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:
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.