Changing the May Term Script

The spring semester ends early at my institution. By May most of the students have fled and good deal of the faculty have as well. The early end to the spring term allows the college to hold three consecutive month-long terms. Class lasts two hours a day for four weeks. It's been years since I taught in May, but I am doing so this year. I met my class for the first time yesterday, and I had forgotten how low the energy can be in summer classes. The students have just finished a long semester and now they are back after a week or so of break. Despite the blooming lilacs, most of them looked grimly resigned to being in a classroom again (as if they were about to have some disagreeable but necessary medical procedure performed upon them).

Over the the past few years I have been paying more and more attention to the first day of a class. I usually post a "Welcome" PowerPoint slide on the board and walk around the room introducing myself to each student. I extend my hand and say "How do you do? I'm Professor... " Most are dumbfounded by this. Professors are supposed to stay up at the professor place. They aren't supposed to be walking around the room introducing themselves. I enjoy upsetting this expectation. It seems to set a different tone, especially with the adult and non-traditional students. It's also just fun to watch the students' baffled expressions as I extend my hand.

In addition to spending some time introducing myself and learning names, I try to let them know who I am and generally reveal something about myself that paticuliarizes me (like where I grew up or that I have a six-year-old son, that sort of thing). Then we frog march through the syllabus and course policies, and I ask if there are any questions. Often there are no questions, but sometimes I get a few about how long papers should be or what kind of citation I like: APA or MLA?

Almost no one asks me why I love teaching, whose poetry I can't live without, or what big question this course is supposed to answer. I've blogged on the "Any Questions?" moment of the first day before. Still it always strikes me how institutionalized students have become by their senior year. They no longer take note of what's happening. The start of a course and the first day are just so much white noise. "I know the script," they seem to say. "I've memorized my part so let's just get on with it."

Well, I know the script too. And my mission this first week is to bust up that script, to stop them from sliding back into the ritualized patterns of a college course. I'll start this morning by taking my seat in the desks and telling them that I don't want to teach today. Instead, they will be the professor and I will be the student. I'll tell them to get up there at the professor place where they belong because they have to give me an impromptu oral exam about the things we discussed yesterday. I'll answer their questions and they'll grade me based upon the criteria in the syllabus. I always do this exercise on the second day. It sends the signal that they can't know what will happen when they walk through the door. It's a good device for getting them on their feet and keeping them on their toes.


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