Wednesday, September 03, 2014


Getting Started

The first week of classes is under way, which means that students are getting their first exposure to new professors and new courses.  In many cases, they’re getting their first exposure to college classes, period.

Last night on the drive back from yet another unsuccessful search-and-rescue mission for The Dog in Granby, CT, the kids were speculating about their imminent first day of the new school year.  They opined with great confidence that teachers won’t make them work very hard for the first few days, since the teachers are still shaking off the rust from the summer and they know the students are just getting acclimated.

In my teaching days, the first day of class was always a good place to try something different.  My favorite was the Gilligan’s Island exercise, which I used for Intro to Poli Sci.  I’d break the students into groups of six or so, and tell them that they had been passengers on a plane along with about 200 other people of various ages, races, backgrounds, and the like.  The plane crashed on a deserted, but fairly lush, island.  For the sake of argument, they knew -- doesn’t matter how -- that they weren’t going anywhere for a long time.  While the rest of the passengers were out gathering food and building shelters, they had been delegated to come up with ground rules that everybody could live by.  Then they had most of the period to come up with the rules.  

(This was back before the “Lost” series, which may have spoiled it.  When the show named two of its characters “John Locke” and “Jeremy Bentham,” I knew they were thinking the same way.)

Typically, the students would assume that the exercise would be easy and they could leave early.  Then the arguments would start.  They quickly discovered that one person’s sense of obvious rightness conflicted with somebody else’s, and that total victory for either one was not an option.  Suddenly we had politics in our midst, and the class was off and running. The exercise would become a reference point for the rest of the semester.

Other openings were less successful.   The “first day walk through the syllabus” always felt hollow and pedantic.  And with the length of syllabi now, it would probably require a double period.  First day lectures at least offered the possibility of feeling useful, but I didn’t want to set the precedent that they didn’t have to read.  

Wise and worldly readers, what was/is your favorite first day of class activity?

I like this a lot for a writing class, but I found it the day after our first day this week, so maybe next year:

I usually students what they think writing is, which, like your activity, seems like a quick and easy question. Inevitably, though, folks start disagreeing about whether texting (or whatever) should count, and suddenly the question of what exactly we'll be doing in the course becomes salient. That's helpful in comp 101, especially, to get students to realize they're not in 13th grade.
I do a syllabus walk, but it's very short -- the syllabus is only 2.5 pages, including all the mandated boilerplate. I teach U.S. history, so in our first few minutes we grapple with a primary source. An ex-slave named Jourdon Anderson wrote/dictated/was credited with a fascinating letter to his former master that you can find online here: Students read it and then write responses to questions about how Anderson viewed his ex-master, what the letter implies about slavery, etc. I have them read responses to the class and ideally discuss/argue about their interpretations. It seems to set the right tone for the semester. Heck, we usually don't do the syllabus until the end of the session...
I shape the first class to show the students what to expect for in-class activities throughout the semester. We do individual writing, small group discussion, full class discussion, and a bit of lecture (10-15 minutes).

One of the best topics I've given for the small group discussion is best and worst learning experiences. It opens a door to fruitful discussion about instructor and student roles in creating a good learning environment. Plus, everyone has a horror story to share about a bad class.

And that is why I first went into Chemistry.
I show them how much textbook prices have increased over the last two decades, and advocate for piracy.

Then I do the syllabus walk.
My first day includes the following:

1. Syllabus walk -- because kids really care about knowing all the details of grading from day 1 and I want my policies to be crystal clear.

2. I put on a two minute puppet show using stuffed-animal-like cells and microbes from -- which shows that I'm fun, in a way that's related to the content.

3. Start Chapter 1 -- because I want to set the tone that we don't waste a minute. My lecture for this topic involves a discussion about what science is that can get very lively, so it isn't a dry lecture (but I try to keep all of my lectures as interesting as possible).
My first class is a 3-hour marathon, so I have to do a bunch of interesting stuff (and every class after that too) so that we don't all die. I do a "syllabus interview," which means they walk through the syllabus themselves. We do a lot of activities that get them diving into the material right away.

I love your activity, DD, sounds like fun and learning both happen.
A short blog I posted a few years ago --
-- includes a link to a nice list from Gradhacker back in 2012.

I've managed to get the pro-forma stuff down to 10 minutes in the second-semester physics class I teach. Pointing out the differences from the first semester also suffices to show newcomers from other colleges or universities the basics of the day-to-day operation of the class, and I try to get them teamed up with a mentor who has had me for a class before.

First semester is harder, but not because of the syllabus. I absolutely must be absolutely clear about the majors that are in the wrong class because they often sign up without proper advising. I assign the syllabus as homework, homework that includes calculating a grade from possible exam and homework scores. Most of the time is spent demonstrating how the on-line homework system works, including examples of typical new-user snafus, and reviewing by example the basics of unit conversion they are expected to know from chemistry or pick up from the intro chapter we skip in lecture. Not really new material, but not a waste of time either.
I teach history - usually some version of US history or military history with a western bent. I use the first day to talk about narratives and arguments. About the stories we tell and how we tell them and why it matters. I show movies.

1. "Elbow Room" from Schoolhouse Rock - 1976
2. "Pirates and Emperors" - a Schoolhouse Rock spoof from the mid-2000s. (It's on YouTube)
3. The Thanksgiving play scene from Addams Family Values

After each short clip I ask students these questions:
1. What story is the video telling? What does it want you to believe about American history?
2. What did the video get "right"?
3. What did it get "wrong"?
4. What got left out?
5. Is it "true"/"truthful"?
6. What's the purpose? Who's the audience? Why does that matter?

I stole and modified this from someone I TA-ed for in grad school and have used it ever since. It's never once let me down.

It allows me to talk about narrative and storytelling, argument, evidence, audience, persuasion, and why facts matter and why they don't ever "speak for themselves."

And I get "credit" for showing videos, even if I almost never do it ever again. . .
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