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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Pivotal Moments

An interview with Scott Mattingly, Associate Dean of Academic Life at DeSales University about a new course he developed called “Pivotal Moments: Fulfilling Your Potential in Times of Change,” which was featured in a recent Teaching newsletter published by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott taught a pilot version of the course as a one-credit elective this past spring. The interview has been edited for this blog.

Tell us a little bit about the course and how it came into existence. 

I am part of a group at DeSales University that has been charged with facilitating a faculty-driven process for revising our general education curriculum. As that process has unfolded, we have come to believe that we need a capstone course and we are interested in giving students an opportunity to bring together the entirety of their experience, inside and outside the classroom. And the mission of our institution emphasizes more than just job preparation; the importance of holistic well-being, thriving rather than just surviving – those are also important components of a DeSales education. So another aspect to this capstone is that we want to give students a chance to reflect on their identity and purpose – the existential, big questions. So that’s where I started, where we started.

I was pondering that in the back of my mind and then we had these twin pandemics in 2020 with the killing of George Floyd and obviously COVID-19. And I found myself thinking that our students need a way to process what is happening. They are going to do that as part of their social networks and there are probably some courses where it might come up, and maybe some opportunities for programming that students could optionally choose to attend where these things might come up, but I felt like there needed to be something a little more intentional, a little more structured, something that involved the faculty in guiding students through that process.

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Making the Best of Course Evaluations

The problems with course evaluations are many, well documented, and probably insurmountable. Evaluations consistently demonstrate bias based on factors such as race and ethnicity and gender (for instance, when online instructors lied about their gender, they saw statistically significant favoring of instructors whom students thought were male). Even when carefully designed, they’re unreliable indicators of teaching quality and liable to be used inappropriately in decisions about rank and tenure. And if that weren’t enough, research has confirmed that students give courses significantly higher scores if the instructor brings cookies on course-evaluation day

The bad news is that course evaluations probably aren’t going anywhere. The slightly better news is that a vocational approach might help. One place to start is by actually teaching students to give useful feedback. Just as we have to teach students to write lab reports, literature reviews, and essays, we need to give them at least some sense of how to write in the genre “course evaluation.” That’s true especially since the default model for evaluating anything has become comments on the internet, ample trolling included. If we don’t teach students anything else, we shouldn’t expect anything better. 

When we teach students how to give useful feedback, we’re doing vocational work. First, we’re helping them develop a skill they can contribute to their communities in the future; after all, giving feedback well is essential in classroom and career, in friendship and family. Second, we’re demonstrating that we value their insights in the present, recognizing they have the ability—perhaps even the responsibility—to help us be better teachers and help the institution live out its vocation. Finally, by encouraging them to reflect on their education, we’re tapping into the value of metacognition, which enhances both learning and ownership of learning.

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Vocation for Teachers Who Hate Grading

If you type “I hate grading” into google, you’ll get 5,800,000 hits. For many of us, evaluating students’ work is the part of our vocations that feels the least vocational. In part, that’s because there’s something fundamentally un-vocational in summing up students’ efforts to learn—their own current vocational work—with a letter or number. In part, it’s because grading reinforces power structures that most of us resist. But evaluation can also feel un-vocational because we just can’t do it as well as we want to. 

We know good feedback is precious: the voices of others often help us find our vocational ways, and comments on assignments can be one of the most effective conduits for mentorship. But because this work is so important, we can feel all the more sharply that our efforts at it are imperfect. We don’t have the time, perhaps we don’t have the wisdom or diplomatic savvy, to do it well enough. That’s true especially if we’re laboring in courses, course loads, or evaluation systems (like minimal GPAs for scholarships) that don’t fit our vision of vocation. Then the mountain of assignments waiting for our response becomes not an invitation to nurturing conversation but a burden, not the essence of teaching but a distraction from the aspects of teaching we value.

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