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When Will We Talk About the Syllabus?

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W
ith August almost halfway over, my mind has turned to the first day of class. When I first started teaching college-level classes, the first day seemed so straightforward it hardly required prep. As long as I had the syllabus finished, my lesson plan seemed to write itself: (a) introduce myself, (b) hand out and review the syllabus carefully, and (c) do some kind of icebreaker to learn students’ names. Almost 25 years and many, many first class days later, I have abandoned the low-prep, autopilot lesson plan, with no regrets. I now spend much more time strategizing about the setup of the first day — and I don’t review the syllabus until near the end of the class.

There is nothing revolutionary in my saying that I believe the first day sets the tone for the semester. So what tone does it set to review the syllabus at the get-go of the first class? For me, at least, not a very energizing or exploratory one. The syllabus is the class contract, filled with policies and assignments and due dates. It is important, without a doubt, but it is not the heart or the point of the class itself.

When I stopped to prioritize what messages I wanted to send on the first day of my undergraduate introductory linguistics course (just to take one example, probably because I will be teaching it this fall), I came up with: (a) I hope and expect all students will participate actively in every class; (b) Together we will explore the workings of the language they see and hear around them every day; (c) Students will learn lots of interesting and sometimes random linguistic facts and gain the tools to answer their own questions about language; and (d) While this course will require a lot of work every week, the study of language can be very fun. No matter how many clever quips I embed in the syllabus, or how friendly and engaging I try to make it, the syllabus is not up to the task of sending these messages.

My classes are 80 minutes, and now I spend at least the first 40 minutes of the first day of my introductory course talking with students about language puzzles (e.g., if the boxes are “still unpacked,” is there stuff in the boxes or not?), polling them about how they use the language (e.g., is a “sight for sore eyes” good or bad?), asking them for examples of new slang, listening to a current song that captures an intriguing linguistic phenomenon, taking an informal survey about what they believe is true or not true about language (e.g., the idea that women talk more than men), and the like. You’ll notice that all of these activities are participatory, to establish from the very beginning that this is a class where students will be talking with each other and with me (it’s also a chance to start learning names even before we get to icebreakers or going through the class roster). And all of the activities are designed to spark students’ curiosity about language and to show them that this linguistics course will be relevant to their daily experience of language.

I do tell students near the beginning of class that the syllabus will be coming, but in a bit, so that they can relax and participate in the activities without wondering whether I am ever going to give them a syllabus. Then when we get to the syllabus, I can relate the progression of topics and the goals of the essays to some of what we have already talked about in the class. I can also tie some of my policies (e.g., asking students not to be late to class and not to use laptops) to the kind of participatory learning community that they have already seen me try to create on the first day.

Each of us as instructors will have different messages we want to send on the first day. While I hear rumors that a few instructors are trying to scare off students (and I did see this as an undergraduate at a college where we had two weeks of “shopping period”), I think many of us are trying to engage students in our course, which they have already made the commitment of registering for, and to help them understand what to expect. I have become a believer in showing students on the first day what the class will prioritize not only in theory but also in practice. If we are going to expect students to write in class, for example, why not use a short, engaging writing prompt at some point on the first day? If students are going to be solving problems in groups, why not do so on the first day? I know that students often have not read or mastered any of the specific course content yet, but we can always create a prompt or an activity that is self-contained and will welcome students to our classrooms and what we plan to do there more than any course description or schedule on the syllabus can.

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