25 August 2016

Creating classroom culture on "Syllabus Day"

In this Vitae piece, Kevin Gannon argues that "Syllabus Day" is The Absolute Worst Way to Start the Semester (2016). Instead, course instructors are encouraged to employ a "a mindful approach to the first day of class" by engaging students in key questions of the course, interesting issues, a taste of things to come (in terms of classroom activities and assessment tools), and/ or working collaboratively with students to create and establish the norms and culture of the classroom.
"Opening day presents a unique opportunity in our courses. Our students haven’t experienced anything yet, so there’s a default level of interest which we can leverage with engaged teaching and a welcoming atmosphere. The tone we choose to set and the structure of activities we design can impart a positive first impression, and might also preempt some of the more common frustrations that pop up later in the term. Sure, some students will lament the passing of Syllabus Day, but the dividends from a more substantial and engaging first day will more than offset that disappointment."
This piece contains a few interesting strategies (and arguments) for instructors who want to start engaging students from the start of the course.

For anthropologists, this approach might be especially appealing: it speaks not only to our sensibilities and interests in studying culture, and offers a way of introducing key concepts and practices to students from the start. How could you incorporate a discussion of cultural norms, or structure and agency, or other key concepts on day one of an introductory course? How might we ask first year students to start thinking like an anthropologist from day one by thinking about the ways our courses and expectations are structured?

Update -- 9 September 2016: I just came across this wonderful 'Syllabus Day' post from Erin McGuire via Teaching Culture, "Talking Timbits and Double Doubles: First Day Conversations in Anthropology 100." McGuire originally pulled the idea from Richard Robbins' (2007) “Visiting the Happy Meal,” and updated it for her Canadian classroom. An iconic but mundane example of material culture -- Timbits and a Double Double in Canada -- are brought into the classroom as a way to begin a discussion about different themes that will be addressed throughout the class. This is a great way to think about shaking up the first day, and making it more about just the syllabus.