Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Setting the tone

Tenured Radical has a nice reflection on the decisions that go into planning the first day of classes, and what it means to get the semester "off on the right foot." This is something that I've been thinking about, too--what's the proper tone to establish on Day One?

Not every first day is a great one, of course and I doubt that most students arrive at their first class session with especially high expectations; it's the day to meet the teach and get the syllabus. For that matter, I doubt that most students could actually tell you, a month later, whatever it was that they did on that first day. But setting the tone isn't about what our students consciously learn; on some level, it's not even about our students so much as it's about us and how we present ourselves, to ourselves, as teachers.

So how did I set the tone in my new classes?

First and foremost, I ran every single one of my three classes for the full hour and a half; I always teach a "real" class on the first day. Partly, this is about communicating to my students that they're going to be working in my class, and that the work begins on day one; I'm also curious to see what they can do right out of the gate. But running a full class on the first day of the semester is also about getting myself back into the groove, flexing those teaching muscles, and fitting that persona back on. It's about getting the feel for a new classroom and figuring out how the space works.

To further communicate my seriousness, I also gave the necessary warnings: if war literature isn't your thing, take a different section; if you're not an English major and don't have a genuine interest in this material, take something else for your Gen Ed requirement. Don't even think about relying on SparkNotes instead of the actual texts. Be prepared to put in two hours, sometimes, to get through twenty pages.

But the hard-ass bit is only half of my first-day routine. The other half is about conveying how totally awesome I am, and how awesome the class will be, too. This was easy in my war class, since nothing sets the tone better than passing out a story with the word "fuck" in the first sentence (and saying it and making one's students say it multiple times), and then presenting the class with the post-punk stylings of the Talking Heads. It's not quite as easy in my other classes (ooh! scansion for 45 minutes!)--but enough willed enthusiasm and manic goofiness can cajole any class along.

And finally, let's not forget the role that costumes play in Setting the Tone. Did any of you have parents who took photos of you on your first day of school? In my parents' photo album there are several photos of me from my elementary school years--stationed in front of the house, bow in hair, lunchbox in hand.

I took a back-to-school picture of my own last night, as I was trying to decide on something to wear today that would a) give the illusion of energy and competance, while b) not involving either of the two suits whose parts are currently languishing at the drycleaner until I can afford to liberate them:

[Image redacted]

Yeah. The outfit, the please-love-me! routine. . . the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the first day of classes is like a first date.


The Combat Philosopher said...

My 'first day of class' good ideas got nuked in the first moments. We always have a problem with class rooms. The official literature often puts classes in the wrong place. So, I usually start by asking the people in the room whether they are in the class they hope they are.

This semester, when I started with 'Does everyone here think that this is Philosophy...', two students got up to leave. That was fine. What floored me was one of them who said "Philosophy? I thought that this was Psychology!". Matters were made worse when the second student said, "Yes, me too."

I guess these would not have been great scholars had they stayed. However, it sure threw me off my game, when, after they left, many of the other students started to laugh.

The CP

Terminaldegree said...

What a GREAT suit!

No one wears suits in my department. I mostly like it that way, but then I see a glamorous outfit like yours and wish I had an excuse to dress up now and then. :)

I try to plan a full day, too, but I usually end up going over the syllabus, doing icebreakers, and learning names. This is because we have a TWO WEEK LONG "add" period each semester. The roster changes for two weeks. And then the late-adds ask if they've "missed anything." Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Oh my gosh! I think the first day of class is like a BLIND first date! With someone that you are pretty much stuck with for the next four months.

Lovely suit! I kind of miss teaching in the college of agriculture, where haute couture consists of wearing the jeans that don't have stains and tears, but I'll admit it's kind of fun to dress up too.

Flavia said...

TD: ooh, we had that 2-week period at my grad school and alma mater, and it was the bane of faculty existence. I don't miss it at all!

And thanks for the compliments on the suit! I wear it pretty rarely (it seemed too vivid for job interviews--it's brighter than it appears in the photo--and it's not that practical for conferences, where I prefer a black or grey suit whose separates I can wear on a second or third day with something else), but I do love it. Maybe it's because we're a young department, but I'd say that about half of us wear suits on Day One. Which is nice, I think.

And CP: yep, I've had that happen too. I had a student walk in late, interrupting my spiel to take a syllabus, sit down, and then almost immediately get up again to leave (passing right in front of me both times) when he realized he was in the wrong place. But--I just keep talking.

Dr. Virago said...

Flavia, you've got a whole Venus de Milo thing going on in that picture. I'm a little disturbed -- where's your other arm??? (OK, I know it's off to the side so the flash won't reflect in the mirror. I'm easily weirded out.) But GREAT suit! We're too casual for that. I go with the separates thing -- jacket that coordinates with but doesn't match the pants. And actually, this year, I think I went with a dressy sweater and pants on the first day.

But otherwise, my first day looks a lot like yours. I think you are very right that the first day has to *do* something -- even with a two week add/drop time, which we also have. If you're going to shop for classes, dudes and dudettes, *go* to all of them.

And in my first classes I (1) faked an orgasm and chanted part of the mass, and (2) told them that everyone dies. In class (1) I read a poem that turns the kyrie eleison chant into an orgasmic cry (with the dual, punning meaning "oh god! Alison!"), and in class (2) I did Shakespeare's sonnet 30 plus a completely unplanned-for variation on my "speaking for the dead" post from my blog.

In other words, in addition to being a hard-ass on the requirements -- attendance, participation, lots of papers turned in on time -- I freaked out class 1 and bummed out class 2.

Way to go, Dr. Virago!

Ianqui said...

Hey, do the kids today know Talking Heads songs? Or are they like, "What crazy music is that?"

I'd be so sad if they didn't know it.

Reid said...
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Flavia said...

Dr. V: okay, you've got me all beat for coolness, but otherwise our methods sound pretty similar. One of my Brit Lit students actually exclaimed, after we'd read Ezra Pound's translation of "The Seafarer" and worked through it, "hey, that was FUN!" Which wasn't at all the response I was expecting to that particular lesson plan--but hell. I'll take it.

And Ianq: two of my 20 students knew the song, which wasn't as bad as I was fearing. And really, I'm kind of hoping that I've inspired a few of the rest of them to go to iTunes and check out some more of the Heads' music. I'd consider myself to have performed a major cultural service right there.

MaggieMay said...

Damn! I missed the picture! I always get here too late. Despite that, your first day plans sound fantastic.

Ianqui said...

TWO of 20?? Please tell me they'd at least heard of the Talking Heads...could at least recognize some songs, if not name them?

Oh, this makes me sad. I mean, David Byrne is still alive and well and everything!

Tenured Radical said...


Thanks for the props -- wish I'd thought of the orgasm, since my class is a queer studies class. It is what half of them showed up for.....


Dr. Virago said...

Flavia -- Oh, I don't think I out-cooled you. Maybe I was *attempting* to be cool, but I think really all I did was make students think I'm some kind of freak! :)