to be understood that whoever used a classroom's blackboard was
responsible for erasing it at the end of the period so that the next
lecturer did not have to begin with the chore. The rule was seldom written
down or even conveyed orally to new faculty members or teaching assistants.
It was expected that everyone subscribed to the common courtesy that
you left things pretty much as you found them. In the cafeteria chairs
were to be pushed back to the table and in the classroom blackboards
were to be erased as thoroughly as possible, save for the boxed announcements
in the corner, which, also by unstated good sense, were kept to a reasonable
unwritten rules applied to the students and to their sphere of responsibility,
the desks at which they sat. In those wooden pencil days, they were
to leave no pencil sharpenings on the floor, nor any crumpled paper
under the desk. Even the chewing gum wrapper, which was supposed to
be saved to wrap up the used gum, was dropped in the wastebasket (though
the gum sometimes found its way beneath the desk). Other than the inevitable
mud tracked in on a rainy day and the accumulation of chalk dust on
the board and in the tray beneath it, the classroom in the late afternoon
looked about as it did in the early morning.
of the old school entering a classroom today can get a rude awakening.
The blackboard may not have been erased for several periods, each panel
of it bearing the sketchy notes from a different lecture. Especially
after lunch, the wastebaskets are likely to be overflowing with trash,
bulked up by fast food containers brought from the student union and
emptied during class. The floor is likely to be full of half-read student
newspapers and half-empty soft drink containers and spring water bottles,
if they have not been spilled on the floor. When I invite distinguished
guest lecturers to meet with my class, I must ask my teaching assistant
to police the area beforehand.
has been banned from today's classrooms, but eating has not. Indeed,
institutions of higher learning might be said to have encouraged the
practice of students bringing their lunch and snacks to class by the
proliferation of fast-food counters and vending machines located around
campus. (The lack of a vending machine in an academic building can generate
as many complaints as the lack of parking spaces beside it.) No food
and no drink policies in libraries and classrooms are routinely ignored
by the students and not enforced by faculty and staff.
come to view attending a classroom lecture as something akin to watching
a movie or a television show? How can they concentrate on the more subtle
aspects of engineering science while eating a taco, reaching down now
and then to grab the drink sitting on the floor, and sometimes knocking
it over in the process? Can those students who ate in the last class
concentrate on the lecture when they have to worry about kicking over
their neighbor's drink? Can teachers who have not yet eaten concentrate
on the blackboard with the smell of a hamburger or chicken sandwich
wafting past their noses?
with the matter, some students fail to see anything wrong with what
they are doing. After all, they ate in front of the television set throughout
childhood and snacked in classrooms and libraries throughout high school.
Even in college, student organizations and academic departments have
lured them to empty classrooms for lunch- and dinner-time recruiting
meetings with the promise of pizza and soft drinks. (On some days, a
campus drive can seem to have more pizza delivery cars than FedEx trucks
parked before the buildings).
will argue that their busy class schedules do not leave them time to
eat: There is not enough time between classes and, besides, their professors
keep lecturing well beyond the allotted time. These complaints may be
true, for I have found it to be the case that fewer and fewer students
are in their seats at the beginning of class. The students tend to trickle
in two, five, ten, twenty minutes late, often carrying some hot food
and a cold drink. Was it waiting in a so-called fast food line that
contributed at least some to their tardiness?
it all have started with faculty members neglecting to erase the board?
Did the litter of previous lectures give students the impression that
they too can leave a residue of their presence behind? Perhaps returning
good manners and clean floors to the classroom might begin with faculty
members policing the space up front at the end of each lecture. Even
though the chalk dust will be thick by noon, an erased board will at
least suggest a tabula rasa. But will a blackboard example soon be moot,
as more and more professors now carry a laptop computer and a projection
system into the classroom? Perhaps walking into a room with a perfectly
clean blackboard behind a stark white screen will give students even
more of a hint about how they should leave the floor.
Petroski is the A.S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor
of history at Duke University. His latest book is "The Book on
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.