In particular, I like to do four things on the first day of class:
- Talk explicitly about my expectations for preparation and conduct. (More on this in a second.)
- Tell a story about my own need to resist the ability to figure out a word’s meaning from context. The one I’m fond of now is from when I was reviewing Paul Muldoon’s The End of the Poem for Bookslut. Muldoon describes himself as “maggoting away” at a particular interpretative problem, and, at first, I just thought it was a charmingly self-deprecating image of analytical work. But, while looking something else up in the OED, I found that maggoting is a real verb, and its second sense includes the idea of “A whimsical, eccentric, strange, or perverse notion or idea,” from which there is an archaic insult, maggot-monger, which I love. So, the point of the story is that, in a literature class, even if you think you sort of know what a word means, it’s worth looking it up. Even for the professor. (I’ve talked before about ways to have yourself be the butt of a story or joke.)
- Talk about wikis, and some of the ways my assignments play around with the usual notions of workload. Students need to start working on the wiki as soon as possible, so that they can get accustomed to it.
- Talk about literary interpretation a bit. I’m not going to lie to you–I often play this video. (It addresses textual history, historical interpretation, figurative language, and much else besides.)
We also go through the syllabus, and, as I have a pretty extensive policy section, we go through it in some detail. A colleague has called this section of my syllabuses “Stalin meets Wilde,” and I play that up a bit the first day or two of class. One of the things I make clear is that the rules are, to a remarkably large extent, designed to manage my attention, not just the students.
I think that professors should be unafraid to be clear about what they need for their class to be successful. For example, I don’t allow laptops in class. My classes include lots of online, collaborative work, but when we’re together, we need to be together. (I also don’t want people keyboarding in their notes, in part because I think it interferes with the collaborative work of the wikified class notes assignment.) But look: That’s my rule, for these classes. I don’t doubt that there are other faculty members who make their classes super-awesome because there are laptops in the classroom.
You can see the expectation-related language from my syllabuses here.
How do you set expectations in your syllabus, and early in the semester?
[Image from flickr user jbj (CC-licensed)]