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.

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First Year, First Virtue: Attentiveness, Technology, and First Year Writing

If I want to rile students up and get debate going, I mention Vermont State Senator John Rodger’s recent proposed bill to ban smartphones for anyone under 21, and his remark that smartphones are “just as dangerous as guns.” Student response to the debate over technology is a mixture of spirited defense and despairing acknowledgement of its harms. More and more, this debate has taken a vocational inflection for me. I think that the first-year writing course is an excellent place to begin to make students aware of, concerned by, and proactive about that which imperils their ability to thoughtfully and responsibly engage in their many callings, and especially their calling to conversations.

In Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life, Paul J. Wadell and Charlie Pinches suggest that the first virtue required to begin our vocational journeys is attentiveness. Paying attention, so the argument runs, matters because “at the basis of every calling, whether a friendship, a career, or being patient with a stranger, is a summons to responsibility; however, we cannot be responsible without an accurate perception of reality, and we cannot accurately perceive reality without growing in attentiveness” (159). For Wadell and Pinches, attention is a “situating virtue” (along with humility and gratitude) because “instead of the thoughtlessness or indifference by which we turn in on ourselves and become carelessly disengaged with life, the virtue of attention forms us into persons who are fully present to life” (157). I agree that attentiveness is essential to beginning our vocational journeys. And few things are under greater assault in our culture than attentiveness.

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The “Freshman Comp” Course: Speaking the Truth in Love

I’m starting to think the first-year writing course might be the most important class in the world, or, rather, to the world, at this cultural moment. 

It’s been a year of abysmal and broken public discourse. Add a pandemic, social injustice, increasingly shrill and reductive social media discourse, partisanship, the hijacking of minds and attention spans by technology, the endless stream of voices seducing us into lives of self-absorbed consumerism, language decay that leaves students increasingly unable to articulate their views and experiences, and I think “freshman” rhetoric deserves serious consideration for this outrageous award. It seems more urgent than ever to protect and nurture students’ abilities to think, discuss, debate, speak truth, hear truth, and disagree well. I think we are being called by our world, our culture, and our students to reimagine and redesign the nature and experience of first-year writing. 

The ability to recognize, analyze, formulate, and articulate a persuasive argument supported by good evidence is the heart of an academic. For millennia rhetoric has been thought vital to democratic politics, civic engagement, and education. 

But we need more. We need to help first-year students come to see and experience conversation and argumentation as a calling. 

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Our Love and Terror: Affect, Political Emotions, and the Seat of Calling

In The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, Mark Johnson speaks of the “vast, submerged continents of nonconscious thought and feeling that lie at the heart of our ability to make sense of our lives” (xi). This profound core of our sense-making ability is the seat of calling. I began to understand the role of these “vast, submerged continents” in making sense of our civic lives after NetVUE’s “Courageous Texts, Courageous Teaching” webinar on the power but also the problems of proximity and kinship. Discerning our collective calling to justice and love of neighbor requires teaching aimed at surfacing, shaping, and reshaping these affective depths.

Easier said than done. Covid, quarantine, divisive cultural conditions, all exacerbated by shrill and reductive social media discourse, have made teaching our civic calling to justice more challenging than ever. And more urgent.

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The Danger of a Single Story: A Simple Idea for Revising Biases and Presuppositions

What is the single story that you most believe about yourself? About others? About your vocation? About love or justice? About death? Is that single story a river whose strong current is fed by the tributaries of many stories and experiences? Or is that single story a cage? The power of stories to trap us inside them is subtle and formidable. It takes additional stories to liberate us from stories. 

I suppose I had an intuition of the power of single stories to make us unwitting viewers of incomplete, sometimes dangerous, always limiting perspectives. But it wasn’t until I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay based on her Tedtalk of the same title, “The Danger of a Single Story,” that I found a way of helping my students (and myself) look at their view of the world and its formation in a way that didn’t make them defensive and left them feeling hopeful that they could grow into a more complex view of the world.  

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“Just is” or “Justice” ?: Amanda Gorman and the tragedy of hope and history

Amanda Gorman at President Biden’s inauguration (January 2021).

Biden’s inauguration occasioned another flurry of internet chatter and reflections on his often used quotation, “when hope and history rhyme,” from Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, a version of Sophocles Philoctetes. Making “hope and history rhyme” has always s been an inspiring phrase for me, but, as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the literary genre of tragedy and its usefulness to vocation, I was struck by how apt tragedy is for educating us in the type of civic engagement that lines of Heaney and the young poet Amanda Gorman call us to. 

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Hope, History, and the Redress of Vocation

What Seamus Heaney’s “The Redress of Poetry” can teach us about rhyming vocation with our historical moment

When Joe Biden recently quoted Seamus Heaney’s famous exhortation to “make hope and history rhyme,” scores of subsequent articles commented on the fondness of Biden and other world leaders, writers, and activists for quoting this succinct and compelling civic calling that has echoed from the fall of Troy into the 21st century. As Biden’s speech sent Heaney’s call to visionary civic engagement trending on social media, I went back to Heaney’s 1995 essay “The Redress of Poetry,” a delightful, accessible, and wise essay first delivered as an Oxford lecture, that thinks through poetry’s purpose and the competing artistic and social obligations that the calling of poet enjoins upon those who answer it. As I read, I simply substituted “vocation” for “poetry,” and I came away convinced that Heaney has much to teach myself and my students about rhyming our vocations with our historical moment.

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Vocation in a Time of Coronavirus: Reflections from C.S. Lewis’ “Learning in Wartime”

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

Early on in the COVID-19 outbreak, after an entire day spent reading anxiety-inducing articles and watching real-time maps of the spread, after loading up on quarantine supplies, and unable to banish a storm of doomsday hypothetical scenarios from my head, a passage from a C.S. Lewis’ sermon, “Learning in Wartime,” flashed through my mind:

The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice… We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal… We think of the streets of Warsaw and contrast the deaths there suffered with an abstraction called Life. But there is no question of death or life for any of us; only a question of this death or of that—of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later. What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased… Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.

C.S. Lewis, “Learning in Wartime” (1939).

That night I read the entire piece and found myself greatly fortified by it’s cool reason in the face of fear and anxiety—it reminded me of Wendell Berry’s remark that when you’re scared the best thing to do is try to make sense out of what’s scaring you—and the perspective it gave me on life and vocation in times of crisis, fear, and danger. Within a week, all on-campus classes and activities were canceled, we converted to an online format, and, when I had to assign the first reading for my senior Humanities and Vocation seminar, I chose “Learning in Wartime.” The response from my seniors was astounding. It was, in fact, the single best response I have ever gotten from students to a reading on the topic of vocation. They seemed in particular to resonate with three aspects of the sermon.

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Comedy or Tragedy: Some Shakespearean Wisdom for Vocation

© Jan Kacer, Dreamstime.com  

Recently, while listening to a series of lectures on Shakespeare and Politics by Paul Cantor, I was struck by the usefulness of Romeo and Juliet in thinking about vocation. Cantor explores the distinction between tragedy and comedy by comparing Romeo and Juliet to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both written in the same year and both focused on young lovers and romantic love. It struck me that comedy has a long-haul wisdom and love of the ordinary that is all too often absent from talk and teaching about vocation. Vocation studies can tend toward the exalted, the passionate, the high and the noble. It can take itself so seriously that, like a tragic hero, it becomes blind to a fundamental irony, namely that it can set students up to do everything but live their current, actual lives.  

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