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?