So I just had my first class...and it was great! This is the course in my precise sub-subfield, which I taught in a compressed version last spring at last year's university and raved about here. I'm teaching it again this year as a one-term special topics course, a 4th-year seminar capped at fifteen students...to die for.
So I tried out a strategy I'd read about in an article in The Teaching Professor (can't find the reference, sorry). The author always approaches the first day as a way to build interest and commitment by triangulating professor, students, and topic. I decided to go with this. Before everything else, I talked about my relationship to the topic...I gave them a bit of an intellectual history of myself...how I came to be interested in this, as a graduate student. How, in my mind, it speaks to larger issues of the (inter)discipline and other fields. I thought this might be a good idea because I'm interested in what I am realizing is the mystique that undergrads have about the work of their professors (post on this coming soon). I was trying to demystify intellectual work, give them a sense that interest and real, big projects come from somewhere...they are born of tiny observations...they can do this, too! Anyway, they seemed interested - they all listened pretty intently and nodded, engaged.
Then I had them talk about their connections to the topic. I asked them to write for a few minutes about what interests them about the field, as well as to identify one or more questions they would like answered in the course. They then shared those. They had tons to say!!! And it wasn't the usual rote, ten-second answers that people give on first days. Hurrah! Granted, this is pretty easy because it is a topic that most people have something to say about. But still, I felt like we were building some course parameters already. I wrote down many of their thoughts, and told them I'd keep them front of mind as we went along, and try to work out ways to address those questions when they are not explicitly built into the topic selection and readings. I responded to each one, saying a few words about what they'd said - usually connecting her questions to the major ones of the field - to give the students the confidence that comes from realizing that they are already thinking about and asking questions that scholars write about.
It was a long, chatty, and entirely comfortable go-round. Then I handed out the syllabus (see here for Maggie's excellent post on teaching, including handing out the syllabus at the end) and talked them through the weeks of reading. I know this sound boring, but somehow I like to do it - and they still seemed rapt.
I know it's not really me, it's the topic of the course, but damn, it's good to feel that much investment and engagement in a room full of students.
Now I'm trying to figure out whether I should let in the enthusiastic waitlisted students who showed up today...why do I want to add to my workload? It's just, it's just...they were so smart and engaged and already committed...it's hard to turn that away. But I like the manaegable size for seminar dynamics, so we shall see..