Classes started this week, which meant facing the First Day. It's always a tough day, in no small part because the students often walk in as total unknowns. Will they talk? Will they Facebook the whole time?
My start stress is a little more intense this semester because I'm teaching a brand new course. Sure, I'm using some familiar readings, and I've written and presented on everything listed on the syllabus. But I haven't put together these readings, ideas, activities, and assignments before in just this way, so I'm concerned about pacing and possibility. (Can we, e.g., make it through three of Descartes's Meditations in one 80-minute session? Answer: um, no.)
But back to the first day. We recommend that instructors use the opening day of the course strategically. That is, it's tempting to cram in as much content as possible given the short semester, but students will likely arrive with a range of expectations and assumptions about the course and the instructor. Spending a little time on expectations — both theirs and yours — can bring the class together around a common purpose. Asking students about their expectations can also signal that they're participants and not merely passive vessels into which delicious knowledge will be poured.
Here's my approach: I spend a little bit of time at the very beginning of the first class going over the course overview, which explicitly (I think, anyway) lists my expectations. I talk a little about grades — they always want to hear about that — but I spend more time emphasizing my availability and how to get a hold of me. I don't want to insult their intelligence or waste time by reading the whole thing, but I've found that students rarely read all that info themselves. Highlighting parts of it in class, then, makes it important.
I also try to reward students who do actually bother to read the course info. I insert jokes, weird asides, and odd footnotes here and there (as in the picture above), among other things. This approach risks trivializing the info and maybe even the course, I realize. Still, I think the risk is worth the reward of increased attention and interest. I also like a fairly informal, conversational atmosphere in my classrooms, and I like to signal that preference not only by stating my expectations up front but via the way in which those expectations get stated. We'll see how this semester's students react. As of day 2, no mention.
After introductions (including answers to Why this course? and What do you want to get out of it?), I devote the rest of the first day to method. Since I'm teaching a Freshman Seminar, I'm assuming that my students are very new to philosophical thinking and university discourse in general (even in their second semester). We therefore spend about an hour reading a short article from the New Yorker by Michael Kinsley about opinion, ignorance, and intellectual piety. Kinsley's argument is clear and compelling but not without controversy, and since it's about many Americans' belief that they have, as Kinsley puts it, a "democratic right to ignorance," students don't need any privileged knowledge to follow or to respond to Kinsley's case.
It went fairly well. They talked less than I hoped but more than I expected. I let the discussion go, and we wound up puzzling over the distinctions between opinion, belief, theory, and faith. And in the end, I had what I wanted, which was the opportunity to point out that what we just did — namely pull out the argument in a reading and respond to it in kind — is what I'm going to expect of them (and of myself) over the course of the semester. We'll have to come back to this expectation again and again, in word and in deed, but ultimately I think it was a good start.
Plus, I really love talking about all this stuff. Next up? Descartes and Really Old Texts.
(Note: This is the first real entry in a new weekly series, "Just back from class," where we mull over our experiences in our own classrooms. To quickly see all the entries in the series, click on either the "JBFC" tag over in the Tag cloud or the "Just back from class" category in the sidebar. You won't see that much right now, but just wait.)