Marcus has touched on some ideas for having a good first day of class before: see here in particular, with links to previous posts. Since the beginning of the semester is fast approaching, I thought it would make sense to revisit the topic and throw in my two cents. I’ll make a few concrete suggestions below, plus some big-picture goals that I think help make for a good first day, and finally some things I think don’t work very well…
Some concrete tips:
i) Find your classroom in advance. Check for black/whiteboards (plus chalk/markers). See how the seating is arranged. Walk around the room to get a sense of what it’ll look like from the students’ perspectives. Think logistically about how you’ll pass out papers, or put students in groups. If possible, use the tech and make sure you know how everything works, how long the projector takes to warm-up, etc.
ii) Plan out the whole session. Whatever you end up doing, having a plan in mind, both for what you’ll do and how long you want to do it. And stick to the schedule, just like you would for a regular class or a talk. You want the first day to go smoothly, and you want to avoid looking hapless or disorganized.
iii) If possible, arrive early and stay late. Chatting with a few students helps learn names and make you look approachable. And sometimes students want to formally introduce themselves after class; I’ve seen students line up to shake the instructor’s hand on the first day (is this a southern thing?).
iv) Start learning names. If you have a photo-roster for your class, start studying it *before* class starts. It can be really impressive to students when you’ve made the effort to get to know them before they’ve ever met you.
v) Dress for success. Humans are vain and biased creatures, alas. Might as well use that to your advantage, especially when creating first impressions. I’d recommend the goal of comfortable, understated professionalism, at least for the first few sessions: something more like business casual/what you’d wear to a talk than a job interview or something. If you are, present as, or at least dress as stereotypically male, then I’d say blazer or tie, but not necessarily both, and probably not full suit (if you’re young, it might backfire and look like you’re playing dress-up). If you are, present as, or at least dress stereotypically female, it’s trickier, of course. I’ve got no grounds to speak on this one, so I’ll outsource it to Tenure, She Wrote. FWIW, there are some good comments about attire and various forms of privilege on a Daily Nous post here that are worth keeping in mind. My own take is that, though we live in an unjust world, if you don’t play the game you lose by default; your mileage may vary on that one.
Things I think you should do:
1) Set the tone personally
Your teaching persona need not bear much of a relationship to your actual personality. You may be an introvert at home but a comedian in class, or a strict professor but flexible colleague. Whatever image you want your students to have of you, you need to start projecting that image from the outset. So, e.g., if you want to be a no-nonsense, by-the-book taskmaster, you better run a tight ship in your first class: being unsure how to link to your course website, or showing that you haven’t figured out what the class will read after the first few weeks, would contradict that image. One of my favorite teaching books, Frank Heppner’s Teaching the Large College Class, as some good things to say about teaching personas. One rule of thumb: it’s basically impossible to get more strict or more professional as the semester progresses, but it is possible to lighten up, so better to err on the strict side.
2) Set the tone academically
Are you going to be a strict grader who curves grades to fit a standard distribution, or a ‘you can try an assignment as often as you need to pass’ type? Do you want your students to suggest novel solutions to problems, or concentrate on making best sense of the texts/arguments they’re given? Are the students mainly going to be tested on reading comp (e.g. in a big multiple-choice exam) or on understanding and application (e.g. in in-class blue book exams) or on synthesis and critical contribution (e.g. in research papers). Whatever you do, make it clear from the outset.
3) Let students know what they’re in for
If your course (like most philosophy courses) has a lot of reading, emphasize this. Ditto for writing or problem sets or what-have-you. Especially at lower level, students often have no idea what philosophy is, and may be in your class only because, e.g. they need a humanities credit and your class was at an open time in a convenient location. If you’ve got a student who hates reading, or insists on memorizable, clear-cut right answers, they’re not going to be happy in a philosophy class. That’s bad for them, and possibly bad for you and their fellow students. Better to give them the info they need to realize they should drop the class for something more up their alley than to struggle along with low morale and possibly get a bad grade. Conversely, you might end up winning over a few students who were on the fence, and that’s a good thing to start early.
4) Give important instructions
Do you send out important updates by email? Then make sure students know that (apparently young students view email the way 32-year-old me views fax machines, so you can’t count on them checking email regularly). Are you using Canvas or Blackboard or the like? Then pull it up on screen and show them where the readings are, where assignments are uploaded, etc. Do they have to get books at two different stores, or all online? Tell them where, when, and why.
5) Do a bit of substantive work
Emphasis on ‘a bit’: the point is to give students a glimpse of what kind of thing they’ll be doing for the next several weeks. You don’t want to do anything too difficult, or too important, right away, if for no other reason than that there’s enrollment churn in the first few days. One thing I like to do is use a short piece (like a blog post or something) that has both philosophical and pedagogical value. For instance, in my Human Nature course last Fall, I passed out copies of a short article from the Atlantic titled ‘The Myth of 'I'm Bad at Math’” by Miles Kimball and Noah Smith to read and briefly discuss. Substantively, the article is about how a certain conception of how the mind works (i.e. of human nature) leads students to think they can’t improve in school. Models of human nature, and the implications of those models, is exactly what the class is about. But it also is helpful on the pedagogy side: the article argues that work is more important than talent for most students most of the time; the idea “I’m just not good at ___” is both inaccurate and unhelpful. This is a good thing for students to hear early in the term, especially for first-semester freshmen who are just starting college. In general, it’s a good idea to pick a topic that is not philosophical in the sense of being discussed in journals, but which is accessible and relatable.
6) If possible, get students to participate
As I mentioned above, this is easier in small classes than large. If you want your students to be active in class, you have to cultivate an environment that encourages this. That takes time and continual effort, so you gotta start ASAP. If the room is too big to have students talk to you, have them talk to one another. If you have big classes but still want active participation, have the students stop and write something down in response to some questions.
7) Discuss your teaching decisions
This one is a bit more controversial, so I saved it for last. I find that students respond well when you pull back the curtain a bit and explain why you’ve structured the course as you have. Explaining why you chose a particular attendance policy, or why you don’t accept extra credit, or why you give the option of a written or oral final exam, both helps students see what you’re going for, and signals that you take your teaching decisions seriously.
Now, here are some things I think don’t work so well:
a) A pro forma class.
Your time is important. Your class is important. Effectively cancelling the first class sends the message that the class isn’t important.
b) A full-fledged day of lecture
I know it’s hard to squeeze in everything you want to cover. But students aren’t going to be in the right mindset to internalize the material anyway. Plus, you’ll almost assuredly have a few students add or drop early on. Do something substantive, but don’t over-do it.
c) Cheesy ice breakers
Everyone hates these. Just don’t. Try something more substantive instead, like ‘why did you sign up for this particular class?’ or ‘what’s an idea you find inspiring or important?’ or ‘What experience do you have with the material of this course?’.
d) Talking about the value of philosophy
This one is just my opinion, but when has that ever stopped a philosopher from pontificating? Here’s the worry: if you have to explicitly say ‘you may think philosophy isn’t cool/valuable, but it is, because…’ then you’re (i) priming the suggestion that its popular/obvious to think that philosophy isn’t valuable, and (ii) on the defensive in response. Bad news. Better to project confidence in the discipline, and to show not tell regarding its value. Design your course to manifest what makes philosophy worth doing over the course of the term; that’ll be more persuasive than an early sales pitch about LSATs and lifetime earnings and movie star philosophy BAs.
So that’s what I’ve got. I imagine our readers have even more suggestions. I’d love to hear specific things you’ve done, even if (especially if) you thought it would go over well but didn’t, or thought would bomb but didn’t. And whatever you decide to do one day 1, good luck!