Jumping Off

When I first began teaching I loathed the first day of class, the dull presentation of course policies, pet peeves and penalties. What an unappetizing way of inviting students into a subject. So, slowly, I've begun to tinker with day one.  I tried to come up with ways to turn exploring the syllabus into active learning exercises, made sure I knew every one's name by the end of the period, and tried to frame the course question with some reflection on a piece of poetry or a painting.

Now my day one has bled into a day two of similar activities: demonstrating how we'll work and why, having students apply the grading rubric to sample assignments, getting them to take an initial side in a debate by moving to a labeled side of the room--anything to break the familiar pattern of a first-day syllabus frog march.

 This year I'm trying to begin each of my courses with some activity that gets to the heart of some central theme or question. In other words, the very first moment of the very first day is to focus on a big question. In the new core capstone, for example, students will reflect on the the theme of "the good life." What is a good life for a human being? What do we have to do to lead one, and what are we willing to pay for it? We'll be reading and discussing ancient and modern texts concerned with this matter.

So the first thing we'll do in class next Tuesday is write an obituary. Here's the opening paragraph of the obit they have to complete:
Alex “Lucky” Smith, a beloved and fabulously successful local personality, passed from this life on Tuesday, August 27. It was frequently said of Smith that “If life were a game, Lucky sure won it.” 
I'll ask small groups to discuss and fill out an accompanying sheet on the value of Lucky's estate at death, the career choices, notable successes, spouse, children, friends, greatest achievements, etc. What I hope they'll produce is the common social script for the good life: wealth, admiration, pleasure, excellence in work and living.  We'll  put common themes on a big sheet.  Then I'll ask the class how many of them --if it were magically possible--would be willing right now, today, to trade in your existence and live Lucky's life. Just leave your own life behind and step into this new ideal and socially-endorsed perfect life.

I don't know how they will respond, of course, but my hunch is that most people would not trade in their life for another's, even if that other life were golden. And that's an interesting thing in itself. There's some tension or disconnect at work between what we think is the good life and what we truly desire for ourselves. Teasing this out and thinking about this tension is the central question of the seminar: what's really calling us? Can we name it? Understand it? Articulate what it means? Is it possible to live a good life and not win? What happens when you don't like the scripted good life?

One of the ancient texts we'll read is Plato's Phaedrus, whose first line is Socrates' question to a young man he meets while walking just outside the walls of Athens: "Where have you come from, my dear Phaedrus, and where are you going?"

It's a good question.


Professor Quest said…
For the record, it was one student who wanted to trade in his life for the scripted "perfect life" and 17 who said, "No thanks." It didn't speak to them.

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