Steven Volk, August 29, 2016
Whether it’s your first year of teaching or your 30th, butterflies will likely take up residence in your stomach, kidneys, or any other organ of their choosing as the first day of classes draws near. Students often seem surprised when I admit to a massive case of the nerves at the start of the semester (and even more surprised when I tell them I get jumpy before every class during the semester). As much as nerves can rob one of much needed sleep, there’s also something wonderful about the preparation for the start of classes that I’ve long appreciated (and often commented on).
We may celebrate the New Year on January first or according to the demands of our liturgical calendars, but our real new year, complete with resolutions but probably absent the champagne, begins in late August, and with it comes the promise that this time we will “get it right,” for goodness sake! As much as we remain ourselves year after year, we also have the opportunity of re-invention each fall, of learning from past practice and reflecting on ways that this time, for sure, we will finally address our most serious challenges and take advantage of overlooked opportunities.
It’s not an easy time in higher education, or in the country, but we are remarkably privileged to be where we are, doing what we love to do, and working with students who may have overcome any number of obstacles and challenges to be here with us.
Tell Them What They (Really) Want to Know
So here’s some advice for the first day/week of classes. You’ve heard some (maybe all) of it before, but, repetition never hurts. (Already the first piece of advice: you’ll need to repeat the information you give to students on the first day of class. Don’t expect them to have “heard” it, and the more important the information, the more the need for replication).
The syllabus is a strange mixture of legal contract and teaching document. While it needs to signal to students what we expect of them (as well as what they should require of us), it can be particularly off-putting if the main thing students encounter is a list of and restrictions and injunctions. So it is for the first day of class: to greet students with a catalog of prohibitions (no laptops, put away your smart phones, don’t come in late) is not much of a welcome, and, anyway, there will be time to get to that.
Certainly, students will want to know what the course they have signed up for is about, but since the content of most of our courses is largely self-evident, I would suggest that students really want to know something else. They want to know what is it you have found so exciting, intriguing, or challenging about your field to keep you with it for years – if not decades. Your students will explore the field with you for the next 15 weeks. Maybe they have already discovered the questions that have brought them to your classroom, but letting your students know why you came to study economics or neuroscience or dance is a way of signaling that you once sat where they now sit, with more questions than answers. What they want to know is how you got from that first class to where you are today. What were the questions you encountered you felt compelled to answer? Who helped you answer them? Who gave you support when you needed it?
You’re not going to answer all of those question on the first day, but just by raising them you can bring students to your enthusiasm for your subject while letting them know that you, the expert, understand what it means to be on the other side of the desk, to be a novice. You will find time later to unpack assignments and readings, and in any case you might want to give them the syllabus as the first reading assignment in the course before discussing it. But for the first class: tell them why what you do is important to you and how you hope it will matter to them as well.
Thinking as Educators
In an earlier posting (“Classroom Communities and College Communities,” March 4, 2013), I proposed that colleges contain two kinds of communities, one that we build within our individual classrooms, and one that, collectively, we attempt to create across the college as a whole. I want to borrow a bit from that article to discuss the first kind of community, the one we generate in our classrooms, and how to think about that in the context of the start of the semester.
If we do our jobs well, over the course of the semester we will construct an authentic community in each of our classes where, on the first day of the semester, we probably found a group of individuals who shared little in common other than being in the same place at the same time. What we want is to create a community where students not only come to share a interest in the subject matter, but also feel a sense of kinship such that each is eager to support the learning of the others.
How do we get from here to there?
A good way to start is to engage students with the challenge of building that community. What do they think will lend the greatest support to the creation of the kind of learning community they (and you) have in mind?
As teachers, we are aware of the standards to which we hold students: we expect them to be respectful of each other and of us, to challenge but not disrupt the class, to be aware of the ways that words (and actions) have histories and carry consequences, as well as being cognizant that as learners we all make mistakes and should/must be able to learn from them.
Each of us likely negotiates differently the fine line between risk and comfort, challenge and disruption. But it is always good practice to engage students in a discussion of the kind of community they want to see in their classroom. In particular, you can ask them to develop the rules they think would most support and sustain productive learning. One benefit of asking students to develop their own rules of classroom engagement is that they become responsible for maintaining the rules (and can be reminded of them later in the course). Obviously, there is no guarantee that a set of rules alone will prevent behaviors that can eat away at classroom community, but establishing a shared starting point can be helpful.
Some years ago, I came across some advice that Audrey Thompson, a professor of education studies at the University of Utah, put in her syllabus, and it helped me think about the kind of community I wanted to create in my own classroom. Here’s some of what she wrote,
I will be asking everyone in the class to think like educators: if you feel that you have a better understanding of particular materials than do other students, ask yourselves what you have had to learn to get to this point, and see if you can make that understanding available to others (without lecturing them).
Quite often I have found that students who feel that they have attained a certain expertise in particular topics (often those related to contentious subjects such as identity, race, gender, sexuality, etc.) will “call out” (“correct” or challenge) peers who may lack the vocabulary or conceptual background in the field, or who perhaps just disagree with them. The discussion or disagreement can be useful; the tone not so much. What Thompson argues in this regard, and what I have found to be useful in my own classroom practice, is that students should be reminded that they are not only students but also teachers, and that a good teacher is one who helps others understand, or provide a way into, complex topics. And this is best done with patience, empathy, and some recognition that one doesn’t always have the “correct” answer. When a student takes exception to the way someone has phrased a comment, ask that person to try to present a critique or correction in a way that all can learn from it or can be invited into a discussion rather than feeling shut out, intimidated, or silenced.
If you feel threatened by particular people in the class, think about how to address them so as to get past the impasse: how can you teach them how you would like to learn from them? Thinking as educators means attending to the conditions of learning as well as to whether everyone is learning.
When we invite students into our community (both in our classes and on the campus as a whole), we are affirming that everyone has the responsibility (and the privilege) of being both learners and teachers and that we reject the binary that insists that only we, who stand in the front of the class, are responsible for teaching while they, who have come here as students, can so easily excuse themselves from that responsibility. As student-learners, they do not want faculty or other students to disrespect or abuse them; as student-educators, they need to be aware when their actions have the same effect on their peers or on us.
Thompson concludes as follows:
Thinking as educators…doesn’t mean that no one can ever get angry or that everyone should always be ‘nice,’ but it does mean that you have to show respect for others. ‘Difficult’ behavior – and indeed ‘nice’ behavior as well – becomes an issue when 1) not everyone has the chance to speak; 2) not everyone is listened to; 3) someone is abusive, patronizing, or disrespectful; 4) opposing stances are not acknowledged and addressed when people have questions about them; and/or 5) people expect other people to understand their position when they have not explained their position.
We can create positive classroom communities in a variety of ways: via the knowledge that is generated, the relationships that are supported, the challenges that are addressed and overcome. But as Vincent Tino argued in “Classrooms as Communities,” student engagement will always play a central role in what happens for the simple reason that if students aren’t engaged, learning will not occur to the full extent it should. (A future workshop will explore the ways that implicit bias and what has been called the “stereotype threat” can make it harder for certain students, because of race, gender, religion, sexuality or disability, to feel that they are legitimate members of the academic community we are working to create on campus.)
The start of the semester is a spectacular time to engage students in the excitement we feel about the subjects we teach, and to invite them into a classroom community that will thrive to the extent that all take responsibility for both teaching and learning.