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A Gift of Chalk

June 29, 2012

I received a package in the mail. Three boxes of chalk. Quality chalk. Shaped into long, wide sticks, with a nice creamy texture that lets you trace crisp lines that can clearly be seen all the way up to the back of the classroom. Great chalk.

I have never had the pleasure to use such chalk at the university where I teach. The truth is, there is usually hardly any chalk at all in any of our classrooms. Maybe one small box of thin, low quality sticks, if you’re lucky and the room was just restacked before your lecture. More likely just a couple of untouched sticks, sparsely hidden among unusable leftovers. Woe to the clumsy instructor who lets one of those fall on the ground, shattering the fragile material. Ever constant chalk awareness is an important aspect of our teaching. When I find myself meticulously detailing the steps of a long mathematical proof, my fingernails getting dangerously close to the black surface, threatening a painful screech, my attention shifts to the low supply at hand and I must choose to continue despite the threat. Several times, I had to apologize in advance to my students, as I realized I would have to give an entire lecture with barely half of one of those precious sticks at hand. Thus the gift.

The boxes were sent by a former student of mine — perhaps prompted by the announcement that a non-academic has been hired as our new president, a politician nicknamed “the blade” for his prowess at budget cutting. The student’s name is Ethan Hall and I thank him for this gift. “I hope it gets put to good use,” he simply wrote. It shall, I promise.

I first came to my university in 2001, a time where many academic departments suffered severe budget cuts. The Department of Mathematics, which I first joined before switching to engineering as an assistant professor, was deeply affected. The belt had been tightened everywhere, including the copy machine, which was now guarded by a secretary. Making copies of a quiz for a class of 30 was now frowned upon as a waste of valuable resources.  Building services were also noticeably affected. Gone were the days where offices would get regularly cleaned. Hallways were seldom swept. The new trash bag policy dictated replacement only once per week. Ironically, many new building constructions were in full swing.

I clearly remember the day I helped my husband, newly hired as an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics, move into his office. The room had apparently not been cleaned in years, so we rolled up our sleeves and proceeded to remedy the situation. It must have been a fun sight: two undeterred Ph.D.’s, equipped with rags and a bucket, precariously standing on top of a desk and cleaning. A thick layer of dust had to be removed from the old shelves that were gracing the walls of the small space all the way up to the ceiling. On one wall a large blackboard stood, waiting to be filled with equations and diagrams. But there was no chalk anywhere.

Without any further thoughts, my husband innocently proceeded to the main office to request some chalk. He was greeted by a secretary (the one who guarded the copy machine) who inquisitively asked him: “What do you want to do with the chalk?” He paused, slightly taken aback, but his answer came out as accurate as anyone would expect from a mathematician. “Eh… write,” he simply said. The secretary, most likely well versed by then in the way mathematicians speak, persevered: “What do you want to write?” At that point, my husband’s face must have shown some confusion. “Well, I haven’t decided yet,” he uttered in reply, leaving the secretary unable to decide whether she could give him any chalk.

For those who are unfamiliar with the ways of our university, as we both were at the time, explanations are in order. Chalk on campus is divided into two types: teaching chalk and research chalk. Research chalk, to be used for research purposes, is provided by departmental units to their professors. Teaching chalk, to be used for teaching purposes, is provided by Building Services as part of their classroom maintenance duties. Thus, the aim of the secretary’s inquiry was to make sure that her cash strapped department would not be paying for chalk that should be provided by another entity. As Building Services are as greedy with the chalk as departmental units, this creates a rather short supply of chalk and, in this poor economy which forces university to contemplate more budget cuts, there is little hope for improvement.

Am I guilty of chalk misappropriation? After all, I routinely use research talk to help the undergraduate students in my class during my office hours, and I also use teaching chalk to discuss research questions during class. In my job, teaching and research are intertwined and I have no intention to pretend to be able to separate the two. Shame on me, I suppose, for depleting the funds of my academic unit or those of Building Services, whichever comes up short in the end.

So Ethan, here is what I will do with the chalk you gave me. I am going to use it to do my job, writing as clearly and legibly as possible, erasing and doing it all over whenever needed, without worrying about running out chalk, and without worrying whether I am teaching, or doing research, or both. And I will rejoice in the encouragement and support that I receive from my former students while working hard to return the favor in kind to my current students.


copyright 2012, all rights reserved.

From → Education, Purdue

  1. Doug McDaniel permalink

    Mimi – Hopefully your new president will be a strong leader who supports and assists in bringing in adequate funding to alleviate these asinine budget-driven scenarios. Gov. Daniels, while not an “academician,” is one of the brightest and most energetic individuals I’ve ever met. Good luck and God Bless!

    • Doug,
      Actually the problem is not the funding. (After all, the situation I discussed in the blog started at the time where Dr. Jischke was our president– a time where money was supposedly flowing…) The problem is the way money is distributed. We spend money on high-visibility stuff that helps our administrators further their career and get rich. We don’t spend it on the little things that matter, like chalk and TA support. Sadly, there is no incentive for our new president to fix the problem, quite to the contrary…

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