Where They Are Right Now

I used to really dislike the first day of class. There was never any material to discuss because no one had yet read anything. There was also no way to avoid that dreadful trek through the syllabus, assignments and course policies. And woe unto you if you had an afternoon Tuesday-Thursday class because the students had already been frog-marched through the policies and syllabi of four or five other courses, which meant everything you were saying became so much white noise.

More recently, however, I've come to like the first day and the earlier parts of a course when nothing much has happened. There is this window when students haven't settled into any routine; they haven't figured out you or the class. I like to think, too, that somewhere in the back of their minds they still have hope that this class will be different from all the others. This window doesn't last long. Sometimes it doesn't even survive the first meeting.

I do a lot of things on the first day that never occurred to me when I began teaching. The first is welcoming students to the class with a projected PowerPoint or by writing something like "Welcome to Humanities 101" on the whiteboard. It's a small thing, but it reassures them they are in the right place without having to look foolish or lost. I also introduce myself to each of the students. This is a luxury of working at a small college where class sizes rarely rise above 20. I go around the room and ask students their major, where they grew up, and why they decided to take the course. This can take 15 minutes, and I sometimes worry that it's a bore for those listening to these serial conversations, but I do it anyway. It sets a tone and helps me begin the process of memorizing names.

Then I give them an overview of the big questions and ideas they will have wrestled with when they walk out the door 16 weeks later. I also cue them in on my standards for an A, B, C, etc. Then I make the following promises: clearly defined grading standards (and frequent updates on how they are doing), a pledge to return all graded work in a week or less, supportive, helpful, and meaningful written comments on all assignments, and enthusiasm for the subject and their learning.

I also identify my pet peeves (i.e., not bringing the text to class...grrrrr) and ask them anonymously to write any peeves they have about professors on a slip of paper. Then I get them out of their seats and have them race about the room exchanging the slips as many times as they can. I could just redistribute the slips myself, but getting them on their feet and doing something physical really changes the atmosphere in the room. Afterwards, we read their peeves together and I try to address how I will handle them. This works so much better than simply saying, "Are there any questions?"

Then, and only then, do we do the routine of covering the syllabus and course policies. Sometimes, if I have the time, I count off the students into groups of fours and have the ones study the attendance policy, and the twos the late policy, etc. I ask each group to explain the policies to one another with me chiming in if something isn't entirely accurate. Sometimes I even ask them to design one rule they would like to see in all classes. They come up with some interesting ideas and I've even agreed to put some on the syllabus.

Lastly, I like to close with something related to the material we will be covering. A short poem works really well. There really should be a little intellectual meat the first day, so we talk about the poem and how it relates to the subject we'll be studying. I try to choose the poem with a lot of care because I want to come back to one or two of its lines or images repeatedly throughout the course.

Like I said, I used to hate the first day when I began teaching. I almost always ended up letting class out early. Now I find that I really enjoy the first day and can barely get through all the activities in the allotted time. I guess courses are kind of like having kids. You have to learn to love them where they are right now and not for what you hope they will become.


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