. “A few students said they like working on whiteboards because it’s easier,” Dr. Scott said. Overall, the reaction from the student body has been minimal.
“I have had no reaction from students,” Dr. Black said. “If you can see what the professor wants you to know, then it’s not a big deal.”
Chamlee-Wright said that there are no further plans to remove chalkboards from any other academic buildings at this time.
Now that the immediate problem has been solved, chalkboard advocates are not opposed to seeing whiteboards in some of Smith Hall’s classrooms. “I would be happy if the third floor of Smith, 336 and 332 [had chalkboards], and it would be great if we could get 222 back as a chalkboard, and then the other classrooms could be whiteboards,” said Dr. Scott. “That’s kind of what I’m pushing for myself personally.”
Dr. Black agreed. “I wouldn’t mind some whiteboards in Smith if that’s what people prefer, but I would like to see some of the chalkboards remain, and I would prefer to teach in classrooms with chalkboards,” he said.
Whether students and faculty prefer blackboards or whiteboards, it is undeniable that the blackboards in Smith have stood the test of time and served the WC community for many years. Dr. Black appreciates their historic value and believes that is why they should be maintained. “I do think that some degree of consistency, especially for a school that prides itself for having these connections with the past, that we don’t just dispense or discard the past without really giving it some proper consideration.”