Beth Dolinar

Column Beth Dolinar

Beth Dolinar has been writing her column about life, both hers and the rest of ours, for over 20 years. When not on the page, she produces Emmy-winning documentaries for public television, teaches writing to university students, and enjoys her two growing children.

Classroom needs a ‘like’ button

November 15, 2012

When teaching a class, you get over certain insecurities straight away. It’s not possible to have a public-speaking phobia and retain command of a room full of people, and so the nerves tend to fade quickly.

You can’t teach a class unless you firmly believe you are smarter than those you are teaching. It couldn’t possibly be true, but that’s what I tell myself.

And you can’t worry about what the back of your hair – or the back of your bottom half – looks like, because you’ll be spending a lot of time showing it off as you write on the board.

I am almost finished with my first semester teaching a communications course at a university. I think it’s going well. Some of the students tell me they are enjoying the class, but I’m the sort who frets about the other 10 who aren’t saying anything. Lacking a “like” button students could click on during class, I’m left to measure my success or failure in other ways.

When the assignment papers are good, and they seem to have learned from the lecture, I can safely conclude I taught them something. Another indication comes when most of the students ask good questions.

And so I’ll finish a class, sweaty and hoarse and exhausted, and heave a deep sigh of academic satisfaction.

And then, I start to pack up for the night. I turn to erase the board, and there it is. The horrifying proof of my confusion and convoluted thinking is scribbled all over the dry-erase board.

Last week, before wiping away the evidence, I walked to the back of the class and pondered the Jackson Pollock of lines and splatters.

They must think I’m a wingnut.

What begins, at 6 every Thursday night, as an orderly listing of ideas and concepts, broken down into component parts, somehow loses its way. Students ask me to clarify a point, and I find myself squeezing new words into the spaces between the lines. That will lead me to another thought, one that needs a diagram to explain, and I will find a clean corner at the top of the board and draw a picture to illustrate my argument.

To illustrate the difference between a rating point in the Neilson TV survey and a share point, I stood facing the class, gesticulating like a person playing two cellos at once. When I didn’t think that was working, I started drawing pies on the board. Cherry pies with red ink and blueberry pies with blue, cutting the pies into slices and, for some reason I cannot now remember, drawing little people onto each wedge of pie. My little stick women had curly hair, and the stick men were bald. On the margins, which was the only real estate left undeveloped by my wacky doodles, I drew big arrows shooting out in all directions. What was I trying to say?

And what were the students thinking during all this?

Can you imagine the confusion when, later in the week, a student opened his notebook to review class notes? Or the bewilderment when the next teacher, probably an orderly math genius, came to take over the classroom? This is why I’m always careful to erase the evidence.

Another dry-erase board would be helpful. There are two in the classroom, flanking a larger center board the students tell me is not a dry-erase board at all, but a screen for media. More than once, having filled my two dry-erase boards with my rantings, I picked up a marker and headed for that center one, and the students yelled “No!”

So, I wonder. Were they worried I’d deface the screen? Or were they saying they’d seen enough of the cluttered, inner workings of my head, and they needed a rest? And some space.

Beth Dolinar can be reached at



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