An eraser with two pieces of chalk on an old style blackboard sill.

About First Days Past

Some teachers are masters of the first day of class. They prepare thoughtful icebreakers or find inspiring and witty ways to convey the relevance of the course for students’ lives. I’ve never been one of those teachers. Even though I’m always very excited to meet students for the first time, it’s usually the only day when I cut myself some slack. I show up with my hard core hard copies of the syllabus (an opportunity to address print vs screen debates), race back to my office for something I left behind (who took the markers?), warn students I’ll go over the syllabus in painful detail, promise the rest of the semester won’t be as boring (why should they believe me?), carefully start to put names to faces, ask students to complete a survey, and if we have time, I’ll move into an icebreaker that usually involves sharing some of the answers from the survey. As I look back, I’m amazed that they came back. Was there a goal to this uninspired routine? Yes: to give the syllabus its place as a transparent document. Does transparency require monotony? No.

This year, my first contact with students in my two courses wasn’t in the physical classroom or the Zoom classroom. Instead, the semester started, at least for me, with a short video where I introduced myself to them one week prior to our first Zoom session. Our institution asked us to do this before we met for the first time. Although I dread having to see myself so much these days, whether on my phone screen or trapped inside a small Zoom square, it was refreshing to present myself like this. In an unexpected way, it allowed me to be spontaneous. I chose not to have a script with me when I recorded each video. Instead, I imagined I was in the classroom—a better first day classroom than the one I just described—and shared some details about my expertise, about my family history (something I never do on the first day), and was open about my excitement to be starting the semester’s journey with them.

Right now, I would do anything to be in the same room with my students, so there’s something paradoxical about how in being removed from them, I found a means to break the monotony of years past and find a fresh start. Was it the technology? I’m decidedly not a luddite but I don’t think it was about the digital medium. Instead, I think it’s all about the effort so many of us are making to reproduce an ancient medium we have lost since we went online—our teaching persona. I think that what allowed me to keep up my boring first day routine was in large part the certainty that I could convey warmth, enthusiasm, and care even though I was just reciting they syllabus. Trusted colleagues who have taught online before, assure me that students do warm up to teachers who they only meet online. I’ll choose to believe them. Still, it remains to be seen how the teaching persona of the introductory video holds up through weekly Zoom meetings, learning management systems, screencasts, audio clips, and GoogleDocs. What is clear already is that, this year, I’m not just meeting my students on the first day of class but also a new version of my teaching self.