What Do You Want for Your Students On Day One?

I still can hardly believe I’m here. Today was the first day of classes for the Fall semester at Valparaiso University. What do you want students to get out of the first day? For me, it boils down to three things: I want them to feel welcomed (especially if they’re freshman); I want them to make some kind of human connection with me/each other; and I want them to begin to get a sense of what the course will be like. Preferably all of this can somehow happen in the context of exploring big-picture themes and questions the course raises. That’s a lot for day 1!

In my two history classes today, one of the things I asked students was who they would like to have a coffee with if they could meet anyone, living or dead, from the period of time the course is covering. A lot of students choose world-historical figures in response to this question–FDR, JFK, MLK, Erwin Rommel (Yes they did!). One takeaway after students are done sharing might be that they feel an implicit pressure to choose someone like that, someone they think of as being properly “historical.” But, as I tell them, they might have chosen a celebrity, and Instagram influencer, a relative, or anyone at all. History encompasses all of this. History isn’t just serious stuff, and the history of the ordinary matters, too.

I think this exercise was fairly boring and not particularly effective, especially with on-edge freshman students. I need to think of a way to spice it up next time. The “who you would have coffee with” question was the first of three. The other two questions students will return to me Friday: 1 ) how can I help you? (ie., what has worked for you in the past? what are you nervous about? what do you need from me?) 2) What are your goals for yourself in this course? It seems to me that both of these questions are at the core of the learning process, but we often leave them implicit. Also, students who express a serious goal have provided us with a great feedback tool for the rest of the semester, as we can refer back to that goal in future assignments (this won’t work for students who just make a goal up. It’s fine if they don’t have a specific goal).

I also want students to invest in the course, to feel that their interests play a role in shaping what the course will be. I set forth a few questions that, in my judgment, animate the course. But the course can change! So I asked them what questions they have about American history, what they would like to know more about. Some responses:

Are we more anxious than we used to be because of the media?

Have we ever been united?

Has America ever been the moral leader of the world? Should it be?

Why do gas prices fluctuate so much?

What is happening in Afghanistan?

How many wars could have been avoided with advance tech/communication, or are they inevitable? (my rejoinder: how many wars have been started with such technology! We’ll also be tackling that word inevitable for sure)

How does Covid compare to past pandemics?

What are the origins of contemporary problems?

What similarities are there between past and present?

Why was the space race so important and why haven’t we gone back to the moon?

Where do we go from here? (political turmoil)

What have we learned from the past? Have we learned?

This is potentially useful, but some students probably felt like they didn’t have any questions and were just trying to come up with something random. This exercise would be more effective if I leaned into the difficulty of asking questions and explained that this is central to historical thinking. An impressive thinker doesn’t have all the right answers. They have cultivated the ability to ask questions.

Finally, for the Core humanities class that all freshman have to take at Valpo [title this fall–The Human Experience: Empathy and Dialogue] I began the class with a new song from the Killers (“West Hills”). A risk! With almost no introduction I just told them to sit back and listen to the song and consider how it invited them into empathy and dialogue. I was pleased with the discussion it generated among strangers. At the same time, it told students a little bit about me, because I like The Killers and I don’t care who knows it! In the future, students will be able to nominate their own song to play at the beginning of class, on the condition that they facilitate a brief discussion about how it evokes the theme of empathy and dialogue. We’ll see if I get any takers. I think music is tailor-made for this stuff.

So, first day is done! Onward!

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