• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


The First Days Back

Trying to set the right tone on the first day of class

September 2, 2019

On the first day of class, nobody is behind yet.


That was always my favorite part of the first week of classes.  Nobody was behind yet. There was nothing significant to grade. Nothing had gone off the rails.  Everybody (or almost everybody) showed up. Students and I were ready to go.  


The worst part of the first week back, other than not having learned names yet, was trying to establish rapport.  I wanted to have a class in which students could try out ideas out loud without having to own them, and in which we could have thoughtful and fun conversations without straying too far from the task at hand.  That requires getting the tone right, which is hard to do from a cold start.  


Over the years, some students started to follow me from class to class.  I called them “Matt majors,” and I always brightened upon seeing them on the first day.  I knew them, and they knew me and my methods. Sometimes they’d actually act as translators with other students.  One time, as I went through the syllabus, a student asked why we were doing that. One of my Matt majors answered “he sticks closely to the syllabus.  If you know what’s coming and you have to miss a day, you’ll know what you’re on the hook for.” It was all I could do not to cheer. With students who have jobs and families, I subscribe to the theory that clarity of expectations is helpful.  When they figured out what I was doing, they generally appreciated it.


With first-semester classes, though, I couldn’t count on repeaters.  I’d walk in and see 25 or 30 new faces, many of them with no idea of what to expect.


Sonya Huber’s “shadow syllabus” is helpful in some ways.  My favorite is bullet point #2: “I could hardly hear my own professors when I was in college over the din and roar of my own fear.”  I remember that feeling distinctly. It wasn’t until graduate school that I saw a professor address that directly, and she was a guest speaker.  It might have helped.


Some elements of the first day of class will vary by discipline.  When I taught politics classes, I usually included a statement to the effect of “I’ve given A’s to students I would never vote for; you don’t have to try to figure out my perspective and say what you think I want to hear.”  Whether they believed me or not, it seemed to help. When I taught writing classes, though, that would have been weirdly out of place.  


I always envied physics professors, who could start with really cool demonstrations of electricity or momentum.  They had the best toys. These days, of course, so many students have cell phones that a politics class could start with silly polls on Kahoot to demonstrate the limits of polling.  


WIse and worldly folks who teach, what’s your favorite way to set the tone on the first day of class?  Alternately, was there something that seemed on paper to make sense, but that utterly flopped?  



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