In the end, it boils down to this: How many elbow patches is too many?
Can I wear an elbow-patched sweater underneath a jacket with elbow patches? Do short-sleeve shirts come with elbow patch extensions? Let’s get serious — can my actual elbows be grafted with patches? If so, could I be on the reality show, “I Gave Up My Skin For Suede,” or star in an episode of that long-running academic fashion series, “Say Yes To The Tweed?” As a new semester arrives — as I step in front of a new class — how do I look like I know what I’m doing?
It’s my second year as a lecturer in the English Department Writing Program. Before that, I was a graduate student instructor. Before that, a graduate student. Before that, an undergraduate. As an undergraduate, I looked forward to the first day of a new term. I wasn’t always pleased to be back at school, but I was thrilled to have at least one day where nothing seemed required of me. Sit, introduce myself, play some terrible name-game, look over the syllabus. Consider my schedule — is a five-day weekend possible? Be physically present in the room and deal with everything else later. First days are easy.
It is not, let me say, the same for teachers.
The first day of class is huge. Let’s put aside for the moment the work that’s gone into the syllabus — planning four months of classes is like squeezing all your worldly possessions into a carry-on bag and then jamming it wheels-first into an overhead bin. When I enter and amble to the front of the classroom, I must introduce myself. The voice inside my head says, be brief and be clear. Explain your qualifications, your background. Don’t brag, but be confident. Don’t oversell yourself, don’t undersell the material. Be delightful and welcoming and witty and accessible. Do not rant about reality television. Do not be an insane person. Be perfect. No pressure.
Now ask members of the class to introduce themselves. What questions beyond the obvious (name, major, year in school, hometown) allow a thoughtful and interesting human being to appear thoughtful and interesting? How can I ask a group of strangers to share a part of themselves so soon — do I say it’s a leap of faith? I usually go simple, asking for favorite books and movies. Harry Potter and anything Channing Tatum prove big winners. (What house, then, would suit Channing? My money’s on Hufflepuff.) Or I use the standard, I-give-you-a-ticket-right-now-where-would-you-like-to-go vacation query, where Europe and warm islands always do well, with Florida an honorable mention. (And what is the Michigander obsession with Florida?)
After that, the easy part’s over. How do I begin to build a place where everyone feels comfortable to share their ideas, take intellectual and creative risks and trust their peers to do the same? At this point, I’m just praying I don’t trip over myself, spill coffee everywhere and collapse in a weeping mass of damp tweed.
Judging by the amount of advice out there, I’m not the only teacher mindful of first day dynamics. Guidance from our own excellent Center for Research on Learning and Teaching includes the basics: “Learn students’ names and use them … Be expressive and enthusiastic … Be open to helping students with problems … ” The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University notes that first days can be calendar commodities: “ … several of your students may be ‘shopping’ for a schedule the first week of classes.” Carnegie Mellon University’s first day survival guide speaks directly to me: “More formal attire communicates expertise and confidence, less formal attire communicates approachability.” So then, a suit jacket with jean shorts? Too creepy? An expressive tuxedo with enthusiastic pajama pants? Woody Allen glasses and at least six intellectual scarves?
I know there’s no formula for the perfect first class. A good class finds itself, settles in, grows together. I know first impressions aren’t everything but they are something. We who survive Michigan winters know better than most that ice can be broken in a day, but it only melts over months.
Suffice to say that I — and I suspect many other teachers — care deeply and sweat freely when preparing for this first day, a day that at its worst seems like equal parts audition and open house. But the day I’m not nervous, not excited, not willing to try again is the day I quit teaching. The stakes are too high and the rewards too great to do otherwise. First days matter.
Sorry, yes. A question in the back?
Well, that’s kind of you to say. I do have splendid elbows.
Joseph Horton can be reached at email@example.com.