Best Advice for the First Day of Class

“In my beginning is my end,” says T.S. Eliot in East Coker, the second poem of the Four Quartets. This is as true of semesters as it is of life. How we do the first day of class speaks volumes about our understanding of our vocation. It sets the tone for the whole semester.

It’s not surprising then that first day advice abounds for new teachers. I’ve received all kinds of it, some of it contradictory: Come in a minute late to make a dramatic entrance. Be there early to avoid any technology blunders or other signs of incompetence. Be at the door to personally greet each student as the walk in.

But there is one bit of advice about the first day of class that I received as a graduate student that I have never swerved from. Above all else, do not drone through the syllabus on the first day. Come up with a good opener, something that sets the tone or vibe of the class, that signals to students your take on the subject and how you’ll teach it. This is the best advice I’ve ever received. It’s also the hardest to follow, and it is deeply vocational.

When I received this advice, it struck me immediately as true. As a student, I sat through countless first days of class and felt the excitement and energy evaporate as the professor droned on and on through the housekeeping bits of the syllabus, course objectives, due dates, and academic integrity statements.

The advice is hard because it’s a little like writing the perfect opening theme to a symphony or a great first sentence of a novel. It’s your moment to invite students into the world you’re creating. It makes the first day your opener, your hook. And it’s tough to get that right.

It’s vocational because to create a great opener, whether an activity, lecture, or exercise, you have to know who you are and how to strike a tone that’s consonant with what you most deeply believe about yourself and your subject matter. You want students to feel why the class is important, to feel what you feel about the subject. Which, of course, means you need to know all that. It forces me to transpose vocation into my own key. Talk about the meaning of life is often, and rightly, solemn. But I am not a very solemn person. I am not grave and oracular. So creating a tone on the first day of class that rings true to my personality, that rings true to my feelings about my subject matter and its importance is to say I have to create a tone that rings true to my sense of my vocation. I have to convey the right vocational vibe.

To create a great opener, whether an activity, lecture, or exercise, you have to know who you are and how to strike a tone that’s consonant with what you most deeply believe about yourself and your subject matter. You want students to feel why the class is important, to feel what you feel about the subject.

I’ve worked up, and continue to revise and refine, openers, for each of my classes. In my literature classes, the openers emphasize enjoying—even celebrating—literature and attaching feelings of fun and delight to reading experiences. In my poetry writing class, I help students get over their fear of poetry by giving them random paragraphs from text books and novels and making them chop and splice them into poems. Don’t worry about semantics, I tell them, just put the best words in the coolest order you possibly can. They are surprised by how much fun they have making a poem. I make them write their poems on the board. Then I have groups go to another group’s poem and erase out words until an entirely new poem emerges. I want them to feel that poetry begins with delighted language play and ends in wisdom.

In my first-year writing course, I simply come in, introduce myself, and say “I’d like you to answer the following question. Is this an effective speech, yes or no, and why?” I then play a hilarious, out of control speech by Phil Davidson. I try to keep a straight face. It usually takes about thirty seconds for the first student to laugh. By the end, the students are all laughing, or baffled that I think this might be a good speech. I then ask for an answer to the question. Before long, the whole class is jumping in and pointing out things that made the speech backfire.

I use these openers for many reasons, but mostly because I believe humor and intelligence go together. I want students to not just hear me say but begin to feel for themselves that having fun with language and with the subject matter of the course—rhetoric, literature, poetry—is a legitimate approach that does not exclude serious, intelligent thinking about language use. I suspect this is because I am both incurably juvenile yet utterly and earnestly devoted to the beauty and power of language.

I’ve also found that first day ice breakers should be used with caution. This is because ice breakers, especially on the first day, are almost always “ice makers” in that they make students feel even more awkward and uncomfortable. But what ice breakers try to do—create community, lower inhibitions—is important, so I’ve always felt torn about them.

Eight cringe-inducing ice breakers by Elizabeth Alvarado. College Magazine, June 27, 2017.

Then, quite by accident one sleep-deprived morning on the third day of a first-year writing class, I hit on “ice makers.” I asked a class to talk about the most awkward ice breaker they have ever been a part of. It was like magic. Horrible, cringe-worthy stories from summer camps, youth group retreats, other college classes, and first year experience leadership training, came pouring forth. Students lit up. Hilarious stories, eager interaction, nobs of empathy, all the things ice breakers never created, came out. And, even better, I was able to joke along with them and insert metacommentary about why ice breakers almost never work, but also why they are so important. Having talked frankly about the value of classroom community, students were able to relax and get to know each other in a way that was safe and that progressed at a comfortable pace. Because, after all, pacing is the problem with ice breakers. Going from zero to intimacy is not a comfortable experience.

There is no bigger waste of potential than a bad first day. And there is no better way to start off right then by inventing a customized, vocationally-inflected opener. The syllabus can wait until the second day of class. You might even joke with them on the second day about what their most boring first day of class has been so far.

For more on the importance of the first day of class, see “Well begun is half done.”

Jason Stevens is an Associate Professor of English at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, MI. He is interested in the role of the imagination, particularly the poetic imagination, in places of political violence and distressed social conditions, and is currently at work on a book about Seamus Heaney, poetry, and purpose. Click here to see other posts by Jason at Vocation Matters.

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