Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Day Two, in which I Make Students Feel Overwhelmed and Bored

Today I taught my two literature classes for the first time, one a lower-division class, and one a class in my field of specialty. This means that I'm now officially done with my "first class of the semester" in each of my classes. And this year, as in others, I have yet to answer the question:

How is it possible to take care of all of the business that needs to be taken care of on the first day of the semester (a) while at the same time appearing to be an interesting instructor (b)?

I know, I know....

1. Don't just read the syllabus.

But I don't just read the syllabus. I do go over the highlights of it, i.e., what makes up the grade, but I do not read the entire thing to them like it's a bedtime story.

2. Do something that "shows" them who you are as a teacher, rather than just "telling" them a bunch of stuff.

Ok, I try. I really do. The problem is, it's difficult to "show" who you are as a teacher when they've not yet completed a reading assignment. Oh, and don't even tell me I should bring in a short reading assignment and then have them read it and do an activity and then we'll all talk about it. I've heard it all before, and you know what? There just isn't time to do justice to that crap while at the same time announcing all of the shit I need to announce. I've tried it before - and I've always felt like I was both half-assing the "non-boring activity" as well as the announcement portion of things. And you know what else? I suspect that on the first day, students find all things you try - whether innovative or no - boring or hostile or both. I mean, I'm taking away the summer from them! I'm a mean lady!

3. Don't overwhelm the students by handing out all of the assignments they will complete in the semester.

I didn't do this in all of my classes, but I had to do it in my upper-division one. Why? Well because how are they supposed to know what to pay attention to in our library instruction session if they don't know what their assignments will be? And how will they understand how all of the work of the course fits together unless they see it all together? And who says that being overwhelmed isn't educating in itself?

4. Don't lecture.

Except see my earlier comment about it being very difficult not to lecture when the students a) have little or no familiarity with the material or aims of the course b) have done absolutely no reading and c) don't yet know me and so don't really want to participate. And how else does one give certain kinds of important information without lecturing?


So here I am, and once again I'm not especially pleased with how my "first" classes have gone. I suspect that this will be something that I struggle with from now until I finally hang it up and stop being a teacher. Though maybe it would make more sense just to get over the whole thing and to accept that I will always bore and overwhelm my audience on the first day, knowing that I don't bore and overwhelm them on subsequent days? Except of course I do overwhelm them on subsequent days sometimes, and even bore them, too, but usually not at the same time. I just wish that I could be exciting and fun and innovative on the first day - not an easy thing to do when one has to be sure to communicate things about disability services, take attendance (or face the wrath of the federal government), and hand out about a thousand things.

11 comments:

Baruch Grazer said...

Frankly, with my first-year Intro class, I like to panic them a bit on the first day. I plunk down the 22-page syllabus, draw their attention to my many written assignments, my several quizzes and exams, and my unforgiving standards for timely work and attendance, then I lecture at a fairly break-neck pace.

All of the lecture material will be gone over again during later sessions, so it's okay if their rising panic distracts them. But I'd rather induce high blood pressure on Day One than boredom. Also, if I see some of them looking bored or restless, it suggests to me that this is a student who has trouble getting a clue.

Hilaire said...

I know what you mean...This is such a conundrum. I read an article in The Teaching Professor a couple of months ago - which I can't, for the life of me, find - that suggested a new tack for first days: think of your main task as showing the connections between you, the students, and the material. So start by talking about your own connection to/history with the topic...then talk about possible connections for them (I'd get them to talk about this, instead of doing it for them). The author even suggested dispensing with the announcement-y and administrative tasks to do this. I wouldn't do that, but I take his point that this works because it generates pure interest in the topic...

I'm going to try a version of this in at least one of my courses - the one where I am teaching my precise subfield - and see how it goes.

You have to take attendance for the goverment? Wow!

D.B. said...

On the one hand, your students could drop your class if they're that touchy about being lectured, bored, scared, or simply processed on day one. On the other hand, they could come back. To me there are pros and cons in both scenarios.

helenesch said...

First, don't be so hard on yourself! It's okay if the first day isn't so exciting... though I find it's less okay (at least for me) if the 2nd and 3rd days aren't really good.

I usually try to come up with some question that I get *them* to talk about on the first day. I know this is hard, and maybe even more so in a lit class. But I find that if I can get them talking (either in small groups or as a class), then they'll know from day one that the class isn't lecture-based and that they'll be expected to actively participate.

The questions I come up with are often ones designed to get them thinking about the course content and sometimes to clear out some misconceptions they might have--or assumptions that they're brining into the class that will later be challenged.

I also don't pass the syllabus out until *after* we've done this discussion/activity thing (otherwise, they just want to read the syllabus and tune out the discussion).

By the way, I think it's absurd that your school starts this early in August. It's still summer!

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I finally figured out how to do the first day -- it is kind of dull and overwhelming... but I think it works. It helps that I put a standard powerpoint together for the first day that gets to the main points, gets them used to seeing the powerpoint and allows me to talk about the discipline and a few other things before doing the paperwork. I also do a take-home quiz on the class procedures, so at least they have to look up the top 10 problem points :).

Marcelle Proust said...

My Psych 101 course, a million years ago, taught me that if people start out not liking you, and then change their minds, they like you more than if their opinion started out positive and stayed that way. (The other way round, unfortunately, is also true.) So you're fine. They'll like you more, later.

BikeProf said...

What they said. I think I have been guilty of doing all of those things in some way or another on the first day. At least now I don't do what I did on my very first day in front of my own class, way back in '93. I panicked--I handed out the syllabus, suttered around for about five minutes, and then let them go. I didn't know what else to do.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Hear, hear! I so agree with you on this. I usually end up doing something like what helenesch talks about, but I can never create the fun and exciting first day of myth and legend. I've pretty much decided that I can live with it (I try to make sure they talk about something, even if it's for 5 minutes, but usually it's just me blathering).

Though I have to say that I think it's actually good for students to see all the assignments the first day - I've never heard that you're not supposed to!

Wiccachicky said...

I HATE the first day of class. I am always so self-conscious and worried about how I will come off. Amazingly, this semester went well. Maybe I should blog about that...*runs off to do so*

Cats & Dogma said...

Man, I am such a square as far as first-day pedagogy: I actually have students go around the room and read the syllabus, paragraph by paragraph. And then I have them all write down at least one question on their notecards (which I use to take attendance), and do a brief lecture about the basic course rationale.


Lame-o. But on day two (tomorrow) things get pretty interesting, and by the time we hit Wm. Blake on Friday, their minds are blowing. I'm not too stressed about first days

Dr. Crazy said...

Hey everybody! I think I came off as more stressed about it than I truly am in my post. I was just thinking about it because I was EXHAUSTED after going on and on and on about this, that, and the other thing in my classes yesterday, when usually I try to limit any lecture time to 20 minutes at most. And I DID get the students in all my classes to speak up a bit - it's just not as much as I'd like normally.

At any rate, all of that got me thinking about all of those things that people say you should/shouldn't do on the first day of class, and I thought I'd post about how I break all the rules.