Filling the Chalkboard

Why “Filling the Chalkboard”?

Because the chalkboard is the space between that particular teacher and those particular students. There’s a singularity there that exists in the union of the space and the people that is pedagogy unfolding, and that’s something compelling to me.

Pedagogy Unfolding?
Ok, slow it down a bit. Pedagogy is theory of teaching, or, more colloquially, the way you try to teach. It’s the sort of thing that changes from teacher to teacher, subject to subject, and medium to medium. I have a different set of techniques than do my Philosophy colleagues.  I also have a different set than my third grade teacher.  I have a different set for online (lots more exclamation points!) than for face-to-face teaching (very little shouting, er, exclaiming). It’s about a decision (whether conscious or not) about the best way to get your students to learn what you’re trying to teach them.

The difference between pedagogy and pedagogy unfolding is that the latter is in the midst of the process of teaching. Pedagogical decisions are often made before class starts, at the level of planning a course and writing lectures and considering and building exercises for your students. And all this is necessary and important. But there is another kind of pedagogical decision that gets made when the students are in front of you. It’s not about a game plan, but about a decision in the moment. It might be rewording something you’ve said, presenting a new example, or (and these are the best) exposing a realization you’ve had as the class is progressing. Each of these is pedagogy unfolding because it has its effect in real-time, as the class is progressing, and is thereby flexible to (and, hopefully, bends to the learning will of) the students in the class.

So why filling the chalkboard? Because the chalkboard is the space where the learning minds of the students and the teaching of the instructor meet. It’s where the instructor can read the positive or confused looks on students faces and react accordingly. THE CHALKBOARD IS WHERE TEACHING COMES ALIVE. There are days when I write little on the chalkboard, and that’s perfectly fine. But other days I get wound up, and sketch by sketch, definition by definition, that chalkboard fills up again and again, dust covering my fingertips, alighting on my shoulders and the dust tray drawing lines on my back and arms, and these are the days where I’m meeting my students head-on, where the goals that I have are molded and shaped to the inquiry that they have so that the students learn more, learn more easily, and see that their teacher cares for them.

Filling the chalkboard is as much a goal as a description. It’s a hope that, in my teaching, I’ll keep aiming for students and not merely toward my own most precise way of putting things. It’s the hope that I’m not teaching passive students who could be best served by a mere handout, but that I’m teaching autonomous individuals who can, through their questions and comments (and facial expressions) help me learn from our classroom as well. That I’m teaching people to understand rather than to merely know. That I’m teaching them about a way of engaging the world rather than simply describing how the world is. To get a little aphorism into this, Filling the Chalkboard is about teaching my students to fish.

Now that’s a pretty grand goal, but it’s a process like anything else, and the important thing is that the chalkboard is the physical space in which I, as a teacher, am responsive to students. It’s the place where, after the class, someone could come in and see something different than my lesson plans, something unique to our class, our space, and our time. And that’s the beauty of philosophy: because it is about a process (and not about a canon of facts) we get the privilege of using that dynamic chalkboard space to open up and lay bare our inquiry about the world. Somehow, through reading and talking about how others thought of things, we’re able to think about the world in a way that we never had before, and if we can just manage to really talk to each other, we will fill up the chalkboard, and we will truly engage each other, which, when you get down to it, is really engaging the world.


About benjaminjh

Benjamin Hassman is Director of the Conversation Center ( and a Lecturer in the Rhetoric Department at the University of Iowa. The Conversation Center builds on his experience with Service-learning, peer-leadership programs (like the Berwick Boys Foundation) and teaching for the Rhetoric Minor, including Speaking Skills, Advanced Speaking Skills, and the Conversation Center’s own RHET 2090 Conversation Practicum (based on an experiential learning model). His PhD in Philosophy of Language studied paradoxes, and their implication for how we understand the relationship between our sentences and the world.
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