Wow. Two months since my last post? My apologies, readers. But in my defense, I did a lot of living this summer.
But now the summer is over; today was the first day of classes. So perhaps it’s time to reflect a bit, and share some thoughts about first days, which I generally enjoy very much.
I enjoy the first day of classes, in large part, because it’s all so new. Sometimes I know some of the students, and most times I have taught a version of that class before. But neither of those matter, because this syllabus, this group of students, this unit, is completely new. And that’s how I try to think of my classes: no matter how many times I teach Intro to Lit*, each class is new because the dynamic hasn’t been established yet. And that’s what the first day is for.
That, and handing out the syllabus. But the syllabus only takes a few minutes.
So what do I do? I put on a show. No flood lights or surround sound**, but I do try to make it a pretty vibrant experience.
I’m a large, hairy, loud, boisterous fellow. I don’t blend into crowds. I don’t do subtle. I am the bull in the china shop that is our world. To pretend otherwise would simply be silly. So instead, I own it. I spend much of the first day of class with non-class-related banter. We talk about sports, music, television, sex, Carly Rae Jepsen, pretty much everything we don’t need to know for the final exam. They likely won’t be remembering much of this first day anyway, so it’s really not important what we talk about.
What is important is that we all talk. That everyone speaks. That everyone laughs. That everyone looks at me awkwardly while I explain the genius behind “Call Me Maybe.” Hell, the fact that most of them will argue with me, and claim that “Call Me Maybe” is not the masterpiece I tell them it is.*** It’s important that everyone drops their guard, forgets how boring the first day of class can be, and interacts with the room. It’s important that they feel comfortable speaking their mind.
This is one reason why I talk about sports. I can always count on having some Bills, Giants, and Jets fan in every class I teach. So I pick on those teams.^ I’m a fan of the Patriots, which always elicits a strong response from my students. (Then we end up talking about baseball, Red Sox/Yankees rivalry^^, the continued insignificance of the Mets, etc.) I have found that everyone participates, even those who don’t care about sports. Generally, they express their opinion about sports, and more excited but good-natured discussion takes place.
And sometimes, like today, I get a class that ends up taking over, responding to one another with enthusiasm, and moving the discussion onto other topics, sometimes completely unrelated to what I started with.
And that’s just awesome.
Because on the first day of class, after I hand out the syllabus and go over the most important details, I want my class to simply talk. I don’t care about what. I just want them to engage. I want them to begin, on the very first day, to think of this class as a space where they can speak their mind, and do so with enthusiasm. I want them to feel free to share whatever crazy thoughts they have about the material (and they do, which is great, because it gives me a chance to lead them to where they need to go), and to do so with abandon.
More often than not, this works. More often than not, those very same students come to class again with something compelling to say, and the freedom to say it.
And that’s why the first day of class is a chaotic mess that has nothing to do with the readings.
And this year, I got to add “butt fumble” to my first day repertoire. Thanks, New Jersey Jets!
At the end of the day, it’s just one day. A day, I have found in the past, I lose because nobody has done any reading and few are prepared to listen to me lecture. So the first day isn’t about content.
Instead, the first day is about community. The community of my class, at that time, in that room. And each class is wonderfully different. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
*Next semester will be the first time in years I will not be teaching at least one section of Intro to Lit. I’m excited, though I know I will miss it. As I have noted before, it is my favorite class to teach.
**Not yet, anyway. But now that I have tenure, I can start asking for everything I want.
***This is a very recent example. In the past, I have used other classics like “Bad Romance,” “Hollaback Girl,” and “Summertime” (not the Gershwin one).
^If you don’t already know how, then explaining won’t help. But trust me, if you decide to become a football fan, stay away from those teams.
^^Sometimes, I wear my Tim Wakefield jersey on the first day of class, just to stir up trouble.