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The First Week: Expectations and Reality

The quad

Today was my first day of classes for the semester. I teach in the mornings, which I love, because it gets the day off to a good start, and this semester I’m teaching courses that are especial favorites.

And a good time was had by all today, despite the fact that I have no electricity at home, and was hence woefully undercaffeinated (and made one epic gaffe!). But it was also a useful object lesson in bracketing assumptions about students. Here are five things I (again) learned that you can’t assume about students:

  • That they will know what the topic of your course is, even if it is a “Topics” class. I’m teaching a gen ed course on the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and its source material, and, of the 30 registered students, fewer than half knew that the class was based on a comic book. (This meant that, in addition to not reading the published course description, they hadn’t googled the phrase, or visited the bookstore.) They did know that the course potentially fulfills two gen ed requirements and fit their work schedule.
  • That students have thought about school since the spring. All of my classes featured students who were in the wrong place, because they had printed out their schedule months ago, and hadn’t thought to check recently to see if the class had moved. (More common with, but not exclusive to, first-year students.)
  • That “thoughtful reflection” is always visibly different from “sullen and bored.” Until you know the students better, you really can’t be sure what they’re thinking. (Lots of pleasant surprises today.)
  • That students won’t need to be coached about how often to participate in a class discussion. After all, from your point of view, “too often” can be as counterproductive, over the long haul, as “not often enough.” (If one or two students seem to dominate discussions early, many times the class will get in the habit of waiting on their comments. But then what if they’re absent?)
  • That students will have bothered to update their e-mail forwarding, or will have checked their school account for messages before the start of the school year. (To be fair, not all faculty do this, either!)

I still get nervous before the first class, in part because I still think–against all experience–that everyone in the room is going to have as much invested in the course from day one as I do. It’s useful to remember that it’s not true, but also that students’ lack of investment at the start of the semester isn’t personal–they’re students! What matters is working with them to find that interest or investment by semester’s end.

Have you had basic expectations or assumptions about your classes that didn’t pan out? Let us know in comments!

Photo by Flickr user quinn.anya / Creative Commons licensed

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